Coming across this unusual photography book at the Public Library, I thought of reviewing, it as books of this nature rarely get reviewed. ‘The First & Last’ is a photography book by Hemantha Perera. But it’s one with a difference, which speaks with both pictures and words, marking the cycle of life with spirituality as the central vision.
Hemantha Perera has a Catholic religious background and studied photography at the Pamunuwila Photographic Art Society starting in 1992. In his foreword to the book, the author states that his photographic journey started when his father gave him a Pentax K1000 camera and he rode a bicyc
le to a rendezvous near a cemetery to meet his future photography guru, Ubert Danwatte Liyanage. He further writes: “That teacher-student relationship grew and helped me to see life’s depth and beauty, and allowed me to create a heartbeat inside that mechanical box devoid of feeling.”
The text is bilingual (Sinhala and English) and most of the 53 photographs inside are black and white. This adds cohesion to his sombre text, which is an examination of the meaning of life. He sometimes tries to interpret it in the context of his own religion, for example when he quotes from the Book of Genesis. But it often takes a more universal flavour.
His photo-text starts with a quote from Indian poet Sarojini Naidu – ‘Sannaliyane, Sannaliyane, Katada Enduma Wiyanne’ – (Weaver, Weaver, for whom are you weaving this cloth). It brings to mind immediately the song written by Mahagama Sekara and sung so movingly by W. D. Amaradeva. It’s a song that encompasses life from its inception till death.
The accompanying photograph shows a couple with their newborn baby, the woman carrying the baby in her arms. The opposite page shows a portal. It looks like the door of a fortress. But that doesn’t really matter and the only thing we need to know is that it is a door leading to somewhere.
This is followed by images of children – at play, or pensive. There is a child’s face juxtaposed with that of an old balloon seller. There is an image showing the texture of a tree bark, and others show water and waves. There are images of religious icons – rock sculpture of a Naga figure in relief, a little girl walking down a flight of stone steps towards a moonstone, an alms giving and a group of Catholic priests. A girl stands at the seashore and watches a softly breaking wave which looks like it’s encircling her. We are made aware, again and again, of man’s intimate ties with nature and spirituality. The overall mood is sombre, and the poet’s question to the weaver hangs over the entire design like an epitaph.
It is a very unusual kind of photography book, leaving out the picturesque and trying to convey its idea through mood and texture rather than colour.