Sunday, 5 October 2014

Verdict | The People of Tây Bắc Photo Expedition

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Having had more than a week to mull over what worked and what didn't on The People of Tay Bac Photo Expedition-Workshop, I come to the conclusion that it earns a B....not a B+, not a B-...just a plain B.

However, the trip's logistics and accommodations were faultless, and all the credit goes to the travel agent I work with in Hà Nội. They were responsive and on the ball at all times.

I think the prevailing extraordinary high humidity levels we faced all through the trip played a significant role in dampening our energy levels (certainly mine were), especially in the streets of Hà Nội. That said, and set's what I thought were home runs (or third base hits).

1. Hà Nội Street Photography:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
A definite home run.

Hà Nội's streets are just ripe for the taking of photographs...whether monochrome or color. The scenes are there and are sometimes too numerous to choose from. Visual (and aural) overload besieged my senses for the first one or two days, but then it passed and I immersed myself neck deep in the flow of life.

The Hà Nội Noir assignment to the group participants was especially well received, since it introduced them to the street photography's 'on the fly' element that they were not entirely familiar with. The shooting from the hip technique was experimented with, and provided an inventory of interesting images to each participant.

2. Hội An Fishermen:
Traditional Fisherman. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Another home run.

I had pre-arranged through Eviva, my local travel agents, a dawn-time trip on a local boat to photograph the fishermen using traditional netting systems. We boated to the mouth of the Thu Bon River to photograph these large fishing nets (see top photograph and the one above). These large contraptions are lowered into the water to catch fish during the night. They are slowly raised and lowered by the fishermen using foot-powered winches.

These must have been the most photogenic 4 hours of the entire photo expedition. The weather was just perfect, with the sun rising on cue and the whole experience was phenomenal. The subsequent hour-long visit to Hội An's main fishing harbor/market was also interesting, and offered many photographic opportunities.

3. Hầu đồng Ceremony:

Medium in a trance. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Home run, because it's a ceremony I've never witnessed (nor heard of) before.

Hầu đồng is also known as lên đồng, and is a ritual of spirit mediumship practiced in Vietnamese indigenous religion and Đạo Mẫu, a Vietnamese mother goddess religion, in which followers become mediums for various deities.

It was by pure serendipity that we witnessed and photographed such a hầu đồng full ceremony in Bac Ha, and a rehearsal in Sa Pa. The full ceremony may last up to seven hours, and it begins with petitions to Buddha and to the deities for permission to carry out the ritual, after which the medium sits in the middle of four assistants, whose job it is to facilitate the medium's incarnation of different deities and spirits. It's a fascinating spectacle during which the medium (dressed in pink in the above photograph) chants, dances and changes in no less than 6 or 7 costumes of different colors during the ceremony.

Due to a misunderstanding, a member of our group committed a grave offense during the ceremony in Bac Ha, but a sincere apology to the temple's authorities (after which I was offered glasses of rice wine to drink to help the reconciliation along) allowed us to continue photographing. It's a testament to the generosity of the Vietnamese temple's congregation that the incident was so promptly forgiven.

4. Hội An Streets:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Yes, Hội An is a tourist town. What can we expect from a small town recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO? But setting that aside, it's a wonderfully atmospheric place with an incredible wealth of stunning backdrops for street photography, for travel photography and for fashion/model photography.

I would definitely consider staying in Hội An for a week or so. Rather than stay in the lovely and posh (but sort of generic) Hoi An Hotel, I'd stay at the Vinh Hung Hotel, an upscale but tiny heritage hotel located in the heart of town. And have Cao Lau, the local signature noodle dish  at Miss Ly every day!

It'd be wonderful to take my time...and indulge in slow street photography. In other words, pick a spot (preferably with a cup of coffee or a La Rue beer), wait and cherry-pick whatever happens in the street. As I wrote in a different post, I'd also enjoy fusing travel photography to ethnic/modern fashion photography. The style can be posed...with static portraits, or can be pseudo environmental-street portraits.
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
There's no limit to the willingness of eye-catching persons, whether locals or tourists (such as the lovely Vi in the above photograph) to pose for photographers. Hội An is a magnet for newly-weds (or about to be married) who come here with their make-up artists and photographers.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The pretty and lively bride in pink loved my suggestion that she pose under the bird cages...I told her that it'd be an appropriate setting since they were lovebirds. She left her photographer, and ran to the spot I indicated. Nothing is set up in this photograph...the brooms, the bird cages, the bicycle...all was left as is. That's Hội An.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
A bride-to-be is being dolled-up by her make-up artist, just around from the famous Japanese Bridge. It's these quotidian scenes that attract me visually to places like these. Yes, here the bride saw the photographer...but I'd wait for as long as it took to become just part of the background, and for a scene (a story) to develop.

Have I said that Hội An was a home run? If I haven't yet, then is.

5. The Tây Bắc Region:

Flower Hmong in Bac Ha. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I need to be quite emphatic about this: I resent blue tarpaulins, motorbike helmets, motorbikes and baseball caps photo-bombing my photographs.  

So no home run for the northern region of Tây Bắc, which for us mostly meant the markets of Bac Ha, Can Cau, and Coc Ly. We had to pass on Xin Cheng market due to Typhoon Kalmaegi. The exception was Sa Pa, which is a nice little town with some opportunities for street photography and ethnic photography of the H'mong.

Bac Ha market is the largest of the region, and perhaps because I had been before, it didn't have the visual umph it had when I was there in 2012. One thing for sure has changed...the area where the Flower Hmong, Dzao and others ate their breakfasts and lunches was moved by Bac Ha municipality (or whatever it's called) from the center of the market to the right of its entrance. It's now more orderly, but it removed the ad hoc feel that the market had before the move.

And because of the threatening rain, blue tarpaulins were stretched all over the out a rather nasty light to faces and clothes. 

That said, Bac Ha is still the granddaddy market of the region. As we had spent the night at the nearby Sao Mai hotel, we had the market almost to ourselves until 10:00 am. When the tourists arrived with their GoPro and heavy cameras, we left for breakfast.

Flower Hmong Matriarch in Can Cau. © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Can Cau Market is held on Saturdays, and is predominantly frequented by the Flower H’mong. While not far from Bac Ha, it took us about 3 hours to drive from Sa Pa. Much smaller than the Bac Ha market, it doesn't have its 'charisma'. It'd be easy to blame the humidity, but it was quite high...and it drained us of energy quite rapidly. The locals seemed to take the humidity in stride, carrying umbrellas and sometimes fans.

Flower Hmong family in Can Cau-© Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Coc Ly market is held weekly on Tuesdays, and is also crowded with Flower H’mong. Only 35 kilometers from Bac Ha, the roads are quite nasty and bumpy...and were probably made worse during the rainy season. It's perched on a hillock, and it struck me as one of the least interesting. I was amused when a meddlesome American woman kept watching me photographing a very amenable Flower Hmong for a while, and then told me to stop because I was "harassing" her.

In short, there indisputably were some interesting photographs to make in these markets, but group tourism's tentacles have reached these markets, and they've lost some of their authenticity. I suspect many of the implements and products sold to to the locals are made in China...while the handicrafts presumably made by the local minorities seems to be shoddier than usual.

In a future iteration, a People of Tây Bắc Photo Expedition will continue to be based in Sa Pa but will venture to markets and villages further far as possible from tour buses, it that's possible.

6. Sa Pa:

Hmong in Sa Pa market. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I like Sa Pa. The Victoria Hotel is great...although their staff can be somewhat impersonal. But that's what happens when your guests are mostly tour groups. The restaurants are welcoming, all have free wi-fi and the food is quite good. Not as good as Hoi An...but good.

Yes, I like Sa wasn't misty nor cool as it was in 2012, and the main square is now empty of the Hmong vendors that had taken it over in the late afternoons. They've been chased away, and given a dreary space above the market to sell their goods. Presumably to have them pay a permit fee or something like that.

Along with the group, I enjoyed doing some monochrome work in the tiny market; exploiting the chiaroscuro of its alleys, and the black dress of the Hmong as best I could. It was in Sa Pa that I also stumbled on a Hầu đồng rehearsal ceremony, which in a way prepared us for the real thing in Bac Ha.

Hoi An Lanterns. © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
So what would I do differently?

If I was omnipotent, I'd change the weather. It affected the attendance of the Tet Trung Thu street festival; it prevented us from attending the least touristy market in the northern region and it exhausted us.

But within my direct control, I'd reduce the number of days in Hà Nội and increase the stay in Hội An. I'd still stay in Sa Pa, spend a day in Bac Ha, but travel much further in search of traditional small villages that are not on the tourist trail.

Red Dzao in Ta Phin. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Tights Reserved
Now, the finale for the those who like statistics. My estimated usage of my cameras was as follows:
Fuji X-T1 + Zeiss Touit 12mm f2.8: 75%
Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon 18mm f2.8 : 10%
Leica M9 + Voigtlander 40mm f1.4: 15%

(I used the Fuji Zoom XF18-135mm f3.5-5.6 for the fishermen photo shoot, and another time in Hà Nội 
around Hoàn Kiếm lake.)

Did I miss my Canon 5D Mark II and my panoply of primes and zooms? 

No. Not once.