2021: The Year in Pictures

Pandemic, Parties, Politics

Writing this at the end of 2021, it’s hard to escape a sense of déjà vu. Much like the year before, the last twelve months were again dominated by Covid-19 and efforts to bring it in to check. All of my work was in within the United Kingdom, and overwhelmingly in London. But despite those similarities (and acknowledging that at the time of writing the UK once again finds itself in the grip of another winter wave), many of the pictures that stand out to me this time are different. They’re not just of society shutting down, but also of it tentatively opening back up again: of nightclub dance floors alive once more, long-awaited hugs between friends, the return of live sport, serenades for strangers in the street. 

It was also been a big year on the personal front. In August, the birth of our son Jae took me away from the news for a little while. But come September I was back to it, if a little sleep deprived. 

Thanks to Getty Images and London News Pictures for the opportunities across the year, and also to Canon CPS for their unrivalled support. So here it is: with a few gaps, my favourite photographs from 2021. 

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and productive 2022!

24/01/2021. London, United Kingdom. Snow blankets a wintry Greenwich Park in southeast London after snowfall over the capital.

23/03/2021. London, United Kingdom. Candles are lit opposite the London Eye, illuminated in yellow, as part of a National Day of Reflection to mark the first anniversary of the start of COVID-19 restrictions in the UK and to remember the 126,000 people who have died.

03/04/2021. London, United Kingdom. A man is arrested in Parliament Square during a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest, one of many demonstrations that took place in opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which seeks to broaden policing powers when dealing with protests.⁠⁠

08/04/2021. London, United Kingdom. A woman contemplates a section of the National Covid Memorial Wall, more than 150,000 hearts painted on the Thames Embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament to remember those who lost their lives to Covid-19.

09/04/2021. London, United Kingdom. A woman lays flowers outside Buckingham Palace following news of the death of Prince Philip. Buckingham Palace announced that the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, died aged 99.

16/04/2021. London, United Kingdom. Old Compton Street in Soho on the first Friday after lockdown restrictions were relaxed to allow pubs, bars, and restaurants to start serving food and drink outdoors.

20/04/2021. London, United Kingdom. Chelsea fans celebrate outside Stamford Bridge, the club’s stadium, after it was announced that Chelsea Football Club was pulling out of the new European Super League.

22/05/2021. London, United Kingdom. Drag artist Te Te Bang performs at a Eurovision Song Contest party at The Clapham Grand. The 65th Eurovision Song Contest was held in Rotterdam, and came a few days after Coronavirus restrictions were relaxed in England to allow indoor gatherings.

01/06/2021. London, United Kingdom. People in Greenwich Park take photographs as the sun sets behind the City of London on the first day of meteorological summer.

14/06/2021. London, United Kingdom. Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison outside 10 Downing Street, ahead of finalising a new trade deal between the UK and Australia.

18/06/2021. London, United Kingdom. Scotland national football team fans, known as The Tartan Army, climb a statue of William Shakespeare in Leicester Square and adorn it with flags, ahead of Scotland’s Euro 2020 game against England.

07/07/2021. London, United Kingdom. England fans celebrate as Harry Kane scores the winning goal in the Euro 2020 semi-final between England and Denmark.

19/07/2021. London, United Kingdom. Two people hug in the middle of the dance floor at Egg London nightclub in the early hours of 19 July 2021. All remaining legal coronavirus restrictions were lifted at 12:01AM, allowing nightclubs to reopen again for the first time in fifteen months.

25/07/2021. London, United Kingdom. A group of friends sing and dance in the back of an illuminated cycle rickshaw in Soho on the first Saturday after most remaining coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

05/09/2021. London, United Kingdom. Kadeena Cox, who won Gold in the Women’s 500m Time Trial C4-5 and Mixed 750m Team Sprint C1-5 events at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, hugs her family upon arrival at Heathrow.

24/09/2021. London, United Kingdom. Mourners gather in Pegler Square, Kidbrooke, for a candlelight vigil for murdered school teacher Sabina Nessa.

03/10/2021. London, United Kingdom. Runners cross Tower Bridge during the London Marathon as a boat passes underneath.

07/12/2021. London, United Kingdom. Little Amal, the 3.5m animatronic puppet of a Syrian refugee child, greets MP Tulip Siddiq in Parliament Square as MPs begin debating the Nationality and Borders Bill.

10/12/2021. London, United Kingdom. The view towards Monument along a quiet King William Street in the City of London on the last Friday before new work from home guidance came into effect.

13/12/2021. London, United Kingdom. People join long queues outside St Thomas’s Hospital in Westminster to receive a Covid-19 booster vaccination. The government has announced that every adult will be offered a booster vaccination before the new year.

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The Death of Prince Philip

Tributes at Buckingham Palace

9 April 2021

On Friday 9 April, Buckingham Palace announced that the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip had passed away aged 99. News alerts flashed up on mobile phone screens around the world, and in the United Kingdom, TV and radio broadcasts were interrupted as the National Anthem was played before the announcement was read out.

Within an hour of the news breaking, people began to arrive at Buckingham Palace. These photographs were taken across that day as people gathered outside the gates of Buckingham Palace to lay flowers, pay their respects, and take the moment in.

The Union Jack above the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is lowered to half-mast

Floral tributes left against the fence around Buckingham Palace

Dramatic evening light illuminates the Victoria Memorial

Floral tributes left for Prince Philip against the fence of Buckingham Palace

A group of young men leave flowers outside Buckingham Palace

Broadcasters reporting from the Victoria Memorial, opposite Buckingham Palace

The front page of the London Evening Standard attached to floral tributes

People sat on the Victoria Memorial as the last of the day’s sun dissapeared

Visit the archive to see more images

150,000 Hearts: The National Covid Memorial Wall

Campaigners are asking the Prime Minister to make the memorial permanent

Running almost 500 metres from Westminster Bridge to Lambeth Bridge, directly opposite and clearly visible from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, a swathe of small painted red hearts now stretches into the distance along the Thames Embankment.

Volunteers began work on the National Covid Memorial Wall on 29 March 2021, hand painting hearts on to the wall. With the help of more than 1000 people, including the bereaved and NHS staff, the memorial quickly filled up. Just over a week later, on 8 April 2021, Fran Hall – a member of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group – painted the last of approximately 150,000 hearts on to the wall, one for each of the people who have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the United Kingdom so far. 

Fran Hall, a member of COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, draws the final heart marking the completion of the approximately 150,000 hearts being painted onto the National Covid Memorial Wall on the Thames Embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament.

The loss of a loved one during the pandemic, often under lockdown restrictions, has meant that many people have also had to grieve in isolation. In comments to the media, Matt Fowler – the co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice who lost his father Ian to the virus and painted the first heart on to the wall, said: ‘Grieving in isolation has been so tough, but here for the first time it feels like we’re together again,’ adding that it had been ‘so moving to see bereaved families, NHS staff and members of the public come together to create a space for us to reflect on this national trauma’. 

For me, this also feels very personal: I lost my grandmother early on in the pandemic. After a mercifully brief illness, she died in the care home she had been living in since the summer of 2019. She was 99. 

For someone whose life was so full of people, and who always took such immense joy from being in the company of others, it was inescapably sad that so few were able to attend her funeral. Only my mum and dad, and my partner and I, were able to be there in person – stood apart from each other across the aisle of the chapel. And like so many other families, we have so far only been able to get together virtually on Zoom to remember her together and share a toast to her life. 

The National Covid Memorial Wall started without permission, but campaigners are now asking the Prime Minister to make the memorial a permanent one. And more hearts will be added as the death toll continues to rise. ‘Memorials begin when they’re completed’ Matt Fowler said. ‘So this isn’t an end, it’s a beginning.’ 

These pictures were taken on 8 April, as the last of 150,000 hearts was added to the wall, and the families of those who had died from Covid-19 were invited to walk the length of the memorial.

Amanda Herring (left) carries a photograph of her brother Mark Herring, who died of COVID-19 aged 54, as she “walks the wall” to mark the completion of the approximately 150,000 hearts.

A woman adds the name of a loved one lost to Covid-19 to the memorial wall

Visit the archive to see more images

Still Ill: Monique Jackson’s ‘Coronadiary’

Last week, I cycled up to Hackney to see my friend Monique Jackson. Monique and I used to live together in a big six-bedroom shared house in Brixton. When I arrive, she’s in the process of moving again – this time back to South London to live with her mum for a while.

In mid-March, Monique started feeling unwell with suspected COVID-19. At first she had headaches and tiredness; then fever and difficulty with her breathing began soon after. She thinks she caught the virus during a train ride shortly before “lockdown” measures kicked in – she was travelling with a friend who also fell ill. Although she got better after being really unwell at the start, she has continued to experience a whole range of ongoing “post-COVID” symptoms ever since.

Monique is an illustrator, so stuck at home she started drawing on an iPad as a way to record her experience of the disease and the ways it continues to impact her life. “Keeping a visual diary is how I process experiences,” she said in an interview with It’s Nice That. In doing so, she has also put together an honest and powerful account of the long-term effects of something we’re only just beginning to understand.

You can find her work – Still Ill – on Instagram. Follow her at @_coronadiary and @momonmojackson.

Tale of Two Cities: A Weekend in Calais

Saturday 24 June 2017 

 ‘This is an historical day for Calais,’ announces Mayor Natacha Bouchart to a crowd gathered in Parc Richelieu, many huddled beneath umbrellas to escape the lashings of rain meandering down through the trees overhead. ‘Calais is about to reconquer its city and place in this coastline region.’ Her words are full of aspiration as she describes the city’s imminent return to a former glory. Where it was lost she does not say. 

Behind her is an old red London double-decker bus. In front, a crowd of several hundred. Some of those stood around me spoke quietly to one another in French, but most were British and a little less discrete. ’You’ve got to laugh’ the lady to my right says to her husband as the sixth speech gets underway, not all of which were translated. ’It’s not funny,’ he replies.

Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, speaks in Parc Richelieu

They are here for ‘Calais Celebrates Summer’ in which 1,000 free day trips from Dover were offered in a prize draw in an effort to generate interest in the city as a holiday destination. There is a bus tour taking in some of the city’s main attractions, musical performances, and a seafront photo exhibition offering takes on modern Britain that are in some cases utterly surreal. Shops are offering discounts and miniature red London phone boxes have appeared on street corners. 

Part of the seafront exhibition

‘What matters is this vital link between our ports of Calais and Dover. What matters is the technical feat of the Channel Tunnel. … What we want to restore and develop is this reflex action to come and go more frequently between the Cote d’Opale and Kent.’ Only one speaker mentions an improvement in the security situation since last summer. None makes reference to refugees or migrants.

Two figures shrouded in the Tricolour and Union Jack flags

As speeches conclude, dignitaries gather around two figures shrouded in the Tricolour and Union Jack flags. The national anthems of both France and the United Kingdom are played and the covers are removed, leaving Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill stood side-by-side, both gazing forward through a series of white metal arches tracing the contours of France. After crowds had dispersed, one man hung from the trademark cigar clenched between Churchill’s lips as a friend took his photograph. 

Sunday 25 June 2017 

A short distance across town in a dusty field on the edge of an industrial estate, cardboard dishes of vegetable stew and salad are handed out. It is Eid and there is excitement in the air. Though celebrated by Muslims, many Christians among the largely Eritrean and Ethiopian men that had gathered said they would be celebrating too. But mobile phone batteries are flat and the generator provided each day by one of the volunteer organisations isn’t working properly, throwing hopes of phone calls that evening with families divided around the world into doubt. 

Police arrive and volunteers handing out food are told to stop. ’Allez’ one officer shouts repeatedly, his baton held to his side, as those who had gathered to receive food are told to go. Slowly, they move back until they are stood more or less in line in a gap in the black mesh fence stretching some ten metres across, the police spaced out in front of them.

The distribution of food to refugees had recently been banned, but that decision was subsequently quashed in court. I ask a volunteer if this happens often. She says it used to, but not in the weeks since the ban was overturned, and so doesn’t know why it is happening again now. People stand quietly, waiting. The atmosphere is tense, but there is also a sort of resigned humour in the air – an attempt to make light of a situation that had clearly become extremely familiar. ‘But I’m hungry,’ one man jokes as he is pushed back after trying to make his way past the police. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, the officers turn and walk back to their vans. There are cheers as people race back into the line at the back of the food van.

Phones plugged in to charge

After more than an hour of fine adjustments by an Afghan mechanic, the generator bursts into life. We all listen together for the slowing of the ebb of the motor that had become painfully familiar as the mechanic had worked (by this point I felt as though I had almost as much invested in its success as those stood around me). But this time it holds its own, as relief and then electricity flow. Another volunteer arrives with a second box of extension cables which are seized upon immediately and daisy-chained one to another, a cacophony of chargers plunged into their sockets. 

Where N. sleeps

I’m introduced to N., an Eritrean man who is sat with some friends against the fence. He agrees to show me where he and his friends now sleep and leads us across the field and into some bushes which he refers to as the ‘Jungle’. There is a sleeping bag laid out on the floor. ‘Here.’ A little further in, a square blue blanket is stretched out on some grass like the scene of an abandoned picnic. I ask if he can show me more and we walk further in. Amongst some larger trees, a black tarpaulin is stretched tight to make a roof. From its edges hang a number of gold metallic thermal blankets, and directly beneath it a heaped blue sleeping bag. A face appears from beneath it and N. asks if I can take a picture. ‘No problem’ I’m told, as the man disappears again beneath the sleeping bag. I take a few frames and we walk back. 

A makeshift refugee shelter set up amongst some trees

 Two versions of the same city.     

Unveiling the African and Caribbean Memorial

War memorials are an important part of modern British society.  But they are also often selective, focussing our attention on certain things while omitting others. Among those omissions are the more than two million African and Caribbean servicemen and women that fought in the First and Second World Wars.

Today people came together in Brixton’s Windrush Square to mark a major milestone in correcting that: the inauguration of The African and Caribbean Memorial (AC Memorial), a permanent reminder of that enormous contribution. It is the only memorial of its kind in Europe.  Here are some photographs from across the day.

Two performers from Gahu Dramatic Arts group await the start of the ceremony

An elderly couple with the Barbados flag

Military Police and performers wait on a side street for the start of the ceremony

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon (R) joins others for the unveiling of the memorial

The covers come off

Young people wait to lay wreaths, each left in the name of one of the Commonwealth nations

Matt Houston, The People’s Standard

People watch as tributes are laid at the base of the memorial

A flag bearer walks past the memorial at the end of the ceremony

People pay their respects

The Aylan Kurdi Effect: Can a Single Photograph Really Change History?

The refugee crisis is not new, but it was the photographs of drowned three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, face-down in the sand of a Turkish beach with his palms upturned, that brought the world to attention. On 3 September 2015, newspapers around the globe ran the image on the front page. Most chose a frame in which the boy’s lifeless body is cradled in the arms of a Turkish officer, though a few — notably Britain’s The Independent — ran the arguably more visceral original.

The Independent, 3 September 2015.

We’re often told that the ‘digital revolution’ has shortened attention spans, altering the ways we engage with unfolding events — that perhaps expressing one’s dismay in a Tweet is now sufficient to assuage any greater responsibility for action. But in this case, the response came thick and fast. Research conducted by The Visual Social Media Lab at Sheffield University suggests that the image was seen by twenty million people in the first twelve hours, racking up more than 53,000 tweets per hour, the majority of which opted for the descriptor ‘refugee’ over the more politically loaded term ‘migrant’ (see also Google’s coverage here). Politicians lined up to publicly announce how moving they had found the photograph, and charities and NGOs saw record increases in donations. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station recorded a fifteen-fold increase in donations within 24 hours, while the Charities Aid Foundation found that fully one-third of Britons that made donations cited the publication of the photographs as their primary reason for doing so. And finally, honouring what seems to have become a journalistic tradition when responding to shocking news images, Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown likened the image’s impact to that of Nick Ut’s iconic ‘Napalm Girl’, the ‘single picture [that] turned American public opinion against that terrible [Vietnam] war’

As a photographer, I find the question of how photographs achieve political effects an inherently interesting one, and the huge impact of the publication of the Aylan Kurdi photographs makes that question all the more urgent. But I want to focus here on one thing: the Vietnam analogy. 

Historical analogies are often used to try and make sense of unexpected and often ephemeral events, and when it comes to shocking news photographs, the Vietnam War seems to be the analogy of choice. There are good reasons for this. Unfettered images — both stills and video — were pivotal in forcing a US withdrawal from Vietnam, and as I’ve written elsewhere, this experience went on to profoundly reshape media-military relations in subsequent wars. But if we’re going to use historical analogies to explain contemporaneous events then we need to be sure we’ve got the history right, and in this case I think there are problems with the assumption that a single photograph is capable of changing the course of history. 

Take arguably the two most iconic images to have emerged from the Vietnam War: Eddie Adams’ ‘Saigon Execution’ and Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’. 

Adams’ image, taken in 1968 at the height of the Tet Offensive, shows the street execution of Nguyen Van Lem, a member of the National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong). It’s a brutal image, and the timing — capturing the exact moment of impact — is both remarkable and gruesome in equal measure. But the notoriety of the photograph cannot be explained solely by what it shows. In fact, it wasn’t the first time such an event had been captured on camera (see Sturken 1997, 93). But while its earlier rivals were seen as anomalous and were rejected for publication, Adams’ shot — captured when it was — clearly held currency. Why? It emerged at a time when the US military were set on projecting a narrative of clean and surgical progress, with General Westmoreland (then commander of US forces in Vietnam) having declared only three months earlier that ‘success lies within our grasp’. Although it was actually a major military setback for the Viet Cong, the Tet Offensive, which saw the eruption of an estimated 67,000 Viet Cong troops across the cities of the South, laid waste to this claim, and it was Eddie Adams’ photograph — an image of lawless anarchy — that crystallised this for an American audience. 

A similar scenario plays out for Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’, to which Alibhai-Brown compared the Aylan Kurdi photographs. In an effort to disguise the grisly reality of the internecine guerrilla war taking place in Vietnam, the terminology used by US officials began to change. The vocabulary of killing became suffused with terms like ‘neutralising targets’, ‘inflicting casualties’ and ‘pacification’. It was against this backdrop that in 1972 the image of a horribly burned Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm strike ran in newspapers around the world. The image itself is without doubt a shocking one, but again the currency of the photograph drew on the sheer dissonance it revealed between the military’s preferred narrative and the ground reality. 

The key point here is that in both cases the ‘power’ of the photograph stems from an interaction with ideas and discourses that already existed to some extent in the popular imagination. A number of theorists, whom we might label social constructivists, have made this argument: John Tagg, Umberto Eco, Victor Burgin. But it was perhaps Alan Sekula that put it most succinctly when he claimed that a photograph needed to be embedded in a ‘concrete discourse’ in order to produce a ‘clear semantic outcome’ (Sekula 1982, 91). In other words, when it comes to making sense of why certain images wield such power, the context into which a photograph emerges is just as important as the contents of the photograph itself. In the case of the Vietnam photographs discussed, their role, it seems, was to ratify and make vivid something which ultimately people already knew, and not to plant that seed in the first place. 

So where does this leave our understanding of the Aylan Kurdi images? Can it really be claimed that before seeing them we did not have some grasp on the extent of the tragedy in the Mediterranean, and that it does not discriminate by age? Was it simply seeing the images that prompted such an astonishing response? I would suggest not, and relatedly, one might also fairly ask whether we have any greater idea now, having seen the photographs, or whether they simply created a moment of public outcry that disappeared as quickly as it arose. 

I can’t fully explain why the Aylan Kurdi photographs had such a huge effect, but I think there’s a clue in the language used to describe the crisis as it continues to unfold. Our collective apprehension of the refugee crisis has become plagued with conflicting vocabularies, of refugees versus ‘economic migrants’, that seek to differentiate among those fleeing their homes, empathising with some while criminalising others. Perhaps only an image of such indisputable innocence had the capacity to cut across these divisions and force a widespread recognition, however short-lived, of a tragedy that is explicitly human. 

The urge to proclaim single images as defining historical turning points seems to be a strong one, but it’s one we should be wary of. The statistics on the impact of the Aylan Kurdi photographs are impressive, but the idea that it was the images alone that achieved this disguises a more complicated relationship with a discourse of which they are now a key part. A single shocking picture may be a catalyst, but it never does its work in a vacuum.

Jaffna: Sri Lanka’s Northern Capital

Anuradhapura railway station. Attempting to make idle talk, the man behind me offers up his recommendation for which class of travel I should choose for the journey to Colombo. ‘I’m headed to Jaffna’ I say, as his eyes widen with surprise — a reaction common in all those to whom I’ve sketched out my itinerary. ‘This is the boundary’, he says, ‘everything north — landscape, culture, religion — is different’.

The ferocious and sudden rain storm at Elephant Pass, as seen from the train.

At Vavuniya, 50km north of Anuradhapura, the train empties out, and from here onwards the ride to Jaffna is bumpy. The carriage lurches suddenly to one side, and then falls into an up-and-down rhythm so strong that I’m lifted clean off my seat on more than one occasion. As the train heads into Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna Peninsula and the site of bitter contestation during Sri Lanka’s civil war, I begin to see what the man at Anuradhapura was talking about. The land flattens out, beaten down by the intensity of the sun: to the left, what are either disused rice paddies or salt pans; to the right, arid scrubland that recedes into the horizon. And then the weather flips. Within a matter of minutes the sky darkens, unleashing a deluge of rain so fierce that we frantically rush to latch down the windows in order to stem the flow of water splashing onto the seats. Meteorologically, it seems, this is a land of extremes. As the train rattles into the Jaffna Peninsula itself, the rich and intense redness of tilled farmland shouts at your eyes, a sharp contrast to the muted browns and vibrant greens of its southern counterpart. By the time the train pulls into the platform the evening is in full swing, and so I head straight to the guest house to settle in for the night. As the sun drifts below the skyline, the streets are quiet, interrupted only by crowing birds and, a little after 1am, a chorus of howling dogs. Docile during the heat of the day, the night it seems is theirs — and I’m thankful for having pocketed the earplugs on my flight.

In 2014, Sri Lanka welcomed more than 1,500,000 tourists to its shores — a more than three-fold increase since the civil war came to a bloody end in 2009. Stories of idyllic coves and golden sunsets washing over white sands draw tourists to the beaches of the South in droves. And while many now reach the historic ancient city of Anuradhapura, few venture up to the country’s northernmost tip. Jaffna was for many years Sri Lanka’s second city, and more recently the symbolic capital of a hoped-for independent Tamil state. But it doesn’t appear on many tourist itineraries. 

The following morning, under the light of day, the city makes its first impression. Full of shops, it’s a busy and furiously mercantile place with a dense commercial centre and a quieter, often leafy, periphery. And it’s one, I’m told, that is ideally suited to exploration by bike, so I borrow a rickety set of wheels and head out. 

At the epicentre of Jaffna’s bustling heart stands the ‘New Market Complex’, a two-storey termite mound of shopping clad in luminous ochre. Inside, two shaded courtyards offer respite from the frenetic street, opening at one end onto one of the city’s many food markets and at the other onto the bus station. Vegetables of all kinds are neatly stacked on hessian sacks spread across the concrete floor, a patchwork as colourful as it is appetising. Dark bricks of jaggery are stacked atop one another, flanked by slabs of peanut brittle and other sweets; oils of different colours glow in plastic bottles like prisms, ignited by the sunlight that spears through the gaps in the roof. 

Moving away from the centre, Jaffna begins to relax. Beach Road, southeast of the centre, is home to many of the city’s fishermen who, seeking respite from the early afternoon sun, were hunched over their nets in any and all available shade. It’s an area that I imagine to be a hive of activity in the early morning as fresh fish are brought in, bartered over, and shipped off across the city and beyond. But for now it is quiet, sedated by the heat.

The remnants of the funfair that had visited Jaffna the previous week.

A little further on, opposite the Portuguese-built Fort and the new police headquarters (still under construction at the time of writing), a disassembled merry-go-round stands alone in a field, the remnants of a touring funfair that had visited the week before. The carriages — hand-painted deer and horses — and a standalone ticket booth are all that recognisably remain, but as Hassan — who travels to fairs and festivals across the country, and whom I met at his stall on Main Street — would later tell me, it had drawn quite a crowd.

Edging further along the road that skirts between the city and the lagoon, I arrive at a meat market on the westernmost end of Navalar Road. The butchers wave me over, to the warm and sustained shake of a hand matted in blood. Having exchanged the usual pleasantries, the conversation runs dry — the fault of my own linguistic shortcomings — and so I wander on to explore the rest of the market.

The meat market at the western end of Navalar Road.

As I make for the exit, two young men ask for a photograph, a request I’m only too happy to oblige, and one that (as so often seems to happen in South Asia) unleashes a tide of similar requests, to my obvious gratification. 

Portraits at a food market on Navalar Road

Wary of the steadily rising temperature and my proven susceptibility to heatstroke, I head back towards the guest house, only to find myself distracted by a football tournament taking place on the playing fields opposite Jaffna Central College. 

I hover timidly by the gate as the teams march out under the midday sun, meeting at the centre circle before splitting off into their respective halves. Alarmingly, only about a third of the players are kitted out with boots, the others playing barefoot. But after kickoff, it becomes immediately clear that this added danger in no way affects their enthusiasm for the game. As the players fight every challenge to the last — so much so that a penalty is given, and duly put away, only moments into the game — I’m enthralled and end up watching almost the entire first half. Propped against a wall that runs the perimeter of the field, my attention is only briefly called away by the cheers that follow every kick from the students that have lined the upper storeys of the school buildings that overlook the pitch.

All of this is to say that Jaffna is a living, breathing city — it’s bustling, busy and full of people doing things other than catering to the whims of passing tourists (of which there are admittedly very few). From my arrival at the train station — to relative, perhaps slightly bemused indifference rather than the usual cacophony of competing tuk tuk drivers — I’ve felt like a fly on the wall, privy to something genuine. And in a country that has geared itself so heavily towards tourism in recent years, that’s a precious thing.

With that said, it would be a dereliction of duty to write about Jaffna in a way that sidesteps its politics and history. But to employ the journalistic cliche that this is a town ‘just emerging from three decades of brutal war’ also isn’t quite right. The town has been under more or less steady government control since 1995 (though it was very nearly recaptured by the LTTE in 2000). The physical scars of war remain everywhere in plain sight. Derelict structures, roofless houses and pock marked walls are so frequently seen that after a couple of days they almost become normal. And this, of course, is only the most obvious of the manifold ways in which conflicts becomes so indelibly seared in both the environments and people that experience them.

Damaged buildings on 1st Cross Street in Jaffna.

During the week I spent in Jaffna I sought out conversations — mostly small talk over dal and roti or kottu sloshed across a banana leaf in Jaffna’s numerous ‘hotels’. But I avoided bringing up the conflict, a small act of deference to what is surely a difficult memory, and one that for many people is not yet in the past. Yet it was not unspoken.

I would be asked how I was finding my visit to Sri Lanka, to which I would reply positively, noting that while I had visited the country before, it was my first time in Jaffna. Then on several occasions came a rejoinder in a quietened voice: ‘ten years ago, it was very different’, or words to that effect. Little more would be said on the topic, but this small but firm assertion gave me pause for thought. I understood it as a call for the suffering endured to be acknowledged, to count as part of the fabric of the city as it is perceived from the outside. For its difficult history not to be erased amid the florid descriptions of its friendly and hospitable inhabitants that will no doubt fill the columns of guidebooks as Jaffna opens up to a greater inflow of tourists.

Inside the main reading room at Jaffna Public Library.

Nevertheless, my impression of Jaffna is one of quiet optimism: a place that is on the up, and gradually adjusting to a new political reality. Although many blank plots of land remain, reconstruction is underway. The Jaffna Public Library, which amassed a collection of over 97,000 books and documents, including many on Sri Lanka’s political history, was set on fire and destroyed amid mob violence in 1981, making it one of the most appalling acts of cultural desecration in modern history. But today it is fully rebuilt and restocked (though admittedly missing many items from its original catalogue, which are irreplaceable) and teeming with students and readers alike. A hopeful sign for a city that deserves a brighter and more dignified future than its recent past.

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