Painted cool aqua blue or turquoise, the walls in some of the houses in coastal southern Sri Lanka are mostly bare. These are new houses—or ones that have been repaired—and belong to families who survived the 2004 tsunami. Uncluttered, the walls serve as simple frames for the photographs of mothers, fathers, and children propped on shelves or dangling from nails behind pieces of dusty glass.
They greet you as you come in the door, these portraits do, smiling but silent, made formal by the click of a shutter. And though they are quiet, their placement there, for all to see, speaks volumes—about love and pride and the bonds that hold families tight, regardless of the hardships they suffer.
On the grounds of the Sri Sumangala Temple in Mawella South, near Tangalle, stands a monument—a golden globe held aloft by a spray of golden arms and hands rising from a pedestal set with many small rectangles of black stone. Etched into each rectangle is a portrait—photographic in its exactitude. These are pictures of people killed by the tsunami when it hit the temple barely 150 yards from the beach. Many of those memorialized here are children.
As I studied their faces—a quirky smile here, a tilt of the head there, a wrinkled brow—I wondered how they could look so alive, so individual. And then I remembered the photographs—treasured and now, for some families, irreplaceable–I had seen on the walls of homes. Portraits like them served this monument-maker well. And finally I understood why family pictures seemed to take such a prominent place in people’s houses: Someday those portraits may be all that a family has left by which to remember a child, a spouse, a parent. For many vulnerable people, that’s a threat that never goes away.