In Colombo, Sri Lanka, UMass Boston alumna Liz Doles is taking in life and landmarks through an unusual lens: her homemade pinhole camera.
An artist who graduated summa cum laude in 2007 with degrees in art history and Japanese, Doles earned a 2011-2012 Fulbright scholarship for her proposal to travel to Sri Lanka and photograph the country’s largely neglected architectural treasures.
Her camera is a repurposed box of laundry detergent, painted black and engineered to capture images on special film through a tiny pinprick hole on its front. To take photos, Doles says, she simply takes off the ‘lens cap’ – a piece of black electrical tape – and waits anywhere between 45 seconds and 20 minutes for the image to transfer to the film.
The resulting images render even familiar landscapes and objects quite literally in a new light, glowing with intense colors; Doles says she aims to capture the extraordinary in the ordinary.
“I like the seeming lack of control you have over your photographs, the controlled spontaneity,” she says of pinhole photography. “It’s nice to be surprised. It requires a different approach, different logistics.”
Doles, a former graphic designer with her own business illustrating textbooks, had the idea to use pinhole photography as an artistic outlet after acute ophthalmic thyroid disease compromised her vision.
“I was in and out of the hospital with surgeries,” she says. “When it was time to get back to mainstream living, I didn’t want to go back to graphic design.” Instead, Doles moved to Massachusetts from New Jersey, and enrolled at UMass Boston.
“I wanted to pursue artwork,” she says. “I had the opportunity to explore things that interest me – like Japanese design and photography.”
Since she began taking pinhole photographs, Doles has exhibited her work at galleries in Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C., including a show at the Smithsonian International Gallery. In 2009, she began thinking about applying for a grant to take her photography global.
Campus Fellowships Advisor and Associate Professor of English Betsy Klimasmith worked closely with Doles as she applied for the Fulbright, which Doles says otherwise “might not have been on my radar.”
“I was in a different mindset before I went back to school,” Doles says. “I had been out of academia for so long. But all the experience I had [at UMass Boston] with setting goals and writing papers absolutely helped in the application process.”
She was awarded the Fulbright in April of last year.
Doles chose Sri Lanka for its size – she can travel the entire country during her nine-month term of study – and for its tropical light, perfect, as she says, for pinhole photography. She also wished to call attention to Sri Lanka’s architectural treasures, which she says are under-maintained and under-appreciated by the country’s government.
“There’s a 2,500-year history, political and royal buildings, Hindu temples, colonial architecture: it’s an amazing mix,” she says.
On her travel blog, Doles writes, “The relentless jungle had swallowed up these clusters of fortresses, stupas, temples, reservoirs, gardens and palaces, built in the first half of the Christian era. Rediscovered after centuries of neglect, they’ve been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. These ruins sit beyond time and testimony while… hawkers, tuk-tuk drivers and beggars encamp in their periphery.”
Doles, whose scholarship ends in June, is photographing as many of these sites as she can with her pinhole camera, and cataloging her shots for an exhibit at the Fulbright Commission in May. As a side project, she is also compiling a series of portraits of Sri Lankans, taken with a more modern camera, which will be shown at the American Center at the United States Embassy in Colombo.
“These shows keep me motivated,” she says.
Doles says that as a foreigner in Sri Lanka, she expected life to be different, and it is. “One of the best things about [it] is that there is always something new to be experienced,” she says.
To see Liz Doles’ photographs of Sri Lanka, visit her website.
UMass Boston students and alumni who are interested in the U.S. Student Fulbright Program may contact Campus Fellowships Advisor and Associate Professor of English Betsy Klimasmith via email.