Monday, 30 November 2015

Anthony Pond | Entranced

Photo © Anthony Pond-All Rights Reserved
It is said that in Varanasi one has to watch out for four things: young and beautiful widows, cows (and their patties), holy men (ie sadhus) and irregular steps of the ghats.

However, I would add another important consideration to these four. While Varanasi is the quintessential Hindu city, it also has a sizable Muslim community of almost a third of its approximately one and a half million inhabitants. There has been Muslims in Varanasi for hundreds of years, and they have built their own societies where they live and work with respect for their own rituals and religion.

During my 2014 The Sacred Cities Photo-Expedition-Workshop to Varanasi and Vrindavan, I made it an obligatory stop to schedule a photo shoot at the shrine of the Sufi saint Bahadur Shahid in the outskirts of the city. Its atmosphere was electric with a large number of women in deep trances and imploring the dead saint for favors.

Anthony Pond participated in the photo expedition, and has just produced Entranced; a monochromatic multimedia piece that very accurately depicts what the atmosphere was like whilst we were there. The shrine welcomes Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who mingle and seek blessings from this Muslim saint, and because of the prevailing religious intensity, some of them go into intense trances.

The trances you will witness in this multimedia piece are caused by the religious fervor of the women involved, who react in the ethereal "presence" of a saint...a syndrome colloquially called hajri. Being in a trance signified the entrance of the deceased saint in the body of the entranced person, to rid it from ailments, from jinns and other undesirable symptoms.

In my own secular (but non medical) view, these “hajri” manifestations such as auditory hallucinations, the paranoid or bizarre delusions,  may well be schizophrenia.

Anthony worked for more than two decades in the criminal courts in California as an attorney for the Public Defender’s Office. Now pursuing his passion for travel and photography, he travels repeatedly to South East Asia and India, amongst other places, to capture life, the people and the culture.

Friday, 27 November 2015

POV: The ‘Russian Nesting Dolls’ Syndrome

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Caused by a number of reasons, it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted on my blog. Traveling to Hanoi to expand on my research for my forthcoming photo book “Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam”, then to Cairo then to San Francisco for non-photography related reasons, has limited my available time and focus to do so.

Since I started my involvement in this personal project, I’ve experienced a resurgence of excitement, not only for photography, but also a spike in my intellectual interest in syncretic religious traditions, occult cultural customs and practices, Asian history and languages, to mention just a few.

My photographic expeditions-workshops were characterized with constantly having a definite documentary objective to them. Whether the objectives were Sufi festivals, obscure Hindu religious events such the gathering of the Vellichappadu and Theyyam, or the Cao Dai tradition in central Vietnam, I always had an intellectual, and not only a photographic, interest in such esoteric activities, and those who joined my trips seemed to have shared that. However, being practically unable to spend but just a few days at such events meant that significant ‘coverage’ was impossible, and this frustrated me. Spending weeks in a single location or on one single religious event was impractical with a half dozen or more other photographers in tow.

Literally stumbling on the Vietnamese religious tradition of Đạo Mẫu, and its ceremonial tangential manifestations such as Hầu Đồng and Hát Chầu Văn in late 2014 literally supercharged, and reinvigorated, my enthusiasm for documentary photography, audio recording, storytelling and multimedia production.

I’ve already amassed a substantial inventory of photographs and interviews relating to Hầu Đồng ceremonies and the mediums who are involved in the practice, but similar to matryoshka dolls (aka Russian nesting dolls), every ceremony or interview I attend or conduct reveals another interesting opportunity. Moreover, the more I read and research about Đạo Mẫu, the more I discover other influences that intrigue me, and that I want to explore and incorporate in my continuously evolving personal project. I now have the serious fear of not knowing when to call it quits.

The British idiomatic expression “how long is a piece of string?” in response to a question of how long will a project take is apt in my case. It’s in my hands when I deem it to be complete, but with the continuous emergence of connected traditions, I’ll have a difficult time to say enough is enough.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sreeranj Sreedhar | Ashtami Rohini

Photo © Sreeranj Sreedhar- All Rights Reserved
I was under the totally ridiculous impression that I had photographed most of the important religious festivals in India until I recently saw photographs of Ashtami Rohini, an annual celebration of the birth of the Hindu deity Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu.

The festival is celebrated in August–September, and includes dramatic enactments of the life of Krishna, and is observed all over India, but especially observed in Mathura and Vrindavan; which Indiaphiles know as the epicenters for the famous Indian festival of Holi. 

On this day, women fast and keep vigil in Krishna's temple till night. When the pujas are over, they are allowed to share the edible offerings left by the devotees for Krishna. The temples are illuminated with countless of oil lamps, and worship goes on almost till the early hours of the morning.

Sreeranj Sreedhar photographed Ashtami Rohini in Kerala, and his photographs provide a wonderful insight into the festival, and the enactments of Krishna's life. The make-up sessions, the painting of the feet and palms, as well as the magnificent costumes are all documented in his gallery.

In his Photo Stories, Sreeranj also photographed the Holi festival in Nandgaon, and in Barsana. These photographs remind me of my own 2014 Holi photo expedition, especially those of the young Holi reverlers holding water pumps filled with color water to spray the passerby.

Sreeranj Sreedhar is a travel, documentary and culture photographer who's creently based in Dubai, but is from the Indian state of Kerala. He started his photography in 2011.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

POV: Hotel Photography | A Challenge

I had the pleasure to have been asked to photograph the Golden Silk Boutique Hotel whilst on my personal assignment in Hanoi, and I can vouch that hotel photography (or whatever this style of photography is called) is no walk in the seems easy but it's certainly not.

Having  the DNA of a travel-documentary photographer meant that I felt more comfortable having people in most of my photographs. I recalled a ad campaign by Annie Leibovitz for The Peninsula Hotel (Hong Kong and New York City) some years ago, in which she produced monochrome photographs of the hotel's staff, and it was hailed as a huge success in the hospitality industry. That was to be my inspiration.

I doubt if Leibovitz's ad campaign used models for its photographs, but I certainly didn't have to. The Golden Silk Boutique Hotel has a number of photogenic staff members, and they were chuffed at being photographed for the occasion. I wanted to photograph the staff in action as it were, so I was in the dining room for breakfast at 6:00 am just in time to have a few moments with its staff before the influx of guests, and then later on in the bar, rooms and spa.

Hotel photography techniques are obviously similar to photographing interior spaces; wide angles, choice of perspectives, soft lighting, etc...but without the assistance of a room stylist, I had to really focus on the smallest of details. An errant electric cord, an imperfectly made bed corner, a slightly askew towel in the bathroom, bathroom amenities that are not perfectly aligned...even lightbulbs of different warmth...would be amplified in still photographs.

My strategy was to provide the hotel with both static photographs of its rooms, lobby and other facilities as well as some people photographs (such as this above). I don't know yet if the hotel's management will use the latter (in color or monochrome), but I hope it does since it would set it apart from the remaining comparable hotels in Vietnam.

There's no argument that the Golden Silk Boutique Hotel's location, accommodations, price structure, facilities are all important, however the primary reason for my making it my home in Hanoi for the five times I've been there, and intend to return to it during my forthcoming trips, is its staff.

As in most businesses, the human element is key, and I've found the hotel's people to be extremely helpful, friendly and welcoming. I know most of them by name, and chatting with them, I now know a little bit of their personal life, their families, their hobbies, etc. This makes a huge difference in the experience of staying in a hotel for two weeks at a time. When I return from a long day of non-stop shooting, I am always greeted by the hotel's receptionists with a genuine welcome back, curious to know how my day went...and through the internal grapevine, many of them know where I've been.

And that is my reasoning behind making -as much as I could- my hotel photo shoot about its staff. I and possibly many others do not return to the hotel just for the quality of its rooms, facilities, price structure or the fluffiness of its omelets (although that one has a huge impact), but because of its staff.

That's the truth.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

POV: What I'll Always Remember

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
As my readers know, I've been completely immersed in a personal project involving the Mother Goddess indigenous religion in Vietnam for almost a year now; making the long journey New York City to Hanoi three times so far, aiming to eventually produce a photo book. I envisage the photo book to include photographs (naturally) of the rituals, portraits of the mediums and fortune tellers involved in the practice of hầu đồng, as well as interviews with its practitioners.

I've attended over 20 hầu đồng ceremonies so far; featuring master mediums, intermediate mediums and neophytes. Most of them were female mediums, with a small proportion of the ceremonies conducted by males. Many were in the capital city of Hanoi and its suburbs, and some were far in the east and north of the country; Hai Phong, Lang Son and Kiep Bac to mention but a few.

The timings of these ceremonies are always based on the lunar calendar, and are not advertised. It's more of a word of mouth (aka mobile telephones) kind of thing amongst the community. Some are quite large and others are small. Some are held in large temple complexes, others in smaller out of the way temples and some held in tiny private temples or rooms with shrines in homes. To have access and be welcomed in these ceremonies wherever they are held, one must gain the confidence and trust of the community, and initially be accompanied by someone known to the mediums or the musicians.

The ceremonies are extremely complex, and involve sequential rituals that are accompanied by sacred liturgical music and songs. These ceremonies and rituals haven't changed in centuries, and neither has the music, although some modernization has creeped in by bringing in amplifiers...and to my untrained ears, a smidgen of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton riffs.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I researched and read as much as I could find online and in books about Đạo Mẫu, and its complexities are just staggering. However, I am at the point where I now understand a few of the rituals, some of significance of the various spirits of the Đạo Mẫu pantheon, and I even correctly interpreted the hand signals by a medium during a recent ceremony...hardly an "expert", but able to ask somewhat intelligent questions.

These ceremonies are religious events, but they are also part fashion show, part pantomime, part dance and re-enactments, and bottom line, are mind-blowing, fun and - for a variety of reasons - challenging, to photograph. 

However, I also look back to my 2015 three trips and realize that there's something infinitely more important to me than the photographs I made...and that's the human kindnesses I've been privileged to experience while at these ceremonies.

Here are just a few, out of the many, that will stay with me for a long time:

1. On a pre-dawn private bus trip to attend a ceremony in Lạng Sơn, not only was I given a choice seat but half way to our destination, the medium asked me if I needed anything. Unthinking, I replied that a coffee would have been nice. She immediately turned to a nearby friend, who smilingly gave me her half finished cup of Vietnamese coffee. I couldn't refuse.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
2. The hầu đồng ceremonies typically go on for 5-6 hours, and since I like to stand (most of that time) while I photograph, it's exhausting. In Lạng Sơn, I was also sweating quite heavily due to the humidity, tied a bandanna around my head and kept on shooting. At some point, I felt a waft of cool air on my face, and turning to see where it came from, I saw a woman in the audience (perhaps another friend of the medium) fanning me. Her kindness stunned me, and I didn't know how to react for a few seconds. I thanked her, telling her I was fine. What else could I do or say? She wanted me to be comfortable, but I couldn't let her go on fanning me. 

3. I was invited to attend a hầu đồng ceremony in Kiep Bac, about 2-1/2 hours drive east of Hanoi. A car, which I shared with other guests of the medium and her family, was provided and we drove off at precisely the time agreed upon. As I had to leave the ceremony before it ended late at night, the medium and her husband reassured me a car would drive me back whenever I wanted. When the time came, the medium's husband and his friends accompanied me to a small car, and told me that it was already paid for. Ignoring my entreaties that it was I who should pay, they bundled me in the car, and set me on my way. Its certainly not an insignificant fare, and adding to my discomfort, these are people of modest means.

4. The musicians, assistants and guests at the hầu đồng ceremonies are all fed before and after the ceremonies. The medium is usually fasting, and is meditating during these meals, which are literally feasts. I share these meals, even if I'm not hungry, because it's the right thing to do. And I realized that I was always being taken care of, asked if I had enough to eat or to drink, and offered whatever was available.

Photo © Trịnh Ngọc Minh-All Rights Reserved

5. During the ceremony in Kiep Bac, where it was also hot and humid, the medium's husband and her friends continuously made certain I had enough water to keep hydrated, and kept an eye on my camera bag. 

These are but a few of the many wonderful examples of the Vietnamese people's generosity and kindness that, as I said, affected me deeply because I know these gestures are genuinely selfless, and are given to me because of my interest in, and respect of, their culture, religion and ways of life.

The Last Qawwal By Kaushik Ghosh

I had the privilege of meeting Ustaad Meeraj a few years ago with my good friend and fellow photographer Dr. Kaushik Ghosh. Unfortunately, Ustaad Meeraj passed away some days ago with nary a mention in the Indian press.

However, Kaushik wrote this eloquent eulogy about this legend. I post it here without any change.

THE LAST QAWAAWL" is no more. The legendary Qawwal USTAAD MEERAJ AHMED NIJAMI, the senior most of Delhi Gharana passed away on 18 October 2015.

Being an artist and an Indian Citizen, I am extremely ashamed and shattered that not a single Indian media came up with this news till date, except an online publication "The Delhi Walla" .

Probably, beef and Chhota Rajan are selling well for them and of national importance. They may come up with headlines "10 things you must know about Chhota Rajan", but not a single line of this person!!! How easily we can ignore our own cultural root, yet becoming euphoric to listen Rahman's rendition of 'Kun Faya Kun'. Probably we are losing our capability to digest the original except the adulteration!!! I met Ustaad Meeraj couple of times.

The first time during my search to make a Multimedia Narrative (MMN) on Nizamuddin Basti (not the Shrine); later ended up to make a MMN on Ustaad Meeraj. It was an accidental meet at the shrine of Hazrat Inayat Khan. And then I spent couple of days with him in his residence. It was almost an endless discussion about life & music as a whole and it was too less time to spend to understand him, his music and his philosophy of life.

The next time, I met him with my mentor of photography, Mr. Tewfic El-Sawy. And at that time, I was touched about his greatness. There was a preparation going on in his family for a marriage ceremony and while talking over phone, one of his son absolutely refused us to meet Ustaad. We both reached at his place and approached him directly. Immediately after recognising me, he welcomed both of us and that's with full of warmth. And despite of having busy and chaotic situation in his one room flat at Basti Nizamuddin, for next an hour or so, he sung some of his favourite songs (including Bhajans of Meera Bai) for Mr. Tewfic.

I understood, for Ustaad nothing is in priority other than his music and that's his life. I really feel blessed to archive his voice, his narrations, a part of our cultural evolution. This Multimedia Narrative is my homage to this ignored and forgotten legend by Indian Media. I thought to meet you during my next visit in Delhi, but probably you were in a hurry.

Rest in Peace, Ustaad!

Written by Kaushik Ghosh.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

France Leclerc | Hola Mohalla

Photo © France Leclerc-All Rights Reserved
I can barely catch up with France Leclerc these days. She's always on her way to a far-flung destination, schlepping her cameras with her (she's a recent but still tentative convert to a lighter mirrorless camera system), writes a wonderfully informative blog and has compelling photographs on her website.

One of her recent additions to her blog is Hola Mohalla;  a Sikh festival that takes place on the first of the lunar month of Chet which usually falls in March. This festival was established by Guru Gobind Singh, and follows the well-known Hindu festival of Holi by one day.

During this festival, processions are organised in the form of army type columns which are accompanied by war-drums and standard-bearers. The martial-like event originated in the time of Guru Gobind Singh who held the first such mock battle event at Anandpur in February 1701.

Sikhism (as per Wikipedia) is a monotheistic religion originating in South Asia during the 15th century. The basic beliefs of Sikhism include faith in a single Creator God, unity and equality of all humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for social justice, and honest conduct and livelihood. Sikhism is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru, and the ten subsequent Sikh gurus. It claims over 25 million adherents worldwide.

You'll read France's blog post, and realize that she was badly injured during a sudden stampede of a horse; probably spooked by the loud martial music. However, she quickly recovered and has been on the road ever since.

For more of France's awe-inspiring photographs of Hola Mohalla, Maptia recently featured her work in large sized photographs.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

POV: Zoom IQ7 Microphone

I've returned from almost three weeks traveling to Vietnam, which may explain the long silence on this blog. The purpose of my trip was to add to my personal project's inventory of images, and glean further information on the subject by way of interviews.

Before traveling, I had seen some reviews on the Zoom IQ7; a compact but full-featured mid-side stereo condenser mic, which was designed to fit with all Lightning-equipped iOS devices such as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod.  The microphone retails for $100.

Seeing that I was trying to minimize my load as much as possible, I decided to give it a try as it weighed next to nothing compared to my other stand alone recording devices; the Marantz PMD620 and the bulkier TASCAM DR-40, and it would take no space at all. I also decided to add the ShoulderPod S1 to it as well.

I was comfortable in using the Zoom IQ7 whilst conducting interviews in Hanoi. Affixed to my iPhone 6, it was unobtrusive and unthreatening, even when fitted with its foam windscreen. I suppose the interviewees saw that it was nothing but a small attachment to an iPhone, and were not as intimidated by it as a standard recording device.

I also liked the free Zoom's free Handy Recorder app, which is super easy to use as well. It offers some editing functions (that I haven't used because I'll do the sound edits on Audacity), and allows me to save the audio files in either linear PCM or AAC file formats. I chose the latter format for the interviews and was very pleased with the results. The app also allowed me to email the audio files I created, and/or to upload it to SoundCloud if I wanted to.

Interviewing various mediums, such as Ms Dieu Hoa, using the Zoom IQ7 was a cinch. The controls are easy to adjust, and from the app itself I was able to quickly email the audio files for translation into English to one of my contacts in Hanoi.

This is not a tech review by any means, but is just my experience with this newly launched product. None of the manufacturers mentioned in this post have any relationship with me, beyond being a consumer.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

POV: The Second Step : Blurb & The Hầu Đồng Book

My second step in the long process of publishing "Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam" was achieved today when I received a 13x11 inches 28 page hardcover test photo book produced by Blurb (or more accurately, produced by me and printed by Blurb).

I produced the 28 pages (of which 19 are color photographs) using Blurb's BookWright software, which is adequate and not too difficult to learn in a few minutes. The photographs were post processed in Photoshop, refined in Color Efex and the text was written using Photoshop text tool.

I found the suggestion from Filipe Bianchi that the text ought to be divided into columns for a better flow to be right, and I'm glad it worked very well aesthetically. However, I used a font size that was too large. It looked fine on Book Wright when I was prepping the book, but in reality it was too large. A smaller font will be used on the book's next itineration. I am restricted in which font I can use because few fonts allow the accurate rendering of some diacritic Vietnamese letters...and in Vietnamese the à is totally different in meaning than á.

Another problem with a smaller font is that there'll be more space on the text page...unless I add more text, or use a small image to fill that space.

Unfortunately, the paper I chose is expensive...but one gets what one pays for. The Proline Pearl Photo paper is semi-gloss, heavy and feels like photo paper. It's manyfactured by Mohawk Fine Paper. The color rendition is accurate, and I'm quite pleased with the book's overall look.

The font for the captions under the photographs also needs to be smaller. I have not yet decided if the photographs will be full-bleed, filling the whole page (as the image on top shows) or be surrounded by a white frame (as above). If the former, then the captions will have to be layered on top of the photographs...perhaps in white text.

I am happy with the Image Wrap cover options. My two other books printed by Blurb have Image Wrap covers, and I much prefer it than the Dust Jacket option. I will refine the positioning of the images on the front and back covers, as well as the back text which also needs editing.

There is no question that the Blurb option is probably the best for a Print On Demand book. There are some downsides though...and on the top of that list is the price. It is expensive, particularly if one opts for the top of the line paper etc.  However, choosing a soft cover, a smaller landscape size with a standard quality photo paper will cost around $40 for 100 pages. An Ebook option for the iPad etc is also available for $10.

All this is food for thought.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Vincent Dirckx | Samburu Warriors

Photo © Vincent Dirckx-All Rights Reserved 

I am featuring two gorgeous portraits of Samburu warriors by Vincent Dirckx, which were made during his recent travels to Northern Kenya. He tells me it took him 48 hours of traveling by an all terrain vehicle over rocky tracks and another trek of 24 hours with a camel caravan and porters to reach this particular tribe. The photographs were made using an off-camera flash and an ND filter, somewhat of a change for Vincent.

The Samburu are a Nilotic people of north-central Kenya that are related to but distinct from the Maasai, and it's based on a gerontocracy style of governance. Gerontocracy is defined as oligarchical rule in which a population or community is ruled by people significantly older than most. Moreover, the Samburu practice polygynous marriage, and a man may have multiple wives. While missionaries have had success in converting more Samburu to predominantly Catholic, and also Protestant forms of Christianity, the majority of Samburu continue to observe their traditional ritual practices.

Vincent Dirckx is a corporate lawyer and a photographer based in Belgium, who started his latter avocation in 2011. His travel photography is multi-faceted and during his many travels, he is eager to photograph the cultures, people, street life, monuments and landscapes that he encounters.

While his work in Northern Kenya amongst the Samburu tribes is his most recent, I encourage you to spend time viewing his other galleries; Omo Valley, Turkey, Japan, the Andes and the Amazon, Indonesia and India. You'll be amply rewarded with some exceptional photography.

Photo © Vincent Dirckx-All Rights Reserved

Thursday, 17 September 2015

POV | The Dark Side of Travel Photography?

Photo © Magnus Brynestam-Courtesy of Travel Photographer Asia
A recent article appearing in the popular 500px ISO photography website dealt with the "dark side of travel photography" which, according to its author (DL Cade), would be crossed into when the images involved vandalism, animal cruelty, and doing outright harm to the environment.

No argument with the noble notion that travel photographers should not cross that line, however one of the examples given in the article involves the unique technique of “Yin-Bou” fishing using
cormorant birds in the Li River. I think there are far better examples to highlight the article's point, and here's why.

It seems that Jimmy McIntyre, a a travel photographer,  had recently captured an image he had wanted for quite a while. In China, standing waist deep in the Li river, he finally shot a portrait of the famed cormorant fishermen.

Mr McIntyre realized that the fishermen weren't fishermen any longer because they made more money from tourists and photographers by posing for these atmospheric photographs. He also realized that to get the classic shot of a fisherman with the cormorant spreading its wings, the fisherman had to grab the bird by the neck, dunk it in the water and bring it up...whereupon the cormorant would spread its wings to dry them.

The article's argument is this is an example of animal cruelty, and should be discouraged by self respecting photographers.

However before agreeing too quickly, let me make the following points:

1. As per Wikipedia, cormorant fishing is a traditional fishing method in which fishermen use trained cormorants to fish in rivers. Historically, cormorant fishing has taken place in Japan and China since about 960 AD.  It's an ancient tradition that has also been followed by fishermen in Greece and Macedonia to this day.

2. I asked Dennis Cox, one of the leading travel photographers of our generation, (and one who has photographed in China countless of times), as to his views since he photographed the cormorant fishermen countless of times. He informed me that dunking cormorants by their necks was done by the fishermen long before photographers arrived on the scene to make these images. That's how they were traditionally taught to catch fish. 

3.  Another point raised by Dennis is that the Li river became so polluted that the fish disappeared, leaving the fishermen with no means of livelihood. It was the local professional photographers, followed by the foreign professionals who started paying them to as compensation for the loss of income and the change in their livelihood. Then of course, came the influx of tourists.

There are many examples of similar situations, and the one that comes to my mind as I write this (although there's no involvement of animals) is the Inle Lake fishermen in Burma, who are no longer fishermen (if they were at all), and are merely "models" for tourists to snap their shutters. The other example involves the Omo Valley tribes in Ethiopia who are turned into fashion models and made to wear incongruous and ridiculous headgear made of vegetables and fruits, just for the sake of a few snapshots....and paid more than they would make in a traditional occupation, destroying their culture and traditions.

It is sometimes difficult for those of us influenced by Western values and aesthetics to appreciate that certain local customs and traditions are best left alone, and that we should not meddle with them too much. Let us be as noble as we possibly can while we photograph, but let's also be mindful of unintended consequences of any actions we may make.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Aisha Al-Shabrawy | Travel Fashion Fusion

Photo © Aisha Al-Shabrawy-All Rights Reserved
I find it uplifting to stumble on photographic work that comes out of Egypt, the land of my birth, that is colorful, joyous, modern and of good taste. It's a welcome antidote for all the negative news we are deluged about Egypt which is currently neck-deep in economic woes, with its people facing an uncertain future.

Whenever I look out of my flights that are about to land in Cairo,  I never fail to wonder as to why its buildings are all beige...the color of sand. Apart from a few spots of greenery along the Nile river, that's all that the eye can see. Beige upon beige upon beige. Depressing really. The desert's proximity to the capital is culpable, since the frequent easterly winds bring in the khamseen...the sand storms that occasionally fill the air. Add this to the vehicular pollution, and one has a toxic mix of environmental factors that converts brilliant white paint to the dull color of sand in a matter of months.

So it is really an elevating moment for me to see Aisha Al-Shabrawy's colorful and aesthetically tasteful photographs of attractive model(s) wearing various fashionable accessories that are locally produced. It might seem commonplace to some of us used to see such travel-fashion photographs all the time on the pages of various glossy magazines, and on the streets of New York City (as an example), but I know full well how hard it is to produce them in Egypt.

I think possessing a strong color aesthetic/sense is largely innate, but can also be an acquired talent. I might be overstating it, but being exposed to bland colors all one's life ought to dull one's color and aesthetic appreciations. India is well known for its brilliant colors; just take a look at the women's saris and other traditional attire. When I travel to India, I am -as many others- overwhelmed and overpowered by its colors.

Anyway, back to Ms Al-Shabrawy's work. Those images featuring eyewear were shot in Aswan, in the south of Egypt. The rural houses are painted in the blues of Jaipur in Rajasthan and Chefchaouen in Morocco, and their facades are decorated with naif drawings and religious phrases.

Yes, it's uplifting to see these images...and to forget (even for a moment) the drabness of Cairo and of Egypt's main cities. If only there was an enforceable law to paint its buildings in brilliant colors... annually!!!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Amira Al-Sharif | A Love Song To Socotra Island

Photo © Amira Al-Sharif-All Rights Reserved- Courtesy Arab Documentary Photography Program
Socotra Island is a small archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean. It is a governorate of Yemen. The same Yemen that is currently being ripped apart by a civil war, and systematically destroyed by Saudi Arabia and its allies. The island is considered a jewel of biodiversity in the Indian Ocean, and was recognized by UNESCO as a world natural heritage site in July 2008.

Most of the inhabitants are indigenous Soqotri people who are of Southern Arabian descent, along with a minority of Africans, believed to be descendants of runaway slaves. Interestingly, the islanders originally followed indigenous religions, then Christianity then Islam.

Amira Al-Sharif's A Love Song to Socotra Island grew from a search for inspiring and pioneering women who are making their own way in life while confronting the traditions and customs of a male dominated society.

Amira Al-Sharif was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Yemen. Working as a female documentary photographer in Yemen, where the majority of photographers are male, she continues to push cultural and societal boundaries. She works as a freelance photojournalist for English newspapers and magazines in Yemen and abroad. Her work is published in international newspapers and by humanitarian and development organizations in both English and Arabic. She is also a alum of the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop (Istanbul).

The Arab Documentary Photography Program (ADPP) is an initiative that provides support and mentorship to photographers from across the Arab region. The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in partnership with Magnum Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund established the ADPP to stimulate compelling work by Arab photographers working across a range of experimental styles of storytelling.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Juan Pablo Ampudia | Love Me

Here is one of the better multimedia/photographic work I've seen coming out of the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop since its inception, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Love Me is a multimedia photo documentary on "warias" in Bali, Indonesia by Juan Pablo Ampudia.

In Indonesia, biological men who believe that they are born with the souls of women are known as "warias." The term is a combination of two Indonesian words: "wanita" which means woman and "pria" which means man. As a group, warias are diverse, encompassing what cross-dressers, transsexuals, drag queens, and effeminate gay men would be called in the West.

I'm sure many of my readers would be surprised to learn that transgender people can live openly in Indonesia, a country with the world's largest Muslim population.  That said, Indonesian warias are generally different from transgender women in the United States as an example. For religious reasons, many are not interested in sex-reassignment surgeries and believe that they were born as males, and must return to God when they die.

Photo © Juan Pablo Ampudia-All Rights Reserved
However, living openly does not mean total or even partial acceptance from the community at large. Juan Pablo tells us that the status of transvestites, transsexuals and other transgender persons in Indonesia is complicated. Cross-dressing is not, per se, illegal and some public tolerance is given to some of those working in beauty salons or in the entertainment industry. However, the law does not protect transgender people from discrimination or harassment. Neither does it provide for sex reassignment surgery to those who seek it, nor does it allow transgender persons to gain new legal documents should they opt for the transition. Most discrimination is directed at transgender women, who face challenges with stable employment, prejudice, and housing.

The videos and photographs by Juan Pablo were made in bars in Bali's Seminyak, a mixed tourist  and residential area on the west coast of the island. It's also the centre of life for hordes of the island's expatriates and tourists. The talented characters who work in these bars, seek to show to their country and to the society that they exist, and aided by international tourism, raise awareness among young indonesians about equality and human rights.

Juan Pablo Ampudia is an account director for an advertising agency based in Mexico City, who describes himself as "just a regular guy that uses photography as a tool for self-observation; to achieve my personal human growth."

I think you'll agree he's way more than that.

Friday, 4 September 2015

POV: The First Step : The Hầu Đồng Book

My first step in the long process of publishing "Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam" photo book was completed today when I took delivery of an 8x10 inches 12 page hardcover test version produced by AdoramaPix's bookmaking outfit.

My principal objectives in ordering a test version was to (1) determine the color -and monochrome reproduction quality for the chosen sampling of my photographs, and (2) whether the bindery style was acceptable. I have already self-published a couple of photography books through Blurb, so I know what to expect from them, but I wanted to find out if AdoramaPix was a viable alternative.

By the way, the iPhone pictures of the test book seen here were done without any preparation, so I wouldn't place too much weight on what these look like to my blog's readers.

The photographs are printed on professional-grade photo paper by Adorama. I chose the Luster paper option for its popularity, lower price and because it's a hybrid of gloss and matte, which supposedly handles a wide spectrum of image types and brings out the best in them all.

I liked the result. The book's pages are heavy; there's obviously a real photo feel to them, and they reproduced the colors very well. I am especially pleased with the 2 black & white pages. The text's placement needs a little tweaking, but overall the effect met my expectations.

One of the features offered by AdormaPix is the lay-flat construction. The book remains open and on display without anything to keep it from flopping over. Seamless lay-flat simply allows the readers to view the entire image...whether the image is a double-truck (as they call it) or are two side by side. There are no gutters or seams.

Now whether the lay-flat construction is sturdy enough to withstand many page flipping or not, I cannot tell. I compared it to a traditionally bound (stitched and non lay-flat) photo book, and it did appear flimsy. If -through usage- one or more of the photo pages may get detached from the rest, the lay-flat feature is the jury is out of that one.

The production of this 12 pages book was super fast. It was available for pick up in just two business days.

What didn't I like? I was slightly disappointed in the cover. The color reproduction is perfect, but the title is not exactly perpendicular. It seems to have been been affixed minutely off-center. I noticed it because I have a thing about straight lines.

Price-wise, the test book cost $30. One can calculate this as being $2.50 a page not taking into account the cover. It's for the 8x10 inch landscape option. For a more impressive 10x12.5 inches (which would be my choice), the price for a 80-100 page book jumps to a prohibitive $210-$260!

Setting all this aside, I'm glad I tried out the AdoramaPix option. It might be a viable option for a one of a kind photographic portfolio to showcase one's photographs...a sort of monograph perhaps, but not as a commercially viable  photo book.

So it's back to exploring the Print On Demand route. I've had experience with Blurb before, and it was generally quite satisfactory. I tentatively discussed having the eventual "Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam" photo book printed in Hanoi, but there might be tax and other issues that can crop up... but I'll revive that option when I'm there next month.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Foundry Photojournalism Workshop 2016 | Cape Town

Photo © Daylin Paul. All Rights Reserved

Registration in the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Cape Town, South Africa is now open!

Yes, you read that correctly. The Foundry Photojournalism Workshop will take place in Cape Town in mid July.

I've written a number of posts on this blog praising the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, but it's certainly worth repeating this:

"I've often suggested to my class participants that attending a Foundry workshop is not only about enhancing their craft with advice of some of the best (and certainly selfless) photographers and photojournalists in the business, or about the class they've chosen or even about their own stories and image-making, but it's also about rubbing shoulders with other participants, whether these are peers, or just starting their photography careers, or veterans, and with all sorts of other styles of's about augmenting their exposure to different worlds, about exposing themselves to divergent thought processes, to varying points of view, and in doing so...grow as human beings (and yes, as photographers too)."

But perhaps  you think that I, as one of the instructors, am being biased.

If so, here is what Neelima Vallangi, a participant in the just completed workshop in Bali, has written about her unique experience:

"Storytelling and especially visual storytelling is a difficult craft that needs a lot of honing and mentoring. Above all, it needs a lot inspiration. During the 5 years that I have taken up photography, never have I been inspired so much to tell a story, any story. It was always about getting one good shot, just an independent shot that fit nowhere in the arc of storytelling. Without a purpose, I was as lost as a fish out of water. I always just thought of making pretty pictures, now I see that even a landscape can have a story to tell."

For more of her post workshop experience, read here.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Charles Fourtree | Papua New Guinea

Photo © Charles Fourtree-All Rights Reserved
Papua New Guinea seems to be the end of the earth. It almost is. And it offers intrepid travel photographers some incredible opportunities to document its indigenous culture and traditions.

The Goroka festival is probably the best known tribal gathering and cultural event in Papua New Guinea. It's held every year close to the country's Independence Day on 16 September in the town of Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands Province. About 100 tribes arrive to show their music, dance and culture. This traditional festival is called a sing-sing, and is the biggest of its kind in the world.

Charles Fourtree's gallery of his work in Papua New Guinea allows us to admire his photographs of this event's participants up close and personal. As you will see, feathers of birds of paradise are heavily featured in the festival, either used for decorative head gear or ceremonial dress, and it is often noted how extraordinary that so many feathers can be squeezed on a traditional headdress. The dances and songs during the festival reflect the behavior of the birds of paradise in the wild, which represent beauty and seduction to the tribes.

Charles Fourtree is a travel photographer focussing on portraits and wildlife. He has a special interest in Asia with its great cultural diversity, and he connects with local people in order to see countries through their eyes. 

I gather Charles is currently traveling in the Kutch region of Gujarat. I expect he will return with equally admirable photographs.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

POV: This Thing Called 'Vision'

In an interview about my photography a few weeks ago, I was asked what my vision was, and after figuratively scratching my head for a few seconds, I replied candidly and honestly (and possibly disconcertingly to the interviewer) as follows:

"Vision? What vision? I have no vision. I am a documentarian. I see something I'm interested in and I photograph it. That's my vision." 

I posted my quote on my Facebook page, and from the comments by the community of friends, it seems it had struck a funny bone. The comments were interesting... some serious; others tongue in cheek. 

So I thought I'd also write a POV for the readers of this blog who are not on my Facebook feed..

It's really simple. Being a documentary travel photographer frees me from having to espouse a noble purpose or a visionary concept. I never claimed to be an artist not have had any aspirations to be one. Artists may have a vision; fine art photographers, fashion photographers, glamour photographers, and even social issues photographers, and possibly photojournalists, may have artistic vision. Not me. I could pretend to have a lofty vision, a calling if you will...some do, but that's not what I do.

It's certainly a question of semantics, and how we define vision. I wrote in one of my comments that it was a matter of terminology and a question of context. When I was asked the question, I construed "vision" to be shorthand for "artistic vision" or "humanitarian vision", none of which I'm blessed with. Naturally, one can argue that a documentarian captures what he sees based on his or her own biases and that's "vision", but I prefer to describe that as "focus".

In other words, my focus on what interests me aesthetically and intellectually is derived from a mindset and plans that are tangible, rather than an abstract "vision". As examples, when I photograph Sufi events or Hau Dong ceremonies, it's to document what's happening in front of me...the colors, the forms, the expressions, the body well as imbibing the surrounding aural elements. Sometimes I  know what I'm looking for ahead of time, but that can hardly be called 'vision'. 

And like many other photographers, many of my favorite images were made because I was right there at the right moment, and clicked at the right instant. No vision there.

One of my Facebook interlocutors provided me with quote from Dorothea Lange:

"To know ahead of time what you're looking for means you're then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting and also false. I wouldn't criticize a photographer who works completely without plan and photographs that to which he instinctively responds." 

So I'm in good company, it seems. Yes, an instinctive response is so much more my kind of thing. I see something I like, and I instinctively click the shutter. That's my kind of vision.

NB: My thanks to Ms. Nguyễn Vi (appearing as Bà Chúa Cafe) whose permission I obtained to use one of the frames I made of her with her eyes closed during our photo shoot in Hanoi last July.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Blank Lands | In Search of Zhuang Xueben

A friend, Matteo Vegetti referred this very interesting project to me a few weeks ago and whilst, I don't feature crowd funding projects on this blog, this particular one captured my imagination for its novelty, difficulty and exoticism.

Zhuang Xueben (1909-1984) was a young photographer from Shanghai, who was the first to photographically describe China's blank lands; its territories that in the 1930s were not yet plotted on publicly available maps. He did so with thousands of photographs and detailed diaries, collected over 10 years of travel from 1934 onwards.

His pioneering work opened a window on a little-known parts of China, often unexplored and yet regarded with great prejudice. He was able to reveal the richness of local cultures and ethnic groups such as the Tibetans, Yi, Qiang, Tu and Salar.

Photo ©Zhuang Xueben-All Rights Reserved
The project seeks to trace the history of this pioneering Chinese photographer Zhuang Xueben who, because of the Cultural Revolution, faded into undeserved oblivion.

His name and work have only recently resurfaced. After the chance discovery of his first book of photographs, reprinted decades later, the Blank Lands project came to life and has been developed collectively by Alessandro Galluzzi, Ralph Kronauer, Federico Peliti and Luca Tommasini, who make up the Blank Lands Collective and are co-producers of the project with Nacne, HLJTV and ICTV Solferino.

Should readers of this blog be interested in supporting (or reading more about) this project, its crowd funding page is Blank Lands - Searching for Zhuang Xueben.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Marylise Vigneau | Havana | About Time 1 & 2

Photo © Marylise Vigneau-All Rights Reserved
"In Havana, time is an unavoidable character. Destructive or facetious, sardonic or nostalgic, political or imaginary, irreverent in any case, time sprawls its texture and shadow all over the city." -Marylise Vigneau
It's absolutely 'about time'... Cuba's embargo by the United States has been in place since 1960, and the restoration of its full diplomatic relations and the opening of our embassy in Havana only occurred very recently.

Marylise Vigneau's work returns to the pages of this blog with her updated Havana galleries, which she has titled About Time I  (color) and About Time II (monochrome).

I envy her her photographic style, which -to me- defies an easy characterization. Is it street photography, urban photography, environmental portraiture? I end up deciding to make it easier to myself,, and accepting it's a mix of many styles and that it represents a multi-faceted eye that defies pigeon holing, and categorization.

What better photograph represents Havana's exhaustion and faded grandeur than the aging woman in her gilded bed, reading a local newspaper (news? gossip column?) with a knowing smile on her lips? Or its poverty and its famous 'can-do' attitude of its people than the decrepit legless armchair resting on cinder blocks, and a Mother's Day kitschy graffiti on the wall?

Photo © Marylise Vigneau-All Rights Reserved

These are Marylise's glimpses of of the best cities in the world for street photography, and where my fondness for this style was probably born more almost 14 years ago. Life in Havana happens outside of its dilapidated buildings, and I don't have to tell my readers that its people are incredibly photogenic; the mix of African, Carib Indian, and European has created a melting pot of handsome people, endowed with wonderful hospitality, remarkable musical talent and exuberance.

Marylise Vigneau is a French photographer who traveled to and lived in a number of countries as her galleries attest. These include work from Cambodia to Uzbekistan, from Mongolia to Myanmar, from China to Sarajevo including powerful and compelling images made at a mental hospital in Lahore.

Her work has been shown in Angkor Photo Festival, Foto Istanbul, Yangon Photo Festival, Nairang Gallery in Lahore and Focus Photography Festival in Mumbai. It has also been published in Pix Quarterly (India), Asia Life and Milk (Cambodia). She is also an alum of the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop (Sarajevo).

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Charles Fréger | Queens of Cebu (Sinulog)

Photo © Charles Fréger-All Rights Reserved
I chanced on the work of photographer Charles Fréger whose series of various ethnographic exotic (and not so exotic) communities, rituals and festivals are incredibly colorful. 

Choosing a single portfolio from 55 galleries to feature on this blog was not an easy task, but I finally decided on the Queens of Cebu, since it combines a religious tradition with superb fashion in the Philippines. The photographer describes the Sinulong festival as a mix of Christian and pagan traditions, and a fusion of a Latin carnival and a religious procession. 

The Queens of this annual cultural and religious festival, which is held on the third Sunday of January in Cebu City, hold small replicas of the “Santo Nino de Cebu”.  

The Santo Nino de Cebu is a statue of the infant Child Jesus venerated by many Filipino Catholics who believe it to be miraculous. The original is the oldest religious Christian image in the Philippines, and was originally given in 1521 as a baptismal gift by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon, the sovereign of Cebu of that time.

One of the main highlights of the festival is the large street parade which lasts for 9 to 12 hours with participants coming from the different towns and cities across the Philippines.  It is these participants that Charles Fréger photographed during a visit to the country.

Charles Fréger is a French based photographer with a Fine Arts photography background. His work is a mixture of contemporary and traditional elements.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

POV | Bali's Foundry Photojournalism Workshop 2015

Presenting My Photo Essays on Balinese Ceremonies/Photo © Neal Jackson-All Rights Reserved
Because of reasons beyond my control, as well as having to be in Hanoi for a few days on my personal assignment, I barely made it to Foundry Photojournalism Workshop (FPW) this year. But I did, and I was -as always- pleased and privileged to have attended it.

The Bali event was my seventh workshop as a faculty member; having only missed the Sarajevo event out of the workshops held in Mexico City, Manali, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Chiang Mai and La Antigua.

Firstly, let me reiterate what I've consistently said and wrote about FPW; enormous credit is owed to Eric Beecroft, the visionary behind the Foundry Workshops. He had the brilliant idea of creating these workshops some 8 years ago, and made it a reality despite enormous obstacles.

But it's also the unsung heroes of the Foundry's staff, its administrators and the local volunteers who consistently make them such wonderful successes. The Bali event's logistics, venue, intrustors' hotel, class location and other requirements were very well organized, and everything worked quite smoothly (at least from my perspective) but I am certain that there was a phenomenal amount of work going on behind the scenes.

Ubud's Betelnut Cafe. Venue for the Bali FPW. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I would be remiss if I did not mention the generous support given to FPW by Photo Wings, a nonprofit organization dedicated to utilizing the power of photography to further deep thinking, communication, and action.

Much to my regret, I was not able to attend all of FPW's final ceremony as I had to catch my night flight to Hong Kong and NYC, but I've experienced first hand how rewarding it was to rub shoulders with some of the best photographers/photojournalists in the business, to exchange ideas with enthusiastic participants, whether these were peers, or just starting their photography careers, or veterans, and talking about other styles of image-making.

To my delight, my class members quickly grasped the mechanics and software requirements of my Travel Documentary storytelling class, and produced commendable multimedia photo essays.

Portfolio Review with Hassanoor Hussain. Photo © Neal Jackson-All Rights Reserved
I was chuffed to present three short photo essays of Balinese ceremonies during one of the evening sessions at the Betelnut Cafe. Pulau Dewata: The Island of Gods was a collection of images made during my many trips to the island. My presentation's duration was roughly 15 minutes long.

As I wrote on a previous blog post, some students thought it ought to have been shown on the first night of the workshop, helping them to choose their self-assigned photo essays. I was the only instructor to show work directly relating to Bali. A sensible observation, but the timing choice of the presentation was not mine to make.

I thought some (as in not all) of the presentations by the remaining instructors, while interesting and containing compelling imagery, went on for far too long. Perhaps future FPWs will address this issue since many of the students are, at the end of the day, exhausted. Fifteen minutes for each instructor's presentation seems adequate, and instructors can always present their work at whatever length they want to their respective classes and others.

Another thought I have is to offer the students more access to all instructors. Every time I attend a FPW, I sense the same thing...a strong desire by all students to have one-on-one meetings with the members of the faculty. The portfolio reviews (as much as they are exhausting for the instructors) are one of such options. These often evolve into career and personal advice, and are universally appreciated by students. Perhaps instead of only one evening of portfolio reviews, FPW could offer two evenings of such one-on-one interfaces. After all, limiting the instructors presentations to a shorter duration may allow the time to incorporate this additional face-time. 

Till the next Foundry Photojournalism Workshop!!!

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Chin-Pao Chen | Betel Nut Girls

Photo © Chin-Pao Chen-All Rights Reserved
In my travels to South and Southeast Asia, I've frequently come across the ubiquitous betel nut, and the people who are addicted to chewing it. Whether in India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Cambodia and Vietnam, betel nut chewing is a habit that unfortunately many take up as a stimulant, and which can cause oral cancer.

In Taiwan, the betel nut is the second largest agricultural crop, and its seed, when chewed, is nicknamed “Taiwan Chewing Gum”. This, along with other economic reasons, has created the phenomenon of the "Betel Nut Girl" known locally as "bin lang xishi".

These are young attractive women (usually not well educated, and prone to exploitation) usually wearing skimpy dresses or small bikinis in clear glass booths whose only purpose is to attract clients to buy their small packages of betel nuts. These booths are found all many of the main avenues and streets, where traffic is high.

Working on the streets since the 1990s when this trend started in earnest, these women have been shedding more and more clothes to lure customers as competition intensifies among betel nut sellers.
An estimated 100,000 brightly decorated kiosks can be found on the island, though they are banned in the city limits of the capital Taipei.

Chin-Pao Chen's Betel Nut Girls is a collection of photographs of such young women, who are controversial in Taiwan. Conservative politicans in Taiwan see the provocatively dressed women as morally reprehensible, while women's rights groups see the work as degrading. 

Chin-Pao Chen attended the Department of Photography of School of Visual Arts in New York in 1996, and earned his degree of BFA with an award for outstanding Achievement three years later. He holds a MFA degree from School of Fine Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts and was awarded The Overseas Photographer Award of The 26th Higashikawa award at 2008.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Soegee Sugiarto | Tari Kecak


Here is Tari Kecak, a multimedia project produced in its entirety by Soegee Sugiarto during my The Travel Documentary : Sound & Image class at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Bali. The project was produced in class using Soundslides software, and the audio editing program Audacity.

The Tari Kecak dance was created in the early 1930s, and is now internationally recognized as one of Bali’s top-three signature dances, along with Barong and Legong.

Kecak has no musical background but for the chanting of a male capella chorus intoning a “keh-chack” polyrhythmic sound during most of the performance. Kecak’s storyline is taken from the Ramayana Hindu epic which it depicts in summary form. The men wear black-and-white sarongs and are seated in tight, concentric circles with a central space reserved for the protagonists.

According to Wikipedia, Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance.

In the 1930s, Walter Spies, a Russian-German painter and musician, became deeply interested in the ritual while living in Bali, and adapted the epic drama to a dance.

Sugiarto "Soegee" Sugiarto is a sales manager and a photographer from Jawa Barat, Indonesia who describes himself as a "hobbyist". However, this "hobbyist" won first prize in the Travel Photographer Asia contest with his monochrome image of a Pacu Jawi racer with his buffalos during a traditional bull race in Sumatra.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Fuji X-T1 | Fuji 56mm f/1.2 | Fuji XF 16-55mm f/2.8

Photo © 2015 Tewfic El-Sawy- X-T1 & Fuji XF 16-55mm f/2.8 
I rarely write up technical posts about the photographic gear I use when traveling, since there are many more photographers better qualified than I am to do so. However, I thought I'd share my impressions on two of my recently acquired Fuji lenses used on my just completed two weeks in Hanoi and Bali.

These two lenses are the Fuji 56mm f/1.2 and the Fuji XF 16-55mm f/2.8. Some months ago, I acquired the former specifically for portraiture, especially for its low-light capabilities and it impressed me as an excellent lens for such a purpose.

And just a few weeks before my traveling, I added the Fuji 16-55mm to my collection of lenses. I much prefer primes to zooms, but I was attracted to this particular zoom lens because it would give me a lot of flexibility when photographing rituals, festivals and crowds.

The Fuji 16-55mm f/2.8 is the first pro-level standard zoom lens for the Fuji's X series of cameras. It maintains a maximum f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range, and is sealed to protect against dust and moisture. Having no short zooms during my March self-assignment in Hanoi meant that I had to constantly switch primes and or cameras whilst shooting various religious ceremonies.

This zoom gave me the flexibility I needed, and I used it almost 70% of the time in Hanoi and Bali. I was very pleased by its capabilities (low-light and otherwise), and it 'converted' my X T-1 to a go-anywhere camera when mounted with it. While it has no OIS, it performed virtually flawlessly and its sharpness is commendable. It's a tad large and heavy, so is better suited for the X T-1 with a battery grip. That said, it provides prime-like image quality over a range of focal lengths.

And this brings me to the Fuji 56mm f/1.2 prime lens. I know some Fuji photographers had to consider very carefully the merits of each lens, as these two 'competed' with each other. I have both, and I believe that the  Fuji 16-55mm f/2.8 is as good as the Fuji 56mm f/1.2 in terms of optics. In the zoom, one doesn't have as wide an aperture, so the bokeh will be less pronounced, but the zoom's flexibility ought to compensate for that.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy- X-T1 & Fuji XF 56mm f/1.2
The Fuji 56mm f/1.2  is the equivalent of a f/1.2 on an 85mm full frame, and my intention was to use it for environmental portraiture and shallow depth-of-field effects. So far, my experience has been that it is truly remarkable at large apertures, and provides a lovely blur in the out-of-focus parts (aka bokeh). At just under $1000, I deem it to be one of the best lenses I've ever had and used.

The question now that I have both lenses is whether the Fuji XF 16-55mm f/2.8 negates the usefulness of the Fuji 56mm f/1.2 . The above portraits of Ms. Nguyễn Vi are almost similar in quality., and one could argue that having the zoom lens is enough. I have yet to decide on that, but I also know that the low light capability of the prime lens is an important consideration for my type of photography.

For those who like that sort of thing:

The photograph's settings using the Fuji 16-55mm f/2.8 are: 1/320, 800 iso, f/2.8 and spot metering.
The photograph's settings using the Fuji 56mm f/1.2 are: 1/3200, 800 iso, f/1.2 and pattern metering.