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The changing face of adoption ‘My parents loved me as if I were their own child’

Schwangere tamilische Frau bereitet italienischen Kaffee zu. Portrait von tamilischer Frau.

Carmela Harshani Odoni at her home in Bern, Switzerland

(Sibilla Bondolfi)

With photographs and audio recordings, the photographer Carmela Harshani Odoni shows how adoption can be a stroke of good luck or bad luck. She was adopted and taken from Sri Lanka, and to this day, she hasn’t managed to trace her birth parents. Nonetheless, she is happy. 

Carmela Harshani Odoni’s apartment in the Schosshalde district of Bern radiates family contentment and happiness: children‘s clothes lie alongside a laptop, a family calendar on the wall reminds everyone to take the dog for a walk, mice are burrowing noisily in sawdust in a spacious cage designed for their comfort. A terrier jumps around barking, gets stroked on his tummy, and then makes himself comfortable on a sofa on the balcony. 

Carmela Harshani Odoni

Carmela Harshani Odoniexternal link was born in 1980 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. When she was three weeks old, she was adopted by Swiss foster parents and grew up in Lucerne. After a photography apprenticeship and an internship at the Neue Luzerner Zeitung, she completed her diploma in press photography at the Swiss School of Journalism (MAZ) in Lucerne and worked as a photographer at the St. Galler Tagblatt. Today she works as a freelance photographer. She has presented her work in numerous exhibitions and won the first SonntagsZeitung prizeexternal link at the Swiss Photo Awards.

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In the late stages of pregnancy, Odoni remains unruffled despite an impending move to a bigger apartment at the same time as her photography exhibition. She puts some coffee on and calmly recounts how she decided on adoption as the subject for a photo exhibition. 

The search for her birth mother 

In 2005, she travelled to Sri Lanka to try to find her birth mother. Odoni was adopted by Swiss parents in Colombo when she was just three weeks old. Odoni’s journey was successful – even if she didn’t find her mother and still doesn’t know who her birth parents are. “I didn’t know who I was for a long time,” says Odoni. The trip, which she photographed, has given her stability. “Today I know who I am.” Becoming a mother herself helped. “I could put down my own roots once I had children,” Odoni says. 

After her “Harshani” exhibition, she set aside the subject of adoption for more than ten years. It was only in 2016 that she dug out a project she had started on adopted children in Switzerland and finished it. That led to the current exhibition “Who am I? The Changing Face of Adoption.” During this time, it became public that in the 1980s Sri Lankan infants were stolen from their mothers, sold, and given to foster parents in Switzerland. “This scandal really upset me,” Odoni says. The adoption fraud put everything in a new light. “If I was taken from my mother against her will, then I would really like to be able to tell her that I am fine.”

But Odoni does not expect her birth mother to become a key person in her life; she is happy with her foster parents. “My parents loved me as if I were their own child,” she says, and lays her hand on her the baby bump. She learned from her conversations with adopted children that this isn’t always a given. “Not all of them were as lucky,” Odoni says. “I was shocked.”

The exhibition shows the range of adoptions in Switzerland: Some were born in distant countries, others in Switzerland; one woman was sold as a baby in Sri Lanka, others were forcibly removed from their mothers in Switzerland for their protection. Until 1981, huge numbers of Swiss children were taken away and cared for elsewhere because their parents’ lifestyle didn’t comply with the authorities’ expectations. The authorities frequently took babies away from single mothers directly after their birth and gave them up for adoption – sometimes against the will of the mothers.

“I didn’t know about these forcible precautionary care measures before,” Odoni says. “I was shocked.”

But Odoni tried to be balanced in choosing those she portrayed. “In about half the stories, the adoption went well – in the other half, it didn’t,” she says. After all the life stories she has heard, she says: “It varies greatly from case to case – adoption can be a stroke of good fortune or bad luck.”

“I am happy,” Odoni says of herself and her life story. This is obvious when you meet her. After reflecting for a moment, she elaborates. “Sometimes I hear that I should be glad to have come to Switzerland from a third-world country,” Odoni says. “That is partly true. But sometimes it’s a burden as well.”

Her exhibition aims to enlighten people about adoption. She doesn’t want to present adoption as good or bad. “I don’t judge adoption,” Odoni says.

Let the eyes talk

The exhibition displays black-and-white portraits, audio recordings and a short film. In the recordings, those portrayed discuss what they think about adoption. Odoni is seeking to give adopted children a voice.

Her photographs are analogue and medium format, and she developed the films herself in the dark room. “You photograph more slowly and with more concentration” with analogue photography, she says. The portraits are black and white to allow the eyes and facial expression to speak, because black-and-white photography reduces the background, Odoni explains.

As a photographer, Odoni has always been interested in story-telling and encounters with people. “I like to see people’s trust in the pictures,” she says. 

She didn’t know those portrayed before, but says that from the beginning, there was a lot of trust. “It was as though we knew each other. We didn’t have to explain ourselves to each other.” She developed a friendship with all those she photographed.

And how did Odoni’s own story continue after the Sri Lankan adoption scandal was exposed? She has done a DNA test and is waiting for the results. But Odoni doesn’t complain about her fate. “An adopted child takes a different path, but that is part of life,” she says.

The exhibition “Who Am I? The Changing Face of Adoption”external link runs from August 13 to September 21 at the Bern Polit-Forum in the Käfigturm and is accompanied by a range of panel discussions - for example on the subject of forced adoptions in Switzerland.


Translated from German by Catherine Hickley

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