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Thé Kahata: A photostory told by 40 plantation youths

By Naveed Rozais

Sri Lanka is famous for its tea and tea plantations. Thé Kahata is a photography exhibition that captures the lives of the workers of these plantations through the lens of their own youths. The exhibition features over 100 images from 40 photographers across four plantation estates in the Central Province and gives viewers the chance to experience their world as they see it and share their hope for a different future. 

Thé Kahata is an initiative supported by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) with the Uva Shakti Foundation, in partnership with Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP) and co-financed by the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Foreign Office. SRP is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the British Council, in partnership with the Government of Sri Lanka. SRP takes a holistic approach to peacebuilding, working with actors at government, NGO (nongovernmental organisation), and grassroots level in different sectors that play key roles in national reconciliation processes.

The 18-month project leading up to the exhibition saw the extensive training of plantation youths to capture eyewitness moments and real-life situations on film and how to capture the issues they were directly involved in. The youths were also mentored to work in close consultation with their subjects and to use photography to articulate their individual identity and character. 

Thé Kahata is a testament to the creativity, talent, and courage of these young men and women from Badulla and Nuwara Eliya. It shows what can be achieved by youths who are supported to reflect on their world and hone a craft that can help shape others’ world views. The photographs in Thé Kahata are presented with their own narratives intact, providing a deeper, more personal insight into a community marked by marginalisation that captures both their vitality and stark surroundings. 

Thé Kahata gives the youths of these plantation communities a voice to advocate for their communities while encouraging inclusivity and creating awareness through the arts of the challenges and stigmas this community continues to face. The group of 40 youths participating in Thé Kahata did not know each other prior to collaborating on the exhibition and bonded through their shared passion for photography and the struggles they faced growing up in the plantation sector. 

The 18-month Thé Kahata project was initially supposed to conclude in March but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The project culminated in an exhibition held in Nuwara Eliya on 23 August 2020, followed by an exhibition in Badulla on 29 August 2020, followed by a two-day provincial event in September. The national and final exhibition of the project took place on 26-27 September at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery in Colombo.