The London-based photographer Alys Tomlinson has won the $25,000 top prize in the Sony World Photography awards.

It is the first time in 10 years that a Briton has been named as photographer of the year in the competition, regarded as the Oscars of the photography world, and the first time a woman has won since the US photojournalist Sara Naomi Lewkowicz in 2014.

A photograph by Alys Tomlinson

Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

Tomlinson, who was brought up in Brighton and did an English literature degree before studying photography at Central St Martins, earns a living as a commercial photographer mainly working in advertising. She won the Sony award for Ex Voto, a deeply personal series of black and white photographs taken at pilgrimage sites including Lourdes in France, Ballyvourney in Ireland and Grabarka in Poland.

Having entered the competition for the first time, she has been astonished to win the discovery category, and never imagined she would take the top prize.

A photograph of a pilgrim by Alys Tomlinson

Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

“The categories are very specific and tightly defined, and I never thought I would have a chance, but this year the discovery category seemed a possible fit for these images. I really rated some of the names on the judging panel, and I hoped they’d see the point of this project, so I thought OK, let’s give it a go.”

Mike Trow, the chair of the judges and former picture editor for British Vogue, said: “Alys Tomlinson is a worthy overall winner for telling a story so beautifully, quietly, and yet with a spiritual power that spoke of her sensitive engagement with the subjects and places that help define pilgrimage.”

Scott Gray, the founder and chief executive of the awards, said this year’s competition had received exceptional entries from all over the world. “To be awarded Photographer of the Year from such a strong line up is a huge credit to Alys. Her winning work weaves together both portrait and landscape photography seamlessly.”

Tomlinson became fascinated with the concept of pilgrimage after seeing a documentary on Lourdes, which she first visited on a package tour for pilgrims. “I stayed in a pilgrim’s hotel with about 3,000 Portuguese grannies who were very puzzled by me,” she said.

She returned many times taking a series of photographs as an outside observer, without achieving a single image that satisfied her. The breakthrough was a huge Victorian-style single frame camera.

A photograph by Alys Tomlinson

Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

“I needed to get away from the snapshot element. This camera is probably about an eighth of my body weight, and you have to set up using a tripod and a hood,” she said. “And I could only take one or two frames each time because they’re bloody expensive. So you have to get close, you have to take your time, and you have to win people’s trust, and that was what did the trick.”

A few pilgrims refused to be photographed, but most were fascinated and accepting when they saw examples of her work, including portraits and images of the humble objects pilgrims left at the sites, ribbons wrapped around twigs, wooden crosses, a prayer on a folded piece of paper, a cross scratched on a stone.

A photograph by Alys Tomlinson

Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

“I’m not a person of any faith, and I was brought up in an agnostic family, but there was something in their simple faith that I found very moving,” she said. She became so fascinated that she completed an MA during the project on the anthropology of travel, tourism and pilgrimage.

She funded the project through her commercial work, a field in which she thinks women are still in the minority and at a disadvantage. “You really have to sell yourself to get the commissions. You have to be pretty ballsy, and full of self belief,” she said. “I think we are more modest to be honest. There are a few very well known women, but very few. It’s still not a level playing field, and it’s changing pretty slowly.”

An exhibition of the winning photographs opens at Somerset House in London on Friday, and runs until 6 May


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