Portraits & Pilgrims

Alys Tomlinson

One of the biggest and most celebrated photography competitions in the world, the Sony World Photography Awards are an annual fixture in the photographic competition calendar. Now in its 12th year, the awards set out to showcase the best contemporary photography across the globe.

We recently caught up with Alys Tomlinson, recipient of Photographer of the Year 2018, to ask her how her life and career have changed since being crowned the overall winner with her entry ‘Ex-Voto’

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how your photographic career came about?

I studied English Literature and Communications at University, and it was there that I joined a camera club. We spent a lot of time in the darkroom and I fell in love with black & white photography through that. After I graduated, I moved to New York and photographed the city in my spare time, which, by chance, led to a job with Time Out. When I returned to the UK I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a photographer and I studied photography at Central St. Martins.

alys tomlinson ramshackle house

© Alys Tomlinson

What sort of commercial work do you get involved in?

It’s quite varied really; I do a lot of editorials and work with a few design agencies, but most of the work is in the education sector. It’s generally all shot on digital - and in colour - which is very different to my personal projects but I enjoy the diversity of both.

Out of interest, what prompted you to enter the Sony World Photography Awards?

Funnily enough, I’d been aware of the awards, but I wasn’t sure my work would fit in to any of the categories, so I’d avoided entering before. I then got an email just before the closing date and learnt that some new categories had been introduced - one of which was ‘Discovery’ – and I thought my work could fit nicely there. And I have to say, the fact that it was free to enter was also a big draw! So I think it was a couple of days before the closing date that I finally submitted my images, and I didn’t think I really had any chance of winning.

alys tomlinson portrait of vera in her habit

© Alys Tomlinson

And then you did! You must have been thrilled?

I was! And completely unprepared for the press and video interviews that followed! But it was great, and winning the grant also gave me the opportunity to go back and finish the project. I had enough still images already, but I wanted to make a film about Vera, a nun who lives in Belarus, and who I’d photographed at the start of the project. My background is stills, but luckily my assistant is an accomplished filmmaker, so the two of us travelled to Belarus to stay with Vera in her convent, and we made this lovely film that’s very much in the style of my images.

alys tomlinson portrait of vera with her hands clasped

© Alys Tomlinson

That was the first time you’d used a Sony mirrorless camera. How did you find it?

Honestly, it was a joy to use, especially as it was so quiet. We were filming in situations that required a very discreet approach – morning prayer at 5am when you could have heard a pin drop for example – and the fact that the α7S II was silent meant that we could connect with the scene without making our presence obvious. 

alys tomlinson nuns attending morning prayer.

© Alys Tomlinson

Apart from visiting Belarus to make this film about Vera, how has your workload been this year?

I’ve had a bonkers year since winning the award and it really has changed the direction of my career; the exposure from the win has been immense! I’ve been lucky enough to have won other competitions, but this has definitely been by far the biggest. I suppose I’ve been working long enough now to be fairly well established, but in the last few months I’ve been approached by a high profile London gallery and they’ve exhibited my work in Paris. I’m also working on a book of the project which has been Kickstarter funded, and although it was something I was hoping to do before the award, I was able to reach my target very quickly, as a result of the reach I had from the win.

alys tomlinson forest trees reflected in a stream

© Alys Tomlinson

Do you view Ex-Voto as finished now, or is it a project that could carry on indefinitely?

It’s tempting to say I could carry on, because there will always be people making pilgrimages, and it would be interesting to see where the project could take me, but ultimately, I think once the book is released, that’s the natural closure for me.

To find out more about the Sony World Photography Awards and to see Alys’ winning gallery, visit 

Alys’ film ‘Vera’ will be premiered at Somerset House in April 2019. The competition closes on 4th January 2019 and is free to enter.

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