Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston is an Edinburgh-based photographer and documentary film maker who grew up in Sri Lanka and fled during the Civil War. Much of her work to date has focused on children’s and women’s rights and social, economic and developmental issues in Asia. http://heshanise.com
I am all of me, I said quietly to me, one day…
I have lived my life waiting for others to give me an identity. Am I good? Am I of value? Do I have worth? Do I belong here? Is my body the right size now? Am I beautiful, Am I talented? Tell me, tell me, please, I am lost and I am looking. Begging that someone would reflect back to me, an affirmation of who I am. But deep inside me there was a voice, that said live, live dangerously by your own voice, own yourself. Dare to say ‘I am, me’. I am enough. Just that. Since this realisation, my path is to look for the pieces inside to start living through all of me. Not just the presentable pieces. And hopefully to encourage others to dare to live authentically.
My work has involved in intimate interactions with people, probing questions, often with a lens between us. I realised a common denominator that we all share – be the child soldier, the mother, model or an inmate in prison – is the fundamental need is to be seen, heard and accepted. Talking to a child solider in Sri Lanka, all she wanted me to do was see her, accept her choice, and admire her values. All I wanted was to get a story. And be accepted by the ‘critics and sceptics’ that my images were better and more exclusive than the rest. I was looking for the perfect ‘shot’ and interview to fulfil that. The day I asked my cameraman to zoom into the tears of a mourning mother was when I realised I had lost my way. Although I justified this as something to be done for the ‘greater good’ of people who were suffering, I knew this was a low point in my authentic life. For me, this way of telling a story did not work. I felt I had exploited people’s vulnerability. What was I doing? Was I trying to find me through all these stories? In my documentary – The Month of October, a film on the high rate of suicides in Sri Lanka due to self-harm – I was moved to my core to see how young men and women harmed themselves and succumbed to death because they felt helpless, they felt unseen, they wanted someone to accept and acknowledge their pain…. I am here, see me, hear me; it was a desperate cry to be accepted. And some died in this process.
I completed my last edit of the film just before giving birth to my son, (who happened to be born in October too). After the first thrill of the new baby and motherhood, it dawned on me that this is forever. Suddenly I had no idea who I was again, a full time stay home mom? That just wasn’t right. I am not one of those women. I am more…. And then there was my body, my breast, my belly… who was I? I thought I had been through this before, that my ‘enough –ness’ days were over, but turns out I needed to be reminded all over again… ever so often.
I found my new passions -stills camera.
I began documenting images that portray belonging, even plunged into projects that I thought would accept me, to help me and others feel a sense of belonging. I soon realised that I was still looking for identification outside of myself. My work was to value my authenticity – against all odds. To accept the person ‘I am’. Acceptance. For me the ideal of being a dangerous woman is to be willing to be authentic, and find acceptance of the self.
In my work ‘ NĀN, (NĀN, means I am in Tamil), I talk to women about who they are, what they see when they look at themselves in the mirror. Whose voice do they hear, their own or someone else’s? This work is in stages; I work with young and old women about finding acceptance of body, and of who they are. I thought the best way to start identification of us is through our bodies. Accepting and willing to say: “I am this, all of this”. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.”
As women, we are expected to look a certain way, but no one knows what the ideal is, or what is acceptable. Each culture, generation, era has an ideal. Theories, articles, images over history tell us what it was or should be, but the goal post for body image keeps changing. Speaking from my own experience as a Sri Lankan female, I experienced all kinds of feedback from others. I was too dark, too thin, hair too curly, too loud, too dumb, had horrid legs and so on. ‘Why can’t you just be like xxx?’ was the voice I heard; that stayed permanent resident in my head for a long time. Then moving to the west, I felt fat, not the right skin, spoke funny. I was just not right, not like the others. We never seem to be right. Every year one part of the female anatomy becomes fashionable, the belly, the arms, the legs; the list goes on. Now I am of that age where signs of wear and tear of my body are visible. Speaking about this to women, some who were mothers like myself, a few amazing people, some friends, or friends of friends, have come forward to sit for me, allowing me to photograph their bodies. Some parts they have been ashamed of or still coming to terms with but almost all agreed they are growing into loving the body that contains their soul. They were bold to stand up and say, “this is me, I dare to be me…”
These series of images will culminate in an exhibition. They are not about the perfect body, perfect photographic image, or lighting, but about women who dared to share, dared to stand up and be themselves. Shedding clothes and their covering.
These are images I want my daughter to see, to see that it’s not about the perfect belly, thighs or hands. Its about standing tall and owning one’s self.
As for me, I often hear my voice telling me softly to dare to live dangerously, trusting my authentic self, against all odds through acceptance, “this is me, I am all of me”.
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick me out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unloosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver-love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
My three children, each one on my belly – tattooed…
When I was growing up, I thought my hands were too big; they looked like a man’s hand. I love them now; these are the hands that held my babies.
My skin may have changed, but I am Strong.
This is me.
My Knickers and me….
All images copyright Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston, used with permission.