Saturday, 28 March 2015

Hanoi Report 4

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Little did I know last September in Ha Noi that I'd return in 6 months to pursue a personal project...little did I know when I walked in Sapa, heard music originating from a temple and photographed a Đạo Mẫu ceremony that it would kindle an interest in the worship of mother goddesses in Vietnam, and little did I know when I stumbled on a Lên đồng (or hầu đồng) ceremony in Bac Ha that it was part of this cult (for lack of better word) in which followers become mediums for various deities.

I have had the incredible good fortune of meeting Ms Tú Trần Thanh, who's being photographing hầu đồng ceremonies, gaining access through her many contacts with its community, and her friendship with Ms Lê Ánh Tuyết, Mr 'Tony" Trinh, and Ung Anh Tuan to name but a few.

So here I am in Ha Noi for the past week working on this particular project, whose probable apex was yesterday.

I can't recall the last time I pulled an all-nighter (except for the 16 hours flights from NYC to Hong Kong and beyond) but last night was nothing short but incredible.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Driving from Ha Noi to a temple called Đền Tam Phủ in the outskirts of Quang Ninh was not too long, and was well worth the distance. When we arrived for the private hầu đồng ceremony, I realized that there were four of these ceremonies being held at the temple. It seemed March 27 was an auspicious day in the lunar calendar, and the whole day and night would see consecutive ceremonies. The private ceremony I was invited to would start around 11 pm and continue well in the wee hours of the morning.

Yes, hầu đồng ceremonies can last for up to 6 hours. To cut to the chase, we started photographing the ceremonies at around 4:00 pm, and ended at 5:00 am...or thereabouts. Not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination, especially as the lighting conditions at the temple were challenging (no, make that atrocious), and we had only a few clear and comfortable angles to shoot from.

Photo © Tewfic EL-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
So it was certainly not a walk in the park. The rapid movements of the mediums (sometimes unanticipated, sometimes slow...others frenetic...not really following a set pattern and perhaps capricious to a certain extent) coupled with the bad lighting make it very difficult.

I mostly used my XF 18mmf/2 R pancake lens mounted on the X-T1, which gave me the angle necessary to capture as much of the scenes that I wanted. I tried to use the XF 56mm f/1.2 R but it was struggling in the low light because of the flickering candles used by the mediums.

That said, I am disappointed that XF 56mm f/1.2 R let me down. It's a gorgeous lens for portraits but it doesn't seem suited for action (even deliberate) shots. I hardly used the XF 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6R LM OIS WR (too slow) or the Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 (too wide).

Am I finished with the hầu đồng project? Not at all. But after the all-nighter, it'd be wiser to pass on today's ceremony in Hoa Lac, and wait for the next one on Sunday.