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Book Review: Gli Isolani (The Islanders) by Alys Tomlinson

I was born in the middle of the largest Italian plain but I have always been attracted by the sea.
The sea, with its perpetual motion, is able to cancel time.
The sea is essential as a horizontal line that divides the sky from the water.
The sea can drown you or, if you are able to indulge in it, it can make you unique. Like an island.

“Every man is an island” has always been one of my mantras and led me to organise, last summer together with Marzio Toniolo, an experience in which I tried to combine photography and the anthropological exploration of one of the two major Italian islands: Sardinia.


Is Sonaggiaos, Ortueri, Sardinia © Alys Tomlinson


The experience was so deep that, when I came across the work of Alys Tomlinson on July 20, I immediately asked for a copy to be able to review it. Being able to deal with it.

Gli Isolani (The Islanders) is a research project in which the photographer, for two years, documented the traditional costumes and masks worn during festivals and celebrations on the islands of the Venetian lagoon, in Sicily and, indeed, in Sardinia. These islands, especially Sardinia, have ancient, sometimes obscure roots. Their origins, or part of their past, have many dark sides. Their cultures are the product of mixtures ranging from the Phoenicians to the Arabs, passing through the Romans and Greeks and Byzantines to arrive, in modern times, at the Spanish. Some also talk about extraterrestrials, but that’s another story.

The inhabitants of these places have strong characters, historically tending towards independence, and they identify themselves first as inhabitants of the island and then as part of the Italian state.


Maschere a Gattu, Sarule, Sardinia © Alys Tomlinson

Gli Isolani (The Islanders) is an anthropological work that investigates the religious traditions, often inspired by pagan rites and beliefs, of the inhabitants of the 3 major Italian islands. The project is made up of 51 tables that alternate portraits with natural or architectural elements capable of connoting the reference area, the surrounding landscape, a confessional from the Church of the Redeemer, Venice, Sardinian rock formations,  and the Sicilian coastline.

The work is ancestral, like the large format (4×5) chosen to carry it out. Its slowness does justice to this type of research, like the perpetual motion of the sea, timeless. The black and white photographs, the looks, the transversal masks between the Catholic religion and mythology, between devils and saints and shamans and beasts, make us understand how alive these islands are with their mysteries. How closely linked history is to the people at the center of these lands.

Il Diavolo, Prizzi, Sicily © Alys Tomlinson

The culmination of Alys Tomlinson’s research is a collection of wonderful shots, with balanced tones and proportions, in which the subjects, even in the most terrible masks, reveal themselves in a unique beauty: that of the roots of a people proud of their culture. The final text, written by Sabrina Mandanici, leaves out the geography of the traditions at the base of the project to lean on the poetics of being an islander. It speaks to us of smells, noises, colors. She paints a picture with the intention of making us understand how alive these traditions are. The traditions do not die over time but instead update with time and integrate with the new generations.

La Donna ‘Faldetta Cupaltata’, Tempio Pausania, Sardinia © Alys Tomlinson

It should be noted that many, in recent years, have tried to photograph the religiosity and pagan rituals of the peoples of Sicily and, above all, of Sardinia without even remotely approaching the level of depth and quality of Gli Isolani (The Islanders), for which goes my further appreciation.
A book to have, in my opinion.

Alys Tomlinson is an award-winning English photographer who, in addition to photography, has studied literature and anthropology. Among her works we can mention Ex-Voto, in which she explored Christian pilgrimage sites in Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland) and Grabarka (Poland).

She is currently working on the film Mother Vera, a feature-length documentary supported by the Sundance Institute, centered on a pilgrim he photographed for Ex-Voto.

Sos Merdules, Ottana, Sardinia © Alys Tomlinson

Gli Isolani (The Islanders)
by Alys Tomlinson

November 2022
240 x 300 mm Portrait format
118 pages – Hardback

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