Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Passion For Travel Photography | Shanghai

Well, my Shanghai Photo Talk is prepared and ready to go. It will include 137 photo slides, which will be accompanied by 25 pages of talking points and explanations. I timed the photo talk to take about 98 minutes excluding the live translation.

Hence my absence from updating my blog for over a week. I suspect I will be unable to connect to the blog when I'm in Shanghai from March 26 to April 10.

It will be held on March 31, a few days after my arrival in Shanghai.

It is to be hosted by the Imaging Group's IG Photography Art Gallery, a large building that includes IG Studio and the Shanghai Museum of Antique Cameras, founded by Mr Chen Haiwen; a master photographer as well as a the recipient of the highest photography award in China twice in a row and Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Photography Association.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Rickshaw Wallah's Bell | Canon 5D Mark II

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
This Beyond The Frame backstory is about a bell. Not about any bell, but about the type of bell that is a constant fixture for rickshaw wallahs in Kolkata. What a horn is to a motorized vehicle driver, the bell is to the rickshaw.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves...first, what do we know about the rickshaw?

The rickshaw is thought to first have appeared in India, not in Kolkata but in the hill town of Shimla in 1880. However, it was made of iron not of wood as those that had appeared in Japan. It is said that it was an American who landed in Yokohama who introduced the rickshaw to the Japanese in 1869 to accommodate his wife who had difficulty walking.

The rickshaw eventually made its way south and west to Korea, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong through southeast Asia and into the Indian subcontinent, down to Sri Lanka, then found its way into Africa.

The image of men (some of them emaciated) pulling wooden rickshaws in the streets of Kolkata frequently causes knee-jerk proposals from its city government authorities to ban them, but 
the realization that the rains during monsoon seasons flood the streets Kolkata are flooded making them impassable by car makes it impossible for such a ban to pass. It is the only reason why the hand pulled rickshaw survives in Kolkata.

Now for my story. 

In October 2011, I had organized a photo-expedition-workshop during Kolkata's Durga Puja and naturally the rickshaw wallahs was one of the side stories that I proposed ought to be worked on.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
So I, as the other workshop participants did, walked the streets surrounding Sudder Street to document the pullers of these venerable vehicles. While photographing many of them at work or at rest, I came to like the tinkling of their hand bells which they shook to warn pedestrians to move out of the way, or to alert customers who were looking for rides.

While photographing a group of rickshaw pullers not far from my hotel, I asked a few who had them if I could buy one off them or where I could buy one. Getting vigorous head wags and vague hand gestures, I gave up, resumed my shooting and eventually walked back to the charming Lytton Hotel where I was staying.

Three hours later, I get a call from the Lytton Hotel's reception telling me that a rickshaw puller was outside, and had a bell for me. How did he know where I was staying is beyond comprehension...and how did the reception know that I wanted one? I call it the Kolkata "telegram"...or in more modern terms, the Kolkata SMS.

The rickshaw wallah was generously recompensed for the bell and his ingenuity, and I still have the bell in my home which I should use it to tell out-of-towners to make way on the narrow sidewalks of NYC's West Village.

For a full screen gallery of Kolkata's rickshaw pullers, drop by my color photographs at Rickshaw Wallahs.

And here's a monochrome slideshow on the rickshaw wallahs with the sound of the famous bell and street sounds recorded live in Kolkata.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Black H'mong With Birdcage | 5D Mark II

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The H'mong, estimated at about 1 million people, constitute one of the largest ethnic group in Vietnam and one of its tribal group, known as the Black Hmong, are reputed for their handicraft and indigo blue clothes made of hemp. The women wear long blouses over short trousers, and wrap long scarves around their legs. They wrap their long hair around their head covered by a turban.

The H'mong came to Vietnam from South China some 300 years ago, during the Ming and Qing dynasties.  The majority live in northern Vietnam's Lao Cai province. Their spoken language belongs to the H’mong–Dao language family, and although their writing was Romanized in 1961, it is not widely used.

The back story on the top photograph: I was walking in a Black H'mong village (I don't recall  its name, but it was at a short drive from Sapa), and chanced upon a woman sweeping her porch. She was used to tourists, and didn't seem perturbed when I asked to take photographs of her. 

At one point, she unhooked a birdcage to clean it and started whistling to get the bird's attention. Naturally, the bird was more alarmed by my clicking camera shutter, and started to furiously chirp at me...it was at that moment* that I captured the woman's incredulous expression at the bird's "lack of manners". 

You'll note the circular discoloration on her forehead. This is the result of medicinal cupping. According to traditional Asian medicine, cupping creates a vacuum on the skin to improve qi (life energy) flow...in this case, the woman probably suffered from headaches.

* I will be using this photograph -among others- to illustrate "The Moment" in photography during my forthcoming photo talk on The Passion For Travel Photography in Shanghai.

© Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
At another village, I met a H'mong mother and her young daughter who gladly posed for photographs in front of their home. If they can afford it, H'mong women wear silver jewelry in the form of heavy necklaces and earrings.

The woman seems to be well-off (note the two gold teeth), and is wearing lock shaped pendants on her necklace. These ‘soul lock pendants' are presented during ‘curing ceremonies' to lock the restless soul to the body until the appropriate time to die arrives.

She also bears pinching abrasions on her neck. Pinching the skin is also an ancient Asian treatment to increase blood flow, and by extension to increase life energy.

For more of my photography on the tribes of North West Vietnam, don't miss my Hill Tribes In The Mist gallery of monochrome photographs.

The technical details for the top photograph are: Canon 5D MKII+ 17-40mm. 1/25th sec Hand Held. f6.0. iso400. Pattern Metering. Date: 2012-09-21 at 09:56:39 (Hanoi time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Canon 5DMKII +17-40mm. 1/400th sec Hand Held. f6.0. iso 400. Pattern Metering. Date: 2012-09-21 at 11:36:39 (Hanoi time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Ca Trù Singer | Fuji X-T1

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Ca Trù (pronounced “ka tchoo”) is a complex form of sung poetry found in the north of Viet Nam using lyrics written in traditional Vietnamese poetic forms. It flourished in the 15th century when it was popular with the royal palace, and was a favorite activity of aristocrats and scholars. It was later performed in communal houses, inns and private homes. In 2009 Ca trù singing was inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage “Urgent Safeguarding List.”

Its performances involve at least three people: a female singer (đào nương) who both sings and plays the clappers (known as the phách), an instrumentalist (kép) who plays the đàn đáy (three-stringed lute), and a “praise drummer“ known as quan viên who beats the trống chầu.

Historically, when spectators (usually male) entered a Ca Trù performance, they purchased bamboo tally cards. In Chinese, Trù means card, while Ca means song in Vietnamese, and thus Ca Trù means tally card songs. The tallies were given to the singers in appreciation for their performance. After the performance, each singer received payment in proportion to the number of cards received.

This ancient art was frowned upon during the Ho Chi Minh era and beyond, but was reinstated as a national treasure since then. In fact, as a result of the UNESCO inscription, some Hanoi venues have booked Ca Trù performances (thought mostly for tourists) in the city’s historic quarter.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The venue for the three performances I attended were held at an ancient venue on 28 Hang Buom Street, whose atmospheric ambiance was just perfect for this art form. It was a sort of reenactment of what would be experienced in the 15th century, with the musicians and singers wearing silk salmon-pink ao dais and headbands. The performances usually last for 45 minutes.

I chose to use my brace of Fuji X-T1 cameras; one fitted with a 18mm and the other with the absolutely delightful 56mm. Since the venue was so dark, the lenses were wide open.

The singer-musician seen in my photographs is Ms. Đặng Thị Hường who plays the traditional Vietnamese three-stringed lute, amongst other instruments. She (wearing the dress and headband typical to the royal Vietnamese court) is also featured in my photo essay The Ca Tru Musician; the result of a photo shoot at Hanoi's Ngoc Son Temple.

The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji XT-1+ 56mm. 1/200th sec Hand Held. f2.0. iso 1600. Spot Metering. Date: 2014-04-02 at 20:16:00 (Hanoi time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Fuji XT-1+ 18mm. 1/350th sec Hand Held. f2.0. iso 1600. Spot Metering. Date: 2014-04-02 at 20:36:00 (Hanoi time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.

Here's a short clip of one of the songs I recorded during one of the performances.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Shinto Bride | Meiji Shrine | X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It's a real shame that the traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies in Japan have dropped in popularity in the recent years, and that these only represent 20% of all weddings in the country, dropping from 70%. The drop may have to do with Japan's modernization, but it may also have to do with the high costs to set up Shinto weddings.

These photographs of a Shinto wedding ceremony were made at the famous Meiji Shrine, located in Shibuya, Tokyo; the Shinto shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. There were a number of photographers surrounding the couple, including the wedding photographer who seemed resigned that 'poachers' were on his turf.

I don't remember what I did to earn the couple's unbridled laughter, but it might have been my atrocious Japanese pronunciation in wishing them well...or my elbowing my way through the cluster of people with mobile phones trying to take pictures. 

Shinto wedding rituals are comparatively recent, being based on the ceremony used for the wedding of Crown Prince Yoshihito and Princess Sado in 1900. The ceremonies predating this royal wedding varied a great deal.

The weddings are usually small-scale affair involving the couple, their families and close friends. The bride normally wears a white kimono with a white scarf to indicate purity.

The ceremonies begin with a ritual purification; followed by prayers that are offered for the couple to have good luck, happiness and the protection of the kami 
(spirits or phenomena that are worshipped in the Shinto religion). Then the couple drinks sake - taking three sips each from three cups poured by the miko (shrine maiden) - and the groom reads words of commitment.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Once the wedding is about to commence, the couple walks into the shrine, a process traditionally called sanshin. The processions into the Meiji shrine involve the couple to be wedded walking in line with the Shinto priests.

The above photograph was made as the couple, followed by their respective fathers, made their way to the shrine to complete their vows. Attendants were very strict in preventing people from approaching too closely, but I chose a good spot and waited for the couple's exit. 

While I have a number of such frames, my positioning and that "click moment" makes it it look as if the bride is on her own..but the grey bottom fringes of the groom's kimono are visible.

The Shinto weddings at the shrine are very staid and solemn with the bride and groom wearing serious expressions (except for the frivolous moment I captured), and the processions are -to my eyes- almost funerary-like. 

The Meiji Shrine (明治神宮 Meiji Jingū) is located in Shibuya, Tokyo, and is the shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.

For a gallery of my monochrome photographs: Tokyo Noir

The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji XT-1+ 16-55mm. 1/3600th sec Hand Held. f4.0. iso 400. Pattern Metering. Date: 2017-03-18 at 10:40:02 (Tokyo time). Post Processed Using Color Efex.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + 
16-55mm. 1/750 sec Hand Held. f4.0. iso 640. Pattern Metering. Date: 2017-03-18 at 11:29:00 (Tokyo time). Post Processed Using Color Efex.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Xiaoxiao Xu | Shehuo

Photo © Xiaoxiao Xu | All Rights Reserved
I am always on the lookout for ethnic cultural traditions that are off the radar for most of us, and with my forthcoming photo talk in Shanghai and working on a forthcoming photo book on Chinese Opera of the Diaspora, I am naturally focused on China and its wealth of obscure (and rural) rituals, performances and festivals.

One of these performances is Shehuo, which originated in ancient religious rituals performed by ancestors of the Chinese to worship the earth. In common with every other ancient people, they believed that the worship would bring plentiful harvests and fortunes in return. 

The etymology of the word comes from She, the god of land and Huo the god of fire.

In time, these primitive worshipping rituals evolved into the Shehuo festivity; a tribute to the Tudi Gong, a deity who holds sway over fortune and wealth. Most Shehuo performances take place around traditional Chinese festivals, especially at temple fairs of the Spring Festival and the Lantern Festival. The performances in most regions last until the 16th day of the first lunar month, the conclusion of which also signals the end of Spring Festival celebrations.

The Chinese-Dutch photographer Xiaoxiao Xu (徐晓晓) provides us with her vision of a rural Shehuo festivity using a square format camera (probably a Hasselblad) which was her 2014 project. Her work is more fine art than travel photography.

Xiaoxiao Xu is originally from Qingtian, China, and moved to The Netherlands in 1999 when a teenager. In 2009 she cum laude graduated from the Photo Academy of Amsterdam. After graduation, she won The Photo Award and held her first solo show in FotoMuseum Antwerpen. She was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass for several times and she participated in exhibitions all over the world. She has published a number of photo books to reconcile with her nostalgia for a now unfamiliar China.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | Khanqah of Shah Hamdan (Kashmir) | X-Pro1

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Amīr Khusrow Dehlavī (1253 – 1325was a Sufi musician, poet and scholar from the Indian subcontinent, who was quoted as saying of Kashmir: “If there is a heaven on earth, it's here, it's here. (“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin asto.”) It is also said that it was Emperor Jehangir who said these words...whoever said it (and my money is on Khusrow), Kashmir is indeed beautiful.

I'll set aside political views on the current (and recent) political events in Kashmir, and dwell on its beauty and spirituality....and its photographic magnetism.

Historians are united that Hazrat Bulbul Shah was the first saint who sowed the seeds of Islam in Kashmir in 1301, and he might have come from Samarkand or from Bukhara. It was he who convinced Rinchan, the then ruler of Kashmir to convert to Islam, and Sadruddin Shah (as he became known) was the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir. He ruled Kashmir from 1320 to 1323 and was instrumental in establishing Islam in Kashmir.

The above photograph was made from the interior of one of the oldest and most revered Sufi sites in Kashmir; the Khanqah of Shah Hamdan. It was built on the banks of the Jehlum river in Srinagar’s old city by Mir Mohammad Hamdani, the son of Shah Hamdan, who came to Kashmir in 13th century. 

The woman sitting forlornly near the window was an elderly widow, who had lost a son in the incessant conflict between Indian forces and Kashmiris youths. I eventually tried to speak with her, but she was unresponsive to my approaches. 

Another of my favorite photograph of Srinagar is the one of a mother giving her baby a drink of water. It was made within the interior of the most sacred shrines in Kashmir; the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib. I could not access that area as it's reserved for women, but I managed to get the photograph by raising my arms over the wooden screen called jalis.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
For more of my photographs of Kashmir, drop by Srinagar: Kashmir's Sufi Heart.

Kashmiri music has a lot of Turkish intonations, and here's a short clip I recorded of a local band that played on the houseboat we were at.

The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji X-Pro1+ 18mm. 1/65th sec Hand Held. f5.6. iso 800640. Pattern Metering. Date: 2013-05-07 at 18:11:00 (Srinagar time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Canon 5D MKII + 17-40mm. 1/30th sec Hand Held. f4.0. iso 2000. Pattern Metering. Date: 2013-05-08 at 14:40:00 (Srinagar time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Qi Bao Shuchang/Teahouse | Fuji X-Pro2

 A shuchang in Qi Bao. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Six months ago the words Qi Bao (totally distinct from qi pao, which is also known as cheongsam) and Shuchang would've been totally unfamiliar to me; yet during and after too short a trip to Shanghai this past September, they've become part of my vocabulary as I am planning my return to this exciting megalopolis at the end of next month.

Shuchang is a traditional teahouse where storytelling called "shuohua" is performed. Storytelling was one of the major forms of entertainment in the medieval cities of the Song period (906-1279), and contained both spoken and sung performances, and many of the themes told are still part of today's storytellers' repertoire. 

It's in the old water-town of Qi Bao (七寶鎮) that I walked in such a teahouse, and experienced a shuoshu storyteller performing his art of talking, joking, singing and acting; all accompanied by his three-stringed lute (pipa or sanxian). Most of the audience were elderly men who had paid around 2 yuan ($0.30) for a tea-pot and a place to snooze for as long as they want. 

Teahouse patio. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The teahouse was much larger than I initially thought, as it had three connected spaces: the first room opened to the street with chairs and tables, a patio (where the above photograph was made) and the actual 'theater' with long benches, and half a dozen tables along its corners.

There were a handful of men playing cards or sleeping in the 'theater' room at first, however when the storyteller arrives, the benches quickly fill up with spectators. The asleep woke up to nod off elsewhere, but the card players continued their game ignoring the commotion.

The young storyteller was dressed in a long, salmon-colored chang paozi, the traditional male gown favored by storytellers. I figured that the almost daily performance lasts about 2 hours; from 2 to 4 in the afternoon and perhaps later in the evening.

I gathered that the audience must've heard these stories countless of times, and yet they frequently return...perhaps partly for the cheap tea, entertainment, the companionship and nostalgia for times past. With an entrance fee that low, there's absolutely no way that this teahouse is commercially viable... so it must have the support of the Qi Bao municipality or similar; perhaps on account that Chinese storytelling is also considered as an intangible cultural heritage, and receives subsidies.

The moment I stepped in the teahouse, I imagined it would a perfect spot to set up a sequel to The Girl of Nanjing thematic fashion-travel photo shoot, with a model dressed in a red qi pao languidly posing amongst the benches and tables of the teahouse. I'm confident the seniors at the card tables will lose their concentration rather quickly when that happens.

Whether the shoot happens there or not when I'm in Shanghai, I'm bound to revisit the old teahouse on Nanda Street in Old Qi Bao.

Unfortunately, I didn't have my audio recorder with me that day, nor did I have the presence of mind to use my iPhone to record the storyteller's performance. However, I did find an audio clip of another performance in a similar teahouse with a female storyteller.

The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + 16-55mm. 1/25th sec Hand Held. f2.8. iso 640. Pattern Metering. Date: 2017-09-05 at 14:11:00 (Shanghai time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + 16-55mm. 1/800th sec Hand Held. f2.8. iso 800. Average Metering. Date: 2017-09-05 at 13:30:00 (Shanghai time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex.

For more photographs at this teahouse, drop by my Shanghai: Incongruities in Monochrome gallery.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Getai Singer | Fuji GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The Beyond The Frame posts on The Travel Photographer blog are currently its most popular feature, and I'm glad to have recently restarted it after a long (and inexplicable) hiatus.

However, I intend its posts to not only be photographically 
informative, but also to include snippets of culture that may not be widely known, and which I frequently either intentionally seek or stumble upon on my photo journeys.

While wandering at the back of the stage of a Hokkien (Chinese) opera troupe in Klang (near Kuala Lumpur) taking photographs of the performers applying their intricate makeup and putting on their costumes, I noticed a young woman in an unusually constructed dress, nervously pacing to and fro, rehearsing her lines which she read off a scrap of paper. She wasn't part of the troupe, so I engaged her in a conversation to find out how she fitted in the upcoming show.

She informed me that she was the 'warm-up' show for the Chinese opera that would follow in an hour...and when it was her turn to come on stage, it was indeed quite an act.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved (Fuji X-Pro2)

She was a getai singer; singers whose live stage performances are usually boisterous, maximally amplified by enormous loudspeakers at each side of the outdoor stages, and could occasionally be off-key (at least, this one was). 

The getai shows emerged in Singapore during the years of Japanese occupation in the 1940s, and have long been popular concerts during Chinese festivals (such as the Hungry Ghosts and the Nine Emperor Gods festivals) since they are believed to appease ghosts, but also provide lively entertainment attracting younger audiences to the traditional and staid Chinese opera performances.

I watched this getai singer's half-hour show from the sides of the stage, and very briefly in front of the stage. Her performance was "Britney Spears meets Madonna" (in Chinese), but she managed to liven up (electrify would be too strong a word) an audience of middle-aged and elderly spectators who were there for the Chinese opera that would follow.

For readers who are brave enough to listen to a short live recording of her act, here's the clip. I could make out some words in English such as "what's goin' on"...

The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji GFX50s + 63mm. 1/580th sec Hand Held. f2.8. iso 800. Spot Metering. Date: 2017-10-27 at 21:11:00 (Kuala Lumpur time). SOOC.

For my galleries of the Chinese Opera back stages and shows in Kuala Lumpur, here's Backstage and Yan Yang Tian Troupe.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Passion For Travel Photography | Shanghai Talk

I've been hard at work for a number of days, pulling images from my voluminous archives; choosing some; rejecting others; changing my mind and reversing my choices...in what is a circular -and one could say almost agonizing- activity which will only subside when I'm completely comfortable with my choices.

The objective is to present no less than 100 of my photographs to an audience of passionate photographers in Shanghai, who are to attend my photo talk at one of the premier photographic venues in this jaw-dropping megalopolis.

Through these photographs, the photo talk will take the audience on a journey that starts in 2000-2001 and continues to the present day, interspersed with my thoughts on travel (and other styles) photography, as well as storytelling; thoughts that some may found controversial, provocative and debatable...such as this one:

My photo talk in Shanghai is to be hosted by the Imaging Group's IG Photography Art Gallery, a large building that includes IG Studio and the Shanghai Museum of Antique Cameras, founded by Mr Chen Haiwen; a master photographer as well as a the recipient of the highest photography award in China twice in a row and Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Photography Association. 

I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to share my "travel photography meets photojournalism" style of photography with Chinese photographers. My attendance of Shanghai PhotoFairs (at Mr Chen's invitation) in September 2017 was an incredible eye-opener, and I was mulling my involvement in Shanghai's photography scene in some fashion ever since.

To be continued at some later stage.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | Vietnamese Mourner | Canon 5D Mark II

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I was rummaging through my archives to pull photographs suitable for my forthcoming photo talk in Shanghai, and picked this one of a Vietnamese mourner at a roadside funeral.

I thought it was be appropriate to feature in this Beyond The Frame post since it will soon be Tết (or Tết Nguyên Đán as the Vietnamese Lunar New Year is called) during which families visit their ancestors’ tombs and clean grave sites. 

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese also have an identical tradition known as Qingming or Ching Ming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day) which is regularly observed as a statutory public holiday in China. In fact, the timing of my photo talk in Shanghai was brought forward to avoid the festival as many people would be traveling to cemeteries at that time. 

This photograph was made at a roadside funeral while I (and other photographers on my Vietnam: North of the 16th Parallel Photo Expedition/Workshopwas returning from Halong Bay on our way to Hanoi. Cooped in a boat cabin for more hours than I cared for during the Halong cruise, I was itching to go photograph on dry land, and when I noticed the funeral tent, crowd and sound system half way into our journey, I just had our vehicle stop to let my friend Maika Elan and I solicit permission to photograph the rites.

Permission from the head of the family was readily granted, and I lit an incense stick to my respects to the memory of the deceased. The deceased was born in 1925, and his name was Cu Pham Van Bao.

I was invited to drink green tea, and sat amongst the head table along with our host. The funeral rite is called le dua tang, and many of the mourning relatives wore coarse veils of gauze.

The mourning dress is made of a very low-grade white gauze and is very loosely-fit on the person wearing it. The women mourners wear a sort of peaked gauze head dress wrapped around the head held with straw crowns. Some of the mourners use bamboo sticks for support as if they had difficulty walking.The carelessness of dress and the hesitant walk are to show how overwrought the mourners are. 

The atmosphere was very subdued. There were expressions of sorrow, but no wailing or any such outward manifestations. There were wreaths with pictures of the deceased outside the erected tent while inside in a room, was a group of women relatives praying.

The technical details are: Canon 5D Mark II + 17-40mm. 1/25th sec Hand Held. f4.0. iso 160. Pattern Metering. Date: 2012-09-23 at 14:14:00 (Hanoi time). Post Processing using Color Efex Pro.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Nick McGrath | Chinese Opera Bangkok

Photo © Nick McGrath | All Rights Reserved
As followers of this blog may know, I've been deeply interested in Chinese Opera for a while, and I'm in the midst of a long term work-in-progress project to publish a photo book on the Chinese Opera in the Diaspora.

So it was with great pleasure and interest that I discovered the work of photographer Nick McGrath in his lovely gallery Chinese Opera Bangkok, and from which I chose the above image of a performer's compelling portrait to accompany this post.

Bangkok’s Chinese opera has long been a vibrant staple of Bangkok's Chinatown life. The Teochew Chinese, who immigrated to Thailand a couple of centuries ago, brought it with them as part of their cultural traditions, and to this day, during the Chinese festivals, there are regular performances at venues along Yaowarat Road.

In common with others regions that have received the influx of a Chinese diaspora, the art form is in decline. Partly caused by a younger generation who are interested in other more modern entertainments, Chinese opera has been relegated to that of a sideshow, now found in Bangkok's back streets and alleyways only during Chinese holidays and festivals, with its performances enjoyed by dwindling and elderly audiences.

Nowadays, the future of Chinese opera in the diaspora seems dismal if not for the valiant efforts of dedicated and passionate artists, individuals and organizations which are trying to keep this venerable art form alive.

Nick McGrath is a editorial and documentary photographer (as well as a videographer) based in Bangkok. He graduated from the Photography Studies College in Melbourne and was awarded the JR Haynes Award for High Achievement in the Advance Diploma of Photography major in Photojournalism. His work focuses on Southeast Asia's culture and sub-cultures, looking specifically at how people live within these contexts.

Here's more of his video work on Bangkok's Chinese Opera.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Robot Restaurant Show Girl | Fuji X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
This Beyond The Frame post features one of the many images I made at the Robot Restaurant, located in Tokyo's Shinjuku nightlife district, and described by many as one of the wildest shows on Earth....which is quite true.

Anthony Bourdain got the shock of his life here, and it has since become a magnet for foreign visitors (and locals) seeking to experience the same "buzz' he had.

The Robot Restaurant is located not far from the Shinjuku Station, and is in the area best described as the underbelly of Tokyo's nightlife...which includes all sorts of seedy venues and other activities best left to the imagination.

The 90-minute cabaret style shows include bikini clad futuristic dancers, performers dressed as robots and a host of oversized vehicular robots -- all in a laser-lit room. The dancers et al are highly trained and rehearse around the clock to perfect the complicated routines involving dancing to drumming, pole dancing and robot riding. 

There's no logical storytelling in the epic battles between enemy robot armies, with effects ranging from strident pop music blasts and lasers strobes...but it's a psychedelic experience that is a mind boggling profusion of colors and sound.  

The venue is extremely popular, even if it has 'mellowed' through the years, and the female dancers are not as scantily dressed as they used to be. The show is certainly bizarre in a Japanese way, but is immensely enjoyable.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | SOOC JPG.
Unaware that photography using "large" cameras was prohibited, I used my Fuji X-Pro2 all through the show's duration and no one asked me not to use it. The dancers were within arm's length from most spectators, and posed (for barely a second) whenever I pointed the camera at them. Its rangefinder size and the 18mm pancake lens must've given the impression that it was a point & shoot rather than a 24mp camera, so it passed muster.

Naturally, my success rate in having decent images was low...due to the light issues and the rapid movements of the dancers and the robotic contraptions, but choosing a wide aperture, a high iso and a high shutter speed produced more than enough to feel pleased of myself and in the capabilities of the X-Pro2.

For more of my images of the Robot Restaurant, drop by The Greatest Show  gallery on my Exposure site.

Technical details on the top photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + Fujinon18mm. 1/2700 Hand Held. f2.0. iso 2500. Spot Metering. Date: 2017-03-24 at 16:44:00 (Tokyo time). Post Processing using Color Efex Pro.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Cira Crowell | Koyasan

Photo © Cira Crowell - All Rights Reserved
Koyasan is one of the most important Buddhist temple complexes in Japan. This monastic complex of 117 temples is dedicated to the study and practice of esoteric Buddhism. It's the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Chinese-influenced Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, one of Japan's most significant religious figures.

It is one of the best places to experience an overnight stay at a temple lodging pilgrims and visitors can experience a monk's lifestyle, eating vegetarian monk's cuisine and attending the morning prayers. Around fifty temples offer this service to both pilgrims and visitors.

The history of Kobo Daishi is interesting. In 816, after years of study in China, it is said he climbed the holy mountain of Mount Koya and created the first temple of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism among its eight peaks, said to resemble a lotus. He was regarded as a saint by the time he fell ill at the age of 62, when his followers believe he passed into a state of eternal meditation rather than death. Along with his body, the spirit of Kobo-Daishi, as he became known, is believed to reside at the end of a forest path in Koyasan.

Cira Crowell's Koya-San Procession is a monochromatic gallery of the monks and their rituals at this revered site. 

Her website's biography tells us that she is a third generation Leica photographer whose work includes fine art, adventure landscape, cultural studies, portraits and humanitarian documentary themes. She's a black and white photographer who started her career twenty-five years ago with her grandfather’s Leicaflex SL2 film camera and she still uses many of the same forty-year-old lenses on her Leica SL.

Don't miss her lovely work on her galleries of Nepal's Kumbu, Kathmandu, Kalachakra, Ladakh and Bhutan.

As a footnote: The New York Times has an article on the Koyasan experience.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Đàn Nhị Player | Fuji X-T1

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I thought I'd feature an audio file as well as an image for this post of Beyond The Frame; both which were produced during my The People of Tay Bac Photo Expedition-Workshop in September 2014; a trip which planted the seed for my two years book project Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam (now on Amazon).

Thổ Hà village is about 40 kilometers from Hanoi, and is reachable across the narrow Cau River which we crossed on a rusty ferry. The village is known for making rice paper and banh da (rice crackers); its two main exports since 1990.

We passed a a row of old houses, and met Việt in one of the courtyards. He welcomed us into his house, offering us rice wine in small goblets. Seeing a collection of traditional instruments on his living room's walls, I asked if he played them...and he said yes. Being encouraged to play, he grabbed one of the stringed instruments and started singing a number of traditional Vietnamese songs, and entertained us for over an hour.

His favorite instrument was the đàn nhị Vietnamese, also called đàn cò; a Vietnamese bowed string instrument with two strings. The word nhị means "two" in Vietnamese. Việt was a civil servant (and possibly served in the army when younger) and had recently retired on a pension. He intended to teach his young son to play a musical instrument.

Technical Details: Fuji X-T1+ 18-135mm. 1/20 Hand Held. f4.0. iso 1600. Aperture Priority. 10:30 AM (Vietnam Time). Post Processing with Color Efex Pro.

I'm not sure why I used the Fujinon 18-135mm lens in this instance...it's my least favorite lens, I had just bought it before the trip to use for a specific photo shoot in Hoi An and it was ill-suited for this indoor low-light ambiance. I had the X-Pro1 and the 18mm f2.0 lens, so I'm puzzled as to the reason.

I recorded Việt songs on a Tascam DR-40 4-Track Mobile Digital Recorder.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Alfred Weidinger | The Last African Kings

Photo © Alfred Weidinger | All Rights Reserved
"The most important thing is to find one king -- when I have one, he will guide me to the others."Alfred Weidinger
With a couple of exceptions, African kings are traditional rulers who often derive their titles from the rulers of independent states or communities that existed before the formation of modern African states. Although they do not have formal political power, in many cases they continue to command respect from their people and have considerable influence.  There are only three African countries with constitutional monarchies – Morocco, Swaziland and Lesotho -- but there are several hundred traditional monarchs dispersed across Africa in urban, semi-urban and rural communities in independent countries.

It is estimated that there are about 70 such African monarchs as well as some 500 tribal leaders, whose dynasties and fiefdoms marked the history of Africa until the middle of the twentieth century. 

Austria-based art historian and photographer Alfred Weidinger spent over 5 years searching for the surviving monarchs of Africa's grandest kingdoms and for tribal leaders and important clan chiefs. Traveling from Nigeria to Ghana, Zambia to Cameroon, and from the Ivory Coast to the Democratic Republic of Congo, he photographed these rulers and leaders who are still committed to their old traditions, and are revered and respected by their people.

The biggest threat to Africa's last remaining monarchs isn't local governments, but modernity. The threat of globalization has disturbed the influence and social standing of many of his subjects.

The Last African Kings is a voluminous gallery of -mostly- monochromatic portraits of these rulers which were made over repeated trips to Ghana, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Mali, Sierra Leone, Niger, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.

Alfred Weidinger is an Austrian art historian, museum manager and photographer. He currently is the director of the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig. Since 1980, he has been touring Africa as a freelance documentary photographer and recording portraits. He photographs both digitally and with film, preferring black and white. From 1985 to 1998 Weidinger studied art history and classical archeology at the University of Salzburg. He wrote his diploma thesis in 1992 on the landscape paintings of Gustav Klimt, his dissertation in 1998 on the early work of the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Beyond The Frame | Vietnam's Bac Ha | Leica M9

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
One of my favorite photographs was made in the market town of Bac Ha of northern Vietnam, known as Tây Bắc (literally "Northwest"). It consists of six provinces, which include the province of Lào Cai.

Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, giving it the richest and most complex ethnic makeup of Southeast Asia. The majority of the ethnic minorities live in the hilly regions of the Northwest. The region is home to the Hmong, Zao, Nung, San Chay, Cao Lan, Giay, and Lolo, as well as the Tay, and Muong.

The photograph was made at the Sunday market in Bac Ha, which hosts around 10 of these ethnic tribes who come to sell or barter their produce and products. Bac Ha itself is a sleepy town that comes alive during the weekend, and when the bartering, buying and selling is done and the tourist buses from Sapa have left, it goes back to bed for the rest of the week.

In common with markets all over the world, "pop-up" eateries spring to life on Sundays to feed the hordes of vendors and visitors who descend on Bac Ha for the day or even for a few hours. 

Aside from photographing the colorful Flower Hmong women who were busy selling their handicrafts, eating ice cream and haggling over bolts of cloths, I chanced upon a group of Black Hmong men eating in silence under a tarp at one of the rickety folding tables. I stood there motionless for a few minutes, and none of them as much as looked up at me from their bowls of pho. I realized that their conical hats (non la) were obscuring their peripheral vision, so they could not see me.

I took the opportunity to hover over one of the men, and snapped a couple of quick shots. They heard the shutter, looked at me for a few seconds....then returned to their bowls of soup. 

I guess they were used to tourists, and were unconcerned about another one taking their picture. Two years later when I returned to Bac Ha, I saw first-hand how the continuing influx of tourists negatively impacted this sleepy little town. 

Even though there are no faces in the photograph, it's unmistakably 'Vietnam'...the conical hat, the bowl of soup, the chopsticks all point to Vietnam.

For my audio slideshow of the Tây Bắc region which includes ambient audio recorded at the Bac Ha market, visit Hill Tribes In The Mist.

Technical details are: LEICA M9 + 28mm. 1/25 Hand Held. f2.8. iso 200. Pattern Metering. Date: 2012-09-22 at 11:49:00 (Vietnam time). Post Processing using Color Efex Pro.