Before Tomorrow: an interview with Yannik Willing

Before Tomorrow: an interview with Yannik Willing

Can you tell me a little about what motivated your interest in this part of the world, and eventually in spending time making work there? What about this project provoked you to take it to the lengths that you have, and to self-publish it as newsletter?

My first introduction to the island of Sri Lanka was in 2009 through friends who live there. During my travel I took portraits of citizens that I had gotten to know there. However I was dissatisfied with the usual touristic/exotic flair, and analysed them at length with my professors and fellow students at university in Dortmund.

Four weeks after I left Sri Lanka, an end was declared to the thirty-year long civil. From watching the news I realised that this was a historic moment that would massively influence the whole country, meaning at one and the same time cultural, political and economic change. The close connection between boom and crisis caught my attention, and when I heard about the new records in tourist arrivals in 2010 I knew that it could be important to document the tourist regions right now, during the post-war phase.

Coincidentally, this was exactly the time when I was looking for a theme that I could work on for my Bachelor’s thesis in photography, and so the decision was clear for me. In my course I had developed new strategies to return to the island. Two years after my first trip I travelled twice again, both trips eight weeks long. Between the first and second trip I developed and printed all the films as well as discussing them in detail in various seminars.

Together with a graphic design student, I decided to create a “high quality newspaperprint publication” to underline the documentary character of this project – the transient form of the newspaper is supposed to show that the information inside will rapidly become history.

Another big argument for the newspaper form was the relatively low printing cost and the possibility to print several hundred copies. To finance the printing, we somehow managed to collect money from 60 people in advance, and I borrowed the rest of the money. Luckily I could finally finance all the printing costs through the sales. There are only a few copies left now, and I am glad that it turned out to be the right decision to self-publish the project.


Can you talk a little about the political and economic reality that you encountered in this place that had so recently been living under a 26 year long civil war that saw many many tens of thousands of civilians killed? I notice that at least two of the repeating figures in the work are military uniform and skyscrapers, so I wonder if you could talk a little about what you saw and understood in those overlapping contexts?

I am certainly conscious of the brutal occurrences during the civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils. I often asked myself if it is legitimate to work on this project as a foreigner. For me, the justification for putting my own nose in this sensitive area in this foreign country was the point that most of the hotels and tourism facilities are built for the global tourism market. That is the point at which it has to do with me, as a tourist – this connection is very interesting to me.

A mine-clearing vehicle, and many cordoned-off fields caught my attention on the journey to Passekudah, a beach area on the east coast. It was assumed that there were still mines left over from the time of the war. Passekudah was an area contested by both sides for thirty years and is now being marketed by the government as a large tourist project. Investors secured the areas of land fronting onto the sea at the beginning of 2009, directly following the end of the war. A notice in the immediate vicinity of the beach drew attention to the plans for converting this location:

“National Holiday Resort Passekudah – Star Class Hotels, Restaurant and Tea Centre, Performing Art Theatre, Art Gallery and Exhibition Hall, Open Air Theatre, Aquarium, Sports Complex, Shopping Bazaar, Bank, Post Office, Internet Cafe, Tourist Police Post, Medical Centre, Changing Rooms for Day visitors”.

When I was photographing this place, there were nothing but big construction sites for hotels and some few small guest houses and restaurants. On the one hand it looked absurd, bearing in mind that only two years ago there was still war happening in this area and now everything is going to be prepared to look agreeable for the tourists. On the other hand I can understand that people in this area look to the future now, and try to benefit from the economic upswing. The question is: Will those people who suffered during the war and during the tsunami in 2004 profit from the economic uplift? Or, will mainly investors get the chance to make money out of all this opportunity?


I’m also interested to know, to the extent that you can address this, whether it seems that Sri Lanka’s burgeoning tourist industry is being targeted as a major engine for economic growth on the one hand, and on the other hand whether that tourism is broadly from people within the region surrounding the country, or whether it is increasingly international in character?

The president put a target plan for the tourism industry on his website, and in this plan he explains his aim to achieve 2.5 million tourists by the year of 2016. (There were 850,000 tourists in 2011). Tourism is supposed to become a major economic factor in the country, and I could clearly feel a certain kind of tension in the tourism areas. Most travellers in 2011 came from India and Western Europe.


Do you continue to follow the situation? Are you making plans perhaps to return, expand the work, touch on different aspects of the overall phenomenon? Or have you moved on to something else?

Yes, I am planing to go on working on this project in the future. It is a clear next step for me, but I feel that I need to wait another year or even longer until I go back. Right now I am working on a completely new project which has to do with the system of national parks in Germany. It will be another critical approach on tourism.


Has this project encouraged you to consider doing another self-publishing venture, or changed the way you’ll approach new work in the future? What do you feel you gained from the effort you put into the work and the collaboration as a whole?

Self-publishing my work definitely was a useful and very effective way of reaching other people with my theme. But I need to say that I underestimated the efforts that need to be done for self-publishing. I am happy to put my whole energy again into the research for my new project and taking photographs. When the editing process comes to an end, I am sure that I will find new motivation to work on a publication again.

Artist(s): Medium: Site: Twitter: @YannikWilling

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