Saturday, 3 September 2016

My Book's Back Story | The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam

All Photographs © 2016 Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I remember September 12, 2014 very well. I was in Sa Pa, the famous hill station in northern Viet Nam, and despite the early morning humidity, the Black Hmong vendors were already waiting for tourists. I was walking on Fansipan Road, bantering with some of them, when I heard religious music wafting from a nondescript building. I asked the vendors and was told it was a temple. I walked in and met women dressed in red traditional clothes who, through sign language, told me that a ceremony would start at 9:00 am.

This is how my two-year long journey into the world of Đạo Mẫu, the indigenous Vietnamese mother goddess religion and hầu đồng, the ritual of spirit mediumship, started. Totally by accident. Serendipitously. 

I was flabbergasted that I hadn't heard of Đạo Mẫu before. My so-called specialty as a travel photographer is/was ethno-photography with special interest in esoteric religions and cults. And here, on a silver platter, was an ancient indigenous religion that had escaped my notice. To me, that was analogous at how cats react to catnip...the "happy" receptors in my brain went haywire.

It was after attending another 'stumbled-on' hầu đồng ceremony, this time two days later in the market town of Bac Ha, that I resolved to explore the religion, its rituals, its history and its practitioners. 

I had quickly researched the topic online, and discovered -to my surprise-  that no non-Vietnamese photographer had documented the religion and the ceremonies. There were commercial videos on YouTube and other sites, but no serious photographic essays or documentaries. It was at this point that I took it as a sign that I had to be the first to do that...and eventually this evolved into publishing the book: Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam.

Sharing The Ceremonial Wheat Wine Known As "Rượu Cần". Photo ©2016 Kim Nga
It took more than 18 months since that first accidental encounter with a Đạo Mẫu religious ceremony to reach the point where I felt I was ready to produce a substantial book about my journey into the depths of this esoteric religion, in its sacred rituals and music. 

Apart from the five or six trips of two weeks each to Hanoi, from attending over two dozen hầu đồng ceremonies in the capital, suburbs and further afield, and from interviewing some of the most popular spirit mediums, I researched Đạo Mẫu in as many publications and books that I could find. It wasn't readily available, and even the venerable New York Public Library wasn't able to find a specific historical tome in its inventory. I learned a lot from interviewing the mediums and by observing their mannerisms and styles during the ceremonies and in social settings.


On reviewing the material I had gleaned from my research and trips, I concluded my book would end up being between 150-200 pages, with about 100 full page color photographs.  I carefully chose and edited my photographs out of the thousands I had taken, and I started typing the manuscript.

The next step was to choose a print-on-demand publisher. I had toyed with the idea of using a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publishing costs for an offset printing, but decided against it as too time-consuming and potentially a time-waster. After a few tries, I settled on Blurb Books.

I have had past experience with Blurb Books, when I published two monochrome photo books:  Bali: Island of Gods and DARSHAN, but this would be the first time that I'd use them for a color photo book. Setting that aside, I had a number of reasons to use this popular print-on-demand publisher.

Firstly, I was used to Blurb Books' BookWright free tool, which allows users to publish custom photo books, magazines, and novels in either print or ebook format. I wasn't interested in its templates as I wanted total creative control on my book's layout, but I could use the rest of its features, including the ability to eventually produce the book in printed form and ebook.

At work using Blurb Books' BookWright
Secondly, Blurb Books has its own bookstore for books, and has a option which allows its users to publish their books on Amazon. Thirdly, I knew that Blurb Books could produce my books very quickly, and could deliver them efficiently to my eventual buyers.

This brings me to my efforts to get an international publishing house interested in my book. I collected a few of my best photographs of hầu đồng ceremonies, added a few paragraphs on the religion's background and emailed TASCHEN, TeNeues-USA, Phaidon and others. Most of the publishing houses demurred or didn't respond.

Being very pleased at the quality, layout and color reproduction of the dummy test book, I ordered a hard cover large format landscape version of the book, and offered it for sale as a special edition on my own website at a discount to start the marketing momentum. Not only were the results very encouraging, but the feedback made it all worthwhile.

Đạo Mẫu (and its Hầu Đồng rituals) is a fascinating syncretic religious practice mixing a number of artistic elements, such as music, singing, dance and the use of costumes. It also happens to be a joyous religious ceremony, without the dour, morose, guilt-ridden and fearsome ambiances of some other established religions we all know about.


The ceremonies are often joyous and engage the audience.

I had remarked in an earlier blog post that I had found a calling with this book project. 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 has literally supercharged, and reinvigorated, my enthusiasm for documentary photography, audio recording, storytelling and multimedia production over these past two years.

Pondering what to do with a gift of money and a lit cigarette during a ceremony. Photo © Hoang Anh
The special editions ready to go.