Monday, 27 June 2016

Mario Cruz | Modern Day Talibes

Photo © Mario Cruz | All Rights Reserved
A few posts back, I featured the work of Indonesian photographer Ulet Ifansasti on an Islamic boarding school in East Java, and I follow it up with the powerful monochromatic work of Mario Cruz on a similar subject; an Islamic boarding school in Senegal...however difference abound.

The long tradition of sending boys to study at Islamic boarding schools (also called madrasas) in Islamic countries is often rooted in positive values of religious and moral education, and on teaching classical theological, legal, and Qur'anic texts. However, politics and social exploitation have intruded in some of these institutions.

Over the last decade in Senegal,  the educational purpose of these boarding schools has been used by unscrupulous so-called teachers to exploit thousands of children who are known as "talibes"...the Arabic term for students.. 

Cruz spent months documenting the physical abuse of talibes, although much of it takes place behind the closed doors of these "schools". The teachers also known as "marabout" (A North African term for a learned Islamic teacher), know that their actions of treating these children as slaves, and sending them into the streets to beg and steal are criminal, but it's a slow progress to apprehend them and close down these schools due to Senegal's limited resources.

The number of children exploited by this system of modern-day slavery is estimated to number as many as 30,000 in the Dakar region alone and 50,000 across the country.

Mario Cruz is a Portuguese photojournalist, and studied studied photojournalism at Cenjor - Professional School of Journalism. In 2006 he began working with LUSA – Portuguese News Agency / EPA – European Pressphoto Agency. Since 2012, he has been focused on his personal projects dedicated to social justice and human rights. 
 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Xavier Guardans | Windows

Photo Xavier Guardans-All Rights Reserved

Here's a gallery of monochromatic portraits of individuals belonging to a variety of Kenyan tribes, such as the Turkana, Samburu, Masai, Rendille, Gabra and Pokot, which were all made using the simplest of staging.

All of these were photographed through the window of the photographer's vehicle. The vehicle's window act as a simple picture frame, almost forcing the viewers to focus only on the subjects' expressions, hands and arms.

Over multiple trips to Kenya in 2006, the photographer took 25 black-and-white portraits from the backseat of his vehicle, photographing his subjects, members of Kenyan tribes, through a rear window.

Xavier Guardans was born in Barcelona in 1954 and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Bournemouth College of Art in England and was included in exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Madrid, Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca and the Museu d’ Art Espanyol Contemporani in Palma. His work is held in private and public collections, including at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Center of Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. Guardans has also had an extensive commercial career publishing his work in major magazines and worldwide advertising campaigns. 


Monday, 20 June 2016

In Production | Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam


It's been quite a long road to get to the point where I now have my ducks in a row, and have the first full "skeleton" of my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam ready to be printed as a dummy first cut book. I have had two made a few months ago, but these were of a much smaller page and image count.

The current iteration is of 168 pages, of which 104 are full-bleed photographs and 64 text pages, and at 15 inches x 11 inches (38 cms x 28 cms) is of one the largest image wrap landscape hard cover sizes I could find.

It ought to be ready by the end of this week, and I ought to see it by the end of the month. It's being printed in Kuala Lumpur, and because of an operational snafu, I've had to have it shipped to Ahsan Qureishi of Travel Photographer Asia, who has kindly agreed to ship it to me in New York City.

Once received, examined and reviewed I shall decide on further formats and sizes, and naturally on prices, as well as produce a trailer type of video to market it as widely as possible using social and other medias.

I am hoping to have it all set up by early September 2016 to coincide with the Việt Beliefs in the Mother Goddesses inscription to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.


Thursday, 16 June 2016

Ulet Ifansasti | City of God

Photo © Ulet Ifansasti -All Rights Reserved
Many in the West have a skewed view of Islam and its 1.4 billion adherents, and much of the fault lies at the door of the mainstream (and other) media that is unwilling or unable to portray a balanced and more nuanced view of this worldwide religion.

Philosophically, I'm against schools that are not secular but in many cases (such as this one) it's poverty - rather than faith- that forces parents to place their children in an Islamic boarding school.

City of God is a photo essay on Lirboyo, an enormous traditional 'pesantren' (Islamic boarding school) in Indonesia. Located in Kediri, East Java, the boarding school is home to roughly 17,000 students, or 'santri'. It was founded in 1910 by KH Abdul Karim. Its pupils and students spend their days reading the Quran, studying Islamic scriptures and learning Arabic. They have around 20 hours of activities daily, beginning at 4am and finishing at midnight.

Ulet Ifansasti is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer, with a particular interest in social, environmental and cultural issues. Born in Papua and currently based in Yogyakarta-Indonesia, he started his career at a local magazine in Yogyakarta, Indonesia before joining Getty Images in 2008. 

His work has been published in many leading organizations and publications including GREENPEACE, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, STERN, The Guardian, TIME Magazine, USA Today, LIFE, National Geographic Traveller among others.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Nick Ng | Forgotten Faces of China

Photo © Nick Ng-All Rights Reserved
I've been admiring Nick Ng's photography since I viewed his work on Chinese Opera, which I featured earlier on this blog, so I was glad to have found more of it on The Huffington Post.

The collection of his photographs are titled The Forgotten Faces of China, and are of elderly Chinese who live in the rural regions of the country, and have been left behind by their kin. Millions of Chinese have migrated from the countryside, with a majority of the country's population now living in urban areas.

Millions of older Chinese are facing poverty and loneliness as their children flee villages for cities. The years of societal turmoil (radical communism followed by rampant capitalism) have frayed the ties that once bound the nation’s families together.

As a result of China's "One Child" policy, more than 160 million Chinese families have only one child. Similarly, these family members are 60 years or older. Although many Chinese children still care for their parents, it is clear that the old traditions about loyal Chinese sons and daughters may no longer be as solid as they once have been.

Currently appointed as and sponsored by Sony Malaysia as their Alpha Professional photographer, Nick Ng is a freelance photographer based in Kuala Lumpur. who started photographing in 2007. He has won many photographic awards in Malaysia and abroad since then as well having been featured in various publications and exhibitions.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Mecca | Asif Khan | Roads & Kingdoms

Photo © Asif Khan- Courtesy Roads And Kingdoms
With the advent of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, I thought it timely to feature an interesting essay published by the eclectic journals Roads And Kingdoms as Mecca's Other Pilgrimage.

The rather tongue-in-cheek, but not irreverent, writing is by Asif Khan, a documentary photographer who is based in India. His description of the Umrah, the lesser version of the Hajj or pilgrimage that is demanded from every able Muslim will enlighten those who are unfamiliar (or even those who are familiar) with the Muslim rituals.

It reminded me of my own experience visiting Mecca many years ago when I was visiting the nearby Jeddah on a business trip. I worked for Citibank at the time, and it was suggested I spend a few days in that port city to explore whether a job there was for me. While the job dimensions were great, the social restrictions in Saudi Arabia on my family were difficult to accept, so I turned it down. 

Whilst in Jeddah's Citibank offices, I was approached by Said Hafez, a colleague from Egypt, who convinced me to visit Mecca before I flew home to New York.  The distance of 40 miles or so was covered very quickly and that evening, I found myself along with my companion in the very heart of Islam. It was before all the new glass-concrete monstrosities were built,  and the Haram Al Sharif was superb.

Not being up-to-date with the rituals of ablutions and prayer, I faithfully copied the actions of my devout companion who knew exactly what to do and when.  I mumbled the only verse of the Qur'an I knew, over and over like a mantra....hoping no one would ask me anything that could prove my religious inadequacy (at least in their eyes).

The Kaaba itself was not as large as I had thought it to be, and at this time of the evening few people were about. Consequently, I had ample opportunity to touch the black meteorite known as Al Hagar Al Aswad which surface was made concave by the millions who had touched it before me during past millennia. 

The whole area was calm, quiet and serene and I easily imagined how the atmosphere brought the devout to their knees, and tears of devotion streaming down the faces of the supplicants. But for fresher and more descriptive account of Mecca and the Haram, read Asif Khan essay.

Roads & Kingdoms is an independent journal of food, politics, travel and culture. In its second year of existence, it was voted the Gold Winner for Best Travel Journalism Site by the Society of American Travel Writers. “Roads & Kingdoms” is borrowed from The Book of Roads & Kingdoms, an early travelogue written in the 11th century by Abu Abdullah al-Bakri in Córdoba.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Nick Ng | Chinese Opera

Photo © Nick Ng-All Rights Reserved
Readers of this blog know I immerse myself in personal projects that "speak" to me for many reasons; some of which are unknown whilst others are obvious. Documenting endangered cultures and traditional life ways, with particular emphasis on religious traditions and events, cults and esoteric practices, is what attracts me the most for my photography.

I've very recently started the process of exploring the tradition of Chinese Opera. Earlier this year, returning home after completing my work photographing the Vietnamese religious tradition of Đạo Mẫu, and its ceremonial manifestations of Hầu Đồng, for my forthcoming book "Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam”, I spent time admiring large photographs of Chinese Opera performers displayed at Hong Kong Airport.

Perhaps it was the visual/aesthetic connection between the Hầu Đồng mediums and the Chinese Opera performers that was at play, but it was then that I decided to add this project to my to-do list.

During my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur to attend Travel Photographer Asia 2016, I met Lim Li-Ling, a Malaysian part-time photographer, who had documented the Xiao Qi Lin Hokkien Troupe of Singapore  for a number of years, resulting in a book titled Wayang (A Javanese term for theatrical performances). Discussing it and receiving a copy of her book cemented my decision to go deeper into this traditional art form.

In contrast to Hầu Đồng which is relatively unknown by photographers outside of Vietnam, Chinese Opera has been popular with a large number of documentary photographers. I found a expansive amount of photographic essays documenting Chinese Opera; the first of which is by the very talented and prolific Nick Ng, a Kuala Lumpur resident and a Sony Malaysia's Alpha Professional Photographer.

Chinese Opera is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world. Many of the features that characterize modern Chinese Opera developed in northern China, particularly Shanxi and Gansu Provinces. The main forms are the Shanxi Opera, the Beijing Opera, the Shanghai Opera and the Cantonese Opera.

However, as Lim Li-Ling asserts in her Wayang book, Chinese Opera in the region of South East Asia is currently a dying art from whose performances are limited to key religious festivals.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Old China Cafe


I've spent just over a week in Kuala Lumpur to participate in Travel Photographer Asia 2016 during which I gave a no-spin phototalk on travel photography, and a class-workshop on The Travel Documentary.

The class workshop's objective was for its participants to learn and complete a short travel documentary consisting of 15-20 still photographs. During our forays in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown and its neighboring area, we spent some time at The Old China Cafe hiding from the sun or from the rain.

I returned to the cafe to meet two of my Malaysian friends a few days later, and had the chance of taking a few photographs of the very atmospheric interior. No one seemed to mind, even the patrons who were enjoying their lunch and drinks. 

The cafe was formerly the guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association, which was set up at the turn of the century and moved to this part of Chinatown in the 1920s. The owner of the cafe kept many of the architectural details of the building, and even the doors to the kitchen still have wooden latches. This type of pre-war shophouses may not exist much longer.


The concept of the woman in a red cheongsam hoped for by a stranger in the cafe (possibly an alter ego) was born during a conversation with my class. They were quite supportive of the idea, and even suggested enhancements....some of those inventive but impractical to include in this short piece.

I think this very simple audio-slideshow exemplifies the very spirit of my class....The Travel Documentary. Weaving 15-20 images to tell a story...whether factual, or like this one, a figment of the storyteller's imagination is what makes travel photography such a wonderful genre of image making.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

POV: Visual Storyteller | Fact or Fiction?


"....so I would say that today I am a visual storyteller..."

The Steve McCurry controversy rages on, unmitigated by his recent statements (which I am paraphrasing here) saying that, except for a brief stint at a small newspaper, he didn't work as a photojournalist per se, but considered himself as a visual storyteller.

I have been critical of McCurry's work for quite some time, and never considered him to be a photojournalist. I recall being harshly criticized by many of his fans when I published this point of view, and wonder where are they now. He might have explicitly described himself as a photojournalist or insinuated it, but I always viewed him as a travel photographer with a high propensity to stage his images, with a concomitant affinity for post processing.

During my recent photo talk at Travel Photographer Asia 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, I addressed the recent fracas and, in a way, condoned his evolution from photojournalist in the distant past to the current commercial-fashion photographer (Louis Vuitton, Valentino, etc) specialization.

In that photo talk, I said that it must have been the forces of the marketplace that molded McCurry's evolution. We all know how difficult it is to make a living from photojournalism and documentary photography, even for photographers as famed as he.  So, I'm not surprised or shocked that he chose the route he's following right now.

Some of us argue that storytellers ought to tell the truth; others like me argue that stories can be fictional or non-fictional. In my view, travel photography can be either. I adopt a true story telling discipline in my own travel imagery, adopting my "travel photography meets photojournalism" philosophy, but on rare occasions, I've staged some of my photographs. If I had to put a percentage to this staging, I'd say 5% of my images were/are staged....or directed. I've never hid that fact when asked, nor will I do so in future. And I'm not a photojournalist, and never claimed to be.

With that in mind, McCurry's prevarications about being a photojournalist (hence no staging and no heavy-handed post processing) have disappointed many of those who viewed him as an "eminence grise" in his field. Many more are outraged and angered because the image manipulations (especially the cloning and removal of things) discovered so far are tainting the whole industry with the same brush. Photojournalists who have abided by the strict ethics of photojournalism are justifiably angered.

McCurry has been recently shown to digitally modify (or have his staff digitally modify) some of his images to show what he wished he had seen and taken the picture of. That, in my view, is fictional visual storytelling, and is as far from the truth and photojournalism as can be. To wit, the 1983 photograph of the locals riding a rickshaw through heavy monsoon rain in Varanasi, in which people were removed. It's fantasy...it's what McCurry would have liked to see but didn't. It's also what McCurry wants us to see, and believe that it happened as shown. As for blaming a staff member for heavy handed post processing, it's always the photographer who must take final responsibility. Blaming an intern or staff is unworthy of someone of McCurry's stature.

However, many of the public took him to be a "reality visual storyteller", but he wasn't and from his many interviews, he didn't dispel this widely held view and possibly encouraged it.

It's always tragic when a renowned figure in any field falls from grace, but it also serves to remind us that truth is always liberating, and is always the best approach in anything we do. Is this an idealistic concept? Yes, it is, but it's also the right one.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Alexander Khimushin | The World In Faces

Photo © Alexander Khimushin - All Rights Reserved

"While travel is my life, photography is my passion. 
And it’s never been about the money…"

It is said that, in photography, a portrait is a composed image of a person in a still position, and often shows the person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

Many photographers also use an optical illusion used by painters since time immemorial, by placing the person's dominant eye in the center of the frame, to give the impression that the eyes are following the viewers.

And with more than 7.3 billion people of countless cultures and traditions, portraiture is a wonderful way to demonstrate the diversity, ingenuity, and beauty of humans.

I wouldn't be wrong in assuming that most travel photographers have started their careers and craft by photographing simple portraits; perhaps setting up their subjects against attractive backgrounds, or against anything they found. I recall my own start when, a 70-200 lens on my camera, I'd roam the exotic places I traveled to in search of faces that 'spoke' to me.

My craft has evolved during the years, and I've become inclined to photograph perhaps more complex scenes, however travel portraiture is always the primary visual "magnet". And from my experience, it is always portraits that attracts the most attention amongst a wide swath of viewers.

Alexander Khimushin explored 84 nations with cameras in hand over the past two years in order to photograph portraits of people he met for “The World In Faces,” a photo project celebrating diverse cultures around the world.

There will always be critics for whom this project (and others like it) will not sit well, but insofar as I'm concerned, it's a project that brings us all together.

Alexander Khimushin is an Russian/Australian independent traveler. He tells us that 8 years ago he packed a backpack for a journey around the world. Since then he's been traveling the globe non-stop.

The Huffington Post also has an article with larger versions of his photographs.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Alessandra Meninconzi | Time For Holi!

Photo © Alessandra Meninconzi-All Rights Reserved
One of my favorite travel photographers is Alessandra Meninconzi who has recently uploaded her new work from India, which she titled It's Time For Holi. Her photographs were mostly made in Vrindavan, and its surrounding towns and villages, during the festival of Holi.

I remember Alessandra messaging me from Vrinadavan complaining that her new Canon Mark 3 was in danger of being permanently colored in pink. She is a Canon Professional, so I'm certain that Canon didn't mind. That said, by many recent accounts, in many areas Holi has devolved into a a color "slug fest" that goes beyond fun with colors, and is no longer a religious observance.

Alessandra's galleries range from the Arctic Siberia to Ethiopia, from Lapland to the Silk Road, and from Greenland to Tibet and the Himalayas. She worked extensively for more than a decade in the remote areas of Asia, documenting minority people and their traditional cultures. More recently, she focused on the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions that are threatened by climate change, development, and resource extraction.

Alessandra Meniconzi is a Swiss photographer fascinated by the lives and traditions of indigenous people in remote regions of the world.Her photographs have been published widely in magazines, as well as in four books: The Silk Road (2004), Mystic Iceland (2007), Hidden China (2008) and QTI -Alessandra Meniconzi, Il coraggio di esser paesaggio (2011). 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Travel Photographer Asia Invalidates 2016 Original Winner

Photo © Alex Varani - All Rights Reserved
Travel Photographer Asia and its judges have taken the difficult, but unavoidable, decision to revoke its 2016 winning photograph of Malaysian photographer Yen Sin Won, and replace it with the above photograph by Alex Varani of Italy.

The new winning photograph was originally first runner-up, and with the said elimination is now the overall winner of Travel Photographer 2016 contest. It is of Indonesian fishermen battling a shark near Cenderawasih Bay. 

The updated line-up of the winners is here.

Although Yen Sin Won's monochromatic photograph (see my previous post to view it) was compelling enough to garner the admiration of the jury, it came to the attention of the judges when asking for and viewing the RAW version that it violated the rules and spirit of the contest regarding post processing restrictions on submitted images. 

As I posted earlier, Travel Photographer Asia is much more than a photographic contest. It is also a travel photography festival consisting of photo talks, an exhibition and photography master class & workshops for the professional and amateur photographer.


I shall join photography luminaries Ms Huang Wen, Mr. Che' Ahmad Azhar, Dr. Shahidul Alam and Mr. Vignes Balasingam in giving photo talks during the festival. My photo talk will focus on travel photography, and I'll touch upon its challenges and rewards, how to approach people and build trust, how to take the right photos for an article, how to build up a story with photos, and how to brand yourself. I will share how I started as a travel photographer, how I built my travel photo workshops business from scratch and how I go about developing personal projects. 


Friday, 29 April 2016

Travel Photographer Asia 2016 Contest Winners

Photo © Yen Sin Wong- Courtesy TPA 2016 
Ahsan Qureshi of Travel Photographer Asia has announced the winners (and best 50 photographs) of its 2016 contest in which more than 3000 images were submitted for consideration.

The winning photograph is "Jump Over" by Malaysian photographer Yen Sin Wong**. As a judge, I was immensely impressed by the quality of the submissions (which made the judging extremely tough), and by the fact that amongst the 50 top submissions, 6 are monochromatic. In my view, it took courage from these six photographers to submit entries in black & white to a travel photography contest. Color is frequently the instinctive choice for submissions to travel photography contests. I also noticed that the judges seemed to generally coalesce behind photographs that told a story, and that were more complex than simple portraiture. Naturally, all submissions were anonymous to the judges.

** see update.

Congratulations to all the winners and to all who submitted...you gave the judges a very difficult task to do. Well done. For those interested in the prizes, check them here.

However, Travel Photographer Asia is much more than a photographic contest. It is also a travel photography festival consisting of photo talks, an exhibition and photography master class & workshops for the professional and amateur photographer.


I shall join photography luminaries Ms Huang Wen, Mr. Che' Ahmad Azhar, Dr. Shahidul Alam and Mr. Vignes Balasingam in giving photo talks during the festival. My photo talk will focus on travel photography, and I'll touch upon its challenges and rewards, how to approach people and build trust, how to take the right photos for an article, how to build up a story with photos, and how to brand yourself. I will share how I started as a travel photographer, how I built my travel photo workshops business from scratch and how I go about developing personal projects. 





Thursday, 28 April 2016

Julie Higelin | Thisksey Gustor Festival

Photo © Julie Higelin-All Rights Reserved
Julie Higelin brings us her images of the Thiksay Gustor festival which usually takes place during the month of November in Ladakh. It is held from the 17th to 19th day of the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar. This short (two-day) festival is held at three different Ladakhi monasteries—Spituk, Thiksey and Karsha Zanskar.

The festival commemorates the assassination of the 9th Century Tibetan apostate king Lang Darma by a Buddhist monk. The assassination is re-enacted during the festival by burning effigies symbolizing evil. Morning prayers are offered to bring divine peace to those who take part in it. After the two day celebrations, there are a ritualistic events and dances by Black Hat dancers. 

Julie Higelin is a Belgian self-taught travel photographer who, rather than pursuing a full time career in physiotherapy, traveled the world and developed a passion for a nomadic existence, learning photography at the same time. She started off her photographic career by taking on an assignment for an NGO in Madagascar, and her road map was set. 

She has photographed in India, Ladakh, Madagascar, Romania and Guatemala amongst others. She generally uses a Canon 5DMark3, and a Canon 24-70mm F2.8 L and a 16-35mm F2.8 L.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Travel Photographer Asia 2016 Kuala Lumpur


I'm very pleased to be included amongst a panel of prominent individuals in the photography industry scheduled to give photo talks at the forthcoming Travel Photographer Asia 2016 event in Kuala Lumpur at the end of May.

In association with with “Fuji Film X“, Travel Photographer Asia 2016 offers a unique and ultimate travel photography festival consisting of a photo contest, photo talks and photography master class & workshops for the professional and amateur photographer.

The photo talks will be given by:

Ms. Huang Wen, currently the Secretary General of the Chinese Photojournalists Society, and one of the biggest names in Chinese photography. She is also is the director of the International Business Development Division of the News & Information Center, Xinhua News Agency

Mr. Che' Ahmad Azhar, currently a lecturer at the Faculty of Creative Multimedia, Multimedia University, Cyberjaya, Selangor, Malaysia. He taught in the field of Visual Communication and Photography for eighteen years. 

Dr. Shahidul Alam; well known for having established the  Drik Picture Library, The Bangladesh Photographic Institute, Pathshala, The South Asian Media Academy and others. A member of advisory board of National Geographic Society and the first Asian to chair the International Jury of World Press Photo. 

Mr. Vignes Balasingam is a photographer and curator based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the director of the OBSCURA Festival of Photography and the Monsoon Artist In-Residence program. He has curated over 40 exhibitions featuring international and Malaysian photographers.

And myself.


Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Kiki Xue | Ethno-Fashion

Photo © Kiki Xue - All Rights Reserved
I've written up a number of posts about the fusion of fashion and travel photography, and this is certainly not the last. It is no surprise that I am frequently influenced by fashion photographers' aesthetic, by how they set up their shoots, and by the postures and poses adopted by the models, the color schemes and the lighting. It would be an exaggeration to say that this kind of photography inspires me, but it certainly leaves a visual and and subconscious residue which I reach for when I'm photographing in the various countries I travel to.

Having spent all of 2015 and almost half of 2016 photographing hầu đồng ceremonies in Vietnam to produce my forthcoming photo book: Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam, I've realized that much of my resulting images were instinctively influenced by fashion photography, especially those that had an Asian theme to them.

One of these influences is certainly Kiki Xue; a Chinese photographer who is currently base in Paris. Inspired by Irving Penn, Xue uses a digital Hasselblad, and creates an artistic atmosphere in his photography.

With one exception, I failed in convincing any hầu đồng practitioner to pose for me as in a fashion shoot. The exotic costumes they wear during the ceremonies are religious, and wearing them outside of temples during ceremonies is considered a sacrilege. Nevertheless, the mediums offered me ample opportunities to photograph them during their ceremonial incarnations. 

Photo © Kiki Xue - All Rights Reserved


Thursday, 14 April 2016

Dom & Liam Shaw | Vida Cubana | Fuji X Pro 2

© Dom & Liam Shaw- All Rights Reserved 
My Twitter feed is not entirely useless after all!

It brought me to a blog post by two Yorkshire-based wedding photographers who, after a street photography stint in New York City, continued their adventures to include 15 days shooting during the Easter break in the streets of Havana (and Trinidad).

Not only are the super-saturated photographs of Havana just a joy to view, but they were made with the newly released Fuji X Pro-2.

There are a number of world cities that are especially spectacular for  street photography; New York City, Kolkata, Hanoi and many others...but in my view, Havana is probably ranked amongst the top five, and these photographs certainly support my contention.

I was in Havana in 2000 (during the Elian Gonzales controversy) attending a photography workshop with Costa Manos, and it was a revelation. I was a photo novice at the time, but I immediately realized the incredible magnetic pull this city had to photographers.

To accompany this post, I chose one of the couple's photograph featuring Wilke (or Wilki), a well-known 'Habanero' to visiting photographers. He earns a living by dancing in various bars and by posing as a model on account of his elegance, white sideburns and enormous cigars. His dancing partner, Adelaide, is also a fortune teller. I met them during my week-long stay in Havana, and they introduced me to a private session of Santeria.

Traveling to Cuba for US citizens has become much easier recently, however Cuba's infrastructure hasn't yet caught up with the influx of tourists coming from its northern neighbor. Lack of hotel rooms, exacerbated by underdeveloped airport facilities, results in frustrated travelers.

As many things in life, I guess it's a trade-off. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Taylor Weideman | Poy Sang Long

© Taylor Weideman - Getty Images | Huffington Post
Here's another festival I would love to photograph...so in the bucket list it goes. The annual Poy Sang Long festival is a three-day long rite of passage for young Buddhists from the Shan ethnic group in Thailand.

The festival marks the initiation of 7-14 years old boys, as novices in the Buddhist community. It essentially consists of these boys taking novice monastic vows and participating in monastery life for a period of time that can vary from a week to many months or more. It's widespread in Myanmar, but the practice crossed into Thailand, where Shan immigrants have brought over their traditions.

The festival goes on for three days, as the boys are dressed like princes in imitation of the Buddha, himself a prince before setting out on the religious path, spend the entire time being carried around on the shoulders of their older male relatives.

Photographer Taylor Weidman's lovely images of the Poy Sang Long festival were featured in The Huffington Post. The accompanying article tells us that the photographer followed two youngsters, as they prepared for their initiation. The two boys are neighbors from Chiang Mai who traveled to Mae Sariang, a small town in northern Thailand near the Burmese border for the ceremony.

The festival of Poy Sang Long in Thai is called Buad Loog Gaew, which means "ordaining the beloved sons", and is held in early April when, in the city of Chiang Mai, pre-teen boys are inducted into the Buddhist novice-hood.

Taylor Weidman is a photojournalist based in northern Thailand. As photographer for Getty Images, his work has appeared in many of the world's most prestigious news outlets, including The New York Times, TIME, National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Business Week, BBC, The Guardian, GEO, Der Spiegel, and others.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Jorge Silva | Chinese Opera | Boston Globe

Photo © Jorge Silva - Courtesy The Boston Globe
A recent photo essay appearing on The Boston Globe's The Big Picture got my attention because it featured photographs of the performances of a Chinese opera in Bangkok. 

Chinese opera is a popular form of drama and musical theatre in China, and elsewhere in Asia where Chinese have established presence, with roots going back to the early periods in China. Together with Greece tragic-comedy and Indian Sanskrit Opera, it's one of the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world.

Many of the features that characterize modern Chinese Opera developed in northern China, particularly Shanxi and Gansu Provinces. These included the use of certain characters: Sheng - the man, Dan - the woman, Hua - painted face, and Chou - the clown.

Chinese opera was virtually killed off during the years of Mao Tse Tung's rule, but was revived in 1976. Since then, there are more than thirty forms of Chinese opera that are regularly performed throughout the country. The most well known are the Qinqiang Opera type, the Beijing Opera, the Shanghai Opera and the Cantonese Opera.

The reasons for my interest in Chinese opera are multifold. I've photographed a performance of Hát Tuồng in Hanoi in 2012. It is one of the oldest art forms in Vietnam, and is said to have existed since the late 12th century. It’s believed to be influenced by Chinese opera performance techniques, but subsequently evolving and changed into a new form embodying Vietnamese characteristics and nature. I wanted to photograph its performers more in depth at the time, but was constrained to do so because I was leading a photo workshop, and couldn't devote enough time to it.

Hong Kong Airport

On my return from Hanoi last month, I viewed a photographical installation in Hing Kong's airport featuring a number of images of Chinese opera performers, and thought it'd be a great forthcoming project.  It would touch all the bases I like: culture, history, music, fashion, and artistic performances. Perhaps I was subconsciously hooked to it after viewing the famous movie, Farewell My Concubine.

Although I'll be in Kuala Lumpur at the end of May, Chinese opera is only performed on certain occasions, however I'll try to do some research beforehand.


Thursday, 7 April 2016

Leonid Plotkin | Followers of The Real

Photo © Leonid Plotkin-All Rights Reserved
I've featured the work of photographer of Leonid Plotkin a few times already, and I'm glad he he has just uploaded photographs of his walking pilgrimage with Sufis from Delhi to Ajmer in Rajasthan to attend the annual Urs of Nawaz Gharib.

He and I share a passion for documenting the esoteric traditions and rituals of Sufism in the Indian sub-continent, and I'm quite certain that our paths have crossed there in May 2013. He was the only non-Indian I saw at the festival, apart from the photo workshop group that I was leading at the same time.

Sufism has a history in India evolving for over a millennia. Islam literally walked into the subcontinent since the 8th century. Sufi mystic traditions became more popular during the 10th and 11th centuries of the Delhi Sultanate, and these have existed since then. Sufism helped to build a syncretic medieval culture tolerant and appreciative of non-Muslims, and its saints contributed to a growth of stability, vernacular literature, and devotional music in the subcontinent.

Many Sufis make the pilgrimage from various Sufi dargahs in Delhi to the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (aka Nawaz Gharib) on the anniversary of his death. Hundreds of devotees walk the distance of about 400 kilometers (250) miles over the period of ten days.

Leonid took part of this walk, and photographed its participants on Followers of The Real. Many of his captions are very interesting so read them when you view the images.

He is a freelance documentary photographer and writer. His work has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The Economist, Penthouse Magazine, Student Traveler, Budge Travel, Discovery Magazine, MSN.com and others.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Eric Mencher | Tradition!

Photo © Eric Mencher-All Rights Reserved

I ought to feature the work of photographers who work with iPhones more often on this blog, especially if they are as talented as Eric Mencher.

Not only is he talented, but he also has a number of galleries on his website of images made with his iPhone of religious traditions in Guatemala, of Maya villages of Lake Atitlan and life around San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Most are in monochrome, but he includes brilliant color photographs made in both Guatemala and Mexico.

Having been to Antigua in 2014 and photographed in its cobblestoned streets during its annual fiesta of Santiago de los Caballeros (also in monochrome), my favorite gallery is of the religious traditions, fiestas and processions in Guatemala.

Eric frequently uses the iPhone's Hipstamatic app as well as its native camera. In the Hipstamatic mode, he uses the Lowy lens with the BlacKeys Super Grain, Blank Noir, Ina’s 1982 and Robusta films. He also likes the AO BW film with both the Akira and John S lenses, as well as the Watts lens with the D-Type Plate film.

Eric Mencher is a documentary photographer concentrating on long term projects and everyday street photography. His recent projects include life along the Lincoln Highway (the first cross-country road in the United States), contemporary life in the Maya villages of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, religious traditions in Guatemala, and life around San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

He was a photojournalist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and covered assignments all around the world, including the post-apartheid era in South Africa, the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda, life under Fidel Castro in Cuba and the civil war in Chechnya.

You can read an interview with Eric here.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Ta-Tung | Rooe | Storehouse

Photo © Rooe | Courtesy Storehouse

I'm always intrigued by out of the mainstream religious traditions and rites, and was often able to photograph and document them wherever they occurred. This is how I have been working for the past 18 months on my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam.

Cap Goh Meh is a festival celebrated in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore on the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar. It officially ends the Chinese New Year celebrations. In Singkawang, Kalimantan, Tatung performers - people believed to be possessed by the spirits of ancestors – perform various ancient rituals, during the festival, the performance has similarities with Dayak rituals and is also performed by local Dayaks.

The Dayak are the native people of Borneo, and were feared for their ancient headhunting tradition.

Tatungs are mediums who exercise their craft during the Cap Go Meh ritual to ward off evil spirits, and cleanse the town and temples from evil and bad luck. During the Tatung rituals, participants enter into a trance and perform many bizzare actions, such as stepping on a sword, or piercing steel wires or nails into their cheeks or through their tongues.

The Intermediary is a photo essay by Indonesian photographer Rooe on the Tatungs published on Storehouse.


Monday, 21 March 2016

Louise Porter | Infrared Tribal

Photo © Louise Porter | All Rights Reserved
Infrared photography is a different technique that will appeal to those of us who have an adventurous streak, and seek to present an alternative vision to their audience. Infrared photography provides a new way to see what we like to photograph because our eyes cannot see infrared light as it is beyond the "visible" spectrum that humans can detect.

Using digital cameras modified to shoot infrared reveals photographs that are different from what we are used to see. Everything is different; colors, skies, clouds, faces, textures, and skin to mention just a few. The infrared "look" cannot be duplicated with post-processing software despite filters and techniques. Some photographers have converted their digital cameras by having the sensor's infrared blocking filter removed, and substituted with one that allows only infrared light to pass through.

One of those photographers is Louise Porter, whose infrared galleries Infrared Tribal Travel and Infrared Niger are lovely examples of this techniques. Readers of this blog post might be tempted to try this style of photography after viewing them.

Photo © Louise Porter | All Rights Reserved
Louise Porter has been a documentary and travel photographer for over 20 years. She trained at New York'sWorld Photography International Center of Photography, and has traveled to Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, India, Laos, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bhutan, Ladakh, Iceland, Cuba, Barbados, Ireland, Bali, Sulawasi, UK and other European countries. Her work was included twice in the 2013 and 2014 SONY World Photography top 10 short list for People along with another selected infrared photo in the Commended category.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Joana Chomali | Resilients

Photo © Joana Chomali-All Rights Reserved

Perhaps because of my work-in-progress documenting the spirit mediums of Vietnam, which involves colorful exotic and ethnic costumery, my appreciation of "ethno-fashion" portraiture has grown exponentially during the past few months of my travel photography path.

This explains my attraction to the portraits made by Joana Chomali, a photographer born and raised in Abidjan (Ivory Coast), of young, professional African women who -like her- were having difficulty to connect with their families' traditional past. According to The New York Times, each portrait session involved research on how the clothes, jewelry, skin and hair needed to be styled based on the specific tribe the models' families were originally from.

Resilients is a gallery of 9 wonderful portraits of women wearing their traditional dresses of colorful silk fabric; some with circular tribal markings on their skins, and wearing layers of beaded jewelry. The backdrop and the studio lights used by Ms Chomali are designed to give an Old Master feel to the portraits.

Joana Choumali is a fine art photographer based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. She studied Graphic Arts in Casablanca (Morocco) and worked as an Art Director in an advertising agency before embarking on her photography career. Much of her work focuses on Africa, and of the myriad cultures around her.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

POV: The Fuji X-Pro2 And Red



All Photographs © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
(click on photographs for larger versions)
These are my very first photographs made with the Fuji X-Pro2 and a Fujinon 18mm f2.0 lens. I had gone for a walkabout in New York City's Chinatown, and stopped in front of a brick wall recently painted a glorious deep red color.

I planted myself there for about an hour, barely budging even when a crew of photographers arrived for a photo shoot with a male model. I waited for people and residents to walk by against this superb backdrop, and shooting from the waist so as to capture them in their natural demeanor, I managed to get a range of different frames.

Although red is also the color most commonly associated with heat, activity, passion, sexuality, anger, love and joy, it is the color of happiness in China and other Asian countries. Being in Chinatown, I though it appropriate to choose this wall.

These photographs are not SOOC, but have been post processed with some vignetting using Color Efex Pro4.

During the initial few hours I used the new X-Pro2, it performed flawlessly. That said, I haven't yet tested much of its settings but will do so in the coming few days, especially the new film simulation options. The only downside I noticed was the battery life (which was fully charged) is really short. Perhaps because I "chimped" more than usual, but it seems I need to carry another battery during future walks. That wasn't the case with my X-Pro1.


Friday, 11 March 2016

Visual Storytelling | Foundry Photojournalism Workshop



During the 2015 Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Bali, I was pleased to join seven renowned instructors who spoke with PhotoWings about the art and importance of visual storytelling.  And to add to the privilege, I open the session with a few words.

PhotoWings describes the piece as: "With a wealth of experience between them, they discuss what it means to them, how they do it, and what they are able to accomplish with it."

It was created from interviews PhotoWings made about storytelling at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop this past summer with the photographers Ron Haviv, Andrea Bruce, Kael Alford,Thorne Anderson, John Stanmeyer, James Whitlow Delano, Henrik Kastenskov and myself.

Also included are a few photographs made by these photographers which, to their minds, tell visual stories. These can be seen here.

Unfortunately, due to conflicting time demands on me,  I cannot join the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Cape Town in July as I've done since its inception in 2008. However, I shall be there in spirit.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Hà Nội Report | Đền Thờ Bà Chúa Liễu Hạnh

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Ensconced way too comfortably in the Cathay Pacific lounge in Hong Kong's airport, I have the time to write of my last few days in Hà Nội.

The final Hầu Đồng ceremony I photographed was at the temple of Princess Lieu Hanh, to which I had never been before. The medium was a Hầu Đồng practitioner named Do Thi Bich Huong, and she had quite a presence. Some of her performances were new to me, including one where her incarnated spirit wore a flat straw hat and a shoulder pole, and sold small towels to the audience that had the photograph of President Obama and Mr Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam on their wrappers!


At the end of the two weeks of photographing Hầu Đồng Ceremonies, I've amassed the princely sum of VND 960,000 (about $43). This money is given to me by the various mediums officiating at the ceremonies I attended, and represent "blessed" gifts. I could probably retire on this income if I really wanted!


I also dropped by Hanoi's Centre of the Old Quarter's Culture Exchange to view Hàng Trống wooden-block paintings which depict rituals of ancestor worship, and various saints of the Đạo Mẫu (Mother Goddess) religion. The one in the above photograph is of General (and top saint in its pantheon of gods) Trần Hưng Đạo. He led the Đại Việt armies that repelled three major Mongol invasions in the 13th century, and his fame earned him a top spot in the Mother Goddess pantheon.

I had the idea of buying a commercial reproduction of a Hàng Trống painting for my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam, but I had no time to find a gallery that carried them. 


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Hà Nội Report | Tây Thiên

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
As a break from photographing Hầu Đồng ceremonies, I thought it would be interesting to travel the 50 or so miles north of Hà Nội to visit Tây Thiên, considered to be the birthplace of Vietnamese Buddhism, and an important footnote -to say the least to my research for my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam.

Leaving my hotel at 7:30 am with my favorite acolytes, helpers, interpreters and fellow photographers, we reached the temple complex by mid-morning. The temple complex of Tây Thiên is located atop of a 600 meter-high mountain in the Vinh Phuc province. It is dedicated to Mẫu Năng Thị Tiêu, one of the seven spirits dispatched to earth by the Jade Emperor to treat diseases and to save humanity. She was conferred the title of Quốc Mẫu Năng Thị Tiêu, as mother of the country.

The complex consists of many temples but the must-see one is accessible by foot (around 4 miles) or by cable car. Naturally we chose the latter despite the incredible crowds. Vietnamese women (mostly from rural areas) don't take no for an answer, don't appreciate queues and lines, and, like mice, can go through the narrowest of gaps. This talent is very useful to find openings between people standing for their turn.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Naturally, because this is Vietnam, there were hundreds of small places where pilgrims (and we were pilgrims too) can have meals. While I was busy photographing a musical troupe, my two companions ordered lunch of chicken.

The troupe was performing a pseudo Hầu Đồng in an open air setting, not in a temple and without the spirituality associated with such ceremonies. The male performer was merely acting as a medium would in a ceremony, including changing into various costumes to the tunes of a Chầu Văn band. It was stunning to see how much money pilgrims gave the performer who just kept smiling and dancing. I don't know if there was any significance to this spectacle other than to relieve the pilgrims of their hard earned cash.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
With Tây Thiên being the birthplace of Vietnamese Buddhism, it reminds me of an encounter I had the day following our trip.  Naturally, I knew that there were Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns, I didn't realize that some take to the streets of the capital to collect alms. I came across two of them in Hà Nội's Old Quarter, walking in small alleys and stopping at each shop or tiny restaurants...standing there for a few moments until someone gave them a few notes, or not.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved



Friday, 26 February 2016

Hà Nội Report | The Đồng Thầy

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
It was a packed temple today... and as I arrived somewhat later than I expected, the choice spots were taken by audience members who refused to budge to accommodate a foreign photographer....and understandably so because the officiating medium was Hung Hoan Tien, a đồng thầy, a master-teacher in his craft with a long list of followers and students.

With patience and some gentle insistence, I managed to insert myself in a place with a reasonably unobstructed view of Mr Hung, and able to photograph the ceremony despite the video strobes and the dangling lamps.

Mr. Hung eventually singled me out for a special "blessed" gift of a currency note rolled around a lit cigarette, and it was then the audience realized I was not a stray tourist who accidentally passed by the temple but a genuine Hầu Đồng cognoscenti, deserving of nods of appreciation and acknowledgement. 

It was my first visit to this temple on the other side of the Red River. It's a famous and well known temple, and the narrow alleys which lead to it are lined with small eateries and religious trinkets.

I am planning a lengthy interview session with Mr. Hung in the coming week, and will include it along with others in my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Hà Nội Report | Hầu Đồng'ed To Max

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Yesterday has been a long day in the saga of building more inventory for my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam.

A morning Hầu Đồng ceremony officiated by Nguyễn Sien at her private temple took roughly four hours, then it was off by motorbike to catch a larger ceremony officiated by Phương Hin in the Gia Lam district.

Whilst the fundamentals of these ceremonies are the same, the individual personalities of each medium is reflected in the tenor of the incarnations. Some mediums are more extroverted than others, have more charisma and know how to play the already receptive audience.

During Nguyễn Sien's ceremony, the amplifier used by the chầu văn musicians malfunctioned, and they had to perform without the benefit of electronic amplification. To my ears, this was infinitely better as it did not sound "heavy metal", and was more in keeping with what must have been the sound of this devotional music years ago before the advent of electronics.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Although there were no trances as such during the morning ceremony, I noticed a member of the audience who seemed completely overtaken by Sien's "performance", and by the devotional songs that accompanied the incarnations. Completely oblivious to her surroundings, she started to slowly but surely drift into a pseudo 'trance', mirroring with her fingers the movements of the medium, and keeping time with the music. She then awoke from her dreamy condition, smiled and returned to her full consciousness. She was also amongst the audience at the larger ceremony later in the afternoon, so must be a hard-core devotee of Hầu Đồng.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The afternoon Hầu Đồng ceremony was held at one of the largest temples in Hà Nội, and was attended by about 30-40 people. It is my understanding that Ms Phương Hin is connected by marriage or by friendship to chầu văn musicians, so they joined the ceremony in force. Ms Hin has been involved in Mother Goddess ceremonies for a number of years, and is also a frequent assistant to other mediums.

The talent of the mediums who officiate these ceremonies lies primarily on their femininity  (if incarnating female spirits) and machismo (when it's male spirits). That said, their incantations and exhortations to audiences are key to their credibility as mediums. I recorded a few moments of Nguyễn Sien's incantations, and although it is a raw recording, the strength of her conviction is quite evident.