Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Hiroshi Watanabe | Kabuki Players

Photo © Hiroshi Watanabe - All Rights Reserved
Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese drama with highly stylized song, mime, and dance, now performed only by male actors, using exaggerated gestures and body movements to express emotions, and including historical plays, domestic dramas, and dance pieces.

This art form was created by a woman named Okuni, a shrine attendant, in the 17th century. Although greatly influenced by the aristocratic noh, kabuki was devised as a popular entertainment for the masses. A large part of the popularity of the early, all-female performances was due to their sensual nature. These performers were also prostitutes and male audiences often got out of control. As a result, women were banned from performing by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and only older males were allowed to take part in kabuki.

Hiroshi Watanabe, a Japanese photographer, features a wonderful gallery of square format portraits of non-professional kabuki performers in the small town of Nakatsugawa; located midway between Tokyo and Kyoto. He tells us that these perfromers do not get paid for their acting in the kabuki plays and have to dig deep into their pockets to pay for the intricate makeup, costumes and stage backdrops.

We also learn that the small town wasn't large enough to attract the itinerant kabuki troupes, so the town elders decided to have its own kabuki theater, hire the actors, make up artists and stage people. It became the town's tradition since the Edo period.

Hiroshi Watanabe was born in Sapporo, Japan and graduated from the Department of Photography of Nihon University in 1975. He moved to Los Angeles working in Japanese television commercials and later obtained an MBA from the UCLA Anderson Business School in 1993. Subsequently, he started to travel worldwide, extensively photographing and since 2000, has worked full-time at photography.

He produced five self-published books, then published I See Angels Every Day, monochrome portraits of patients and scenes from San Lázaro psychiatric hospital in Quito, Ecuador. This work won Japan’s 2007 Photo City Sagamihara Award for professional photographers. He won many awards for his monographs and books, and was invited to join a group of artists to photograph Venice for a project raising funds for that city.

Monday, 22 May 2017

An Afternoon With The Chinese Opera | Fuji X-Pro 2

Laosheng (老生, old man)
As another string to my 'Chinoiserie' phase, I've been very attracted (visually and culturally) for quite some time to the art of what is generally known as Chinese Opera. I speak no Chinese, but it (in its many different ethnic varieties) being centuries old and performed in colorful costumes make for an visually appeal that's hard to resist capturing with my cameras.

Following my 5-6 hour photo shoot of performers at the Yuet Wan Cantonese Opera Association in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago, I resolved to continue on the path that I hope might lead me to another long term project similar to my two year long Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam, and discovered from an ad plastered all over NYC's Chinatown featuring a Chinese Opera to be held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Auditorium on Mott Street.

I booked my seat for May 21 and with my Fuji X-Pro2 and a a panoply of lenses, was at the door half an hour before the opening time of 12:25 pm. I showed my credentials at the door, and asked for Gigi (who was in charge of the show) for her permission to photograph the performers in their full regalia at the end of the show.

Clearly not in the mood of being helpful of allowing anything of the sort, she swatted my credentials and request aside as a bothersome fly, and told me to return at 6:00 pm. Knowing a brush-off when I saw one, I sat in my assigned seat resolving to make the best of the situation, and eyed various other possibilities where i could stand unimpeded. I was the only non-Chinese to attend the show.

I also realized as the performance started that I had a rather good view of the stage and performers, especially as no one was seated in front of me. A stroke of luck to make up for Gigi's ill temper.

One of the first characters to appear on stage was the clown and the old man (the latter possibly the character in the top image). Clowns can be male or female and are sly or stupid, sometimes mean, but invariably ridiculous and laughter-provoking. This one had the audience cackling at some of his repartees.

At various stages of the skits, the Dan (female) performers appeared, and sang and acted quite well. The Dan mainly depict middle-aged or young female roles, who usually wear heavy makeup. Their cheeks are mostly painted red to set off the powdery white of the forehead, nose and jaw. Heavy black greasepaint is used to highlight the eyes and brows, and red color is applied to the lips to demonstrate the classical beauty of Chinese women.

I found that using the X-Pro2 fitted with the 18-135mm Fujinon lens was just perfect to capture the action from my seat, and I had no need to stand or move to another location within the room. Most of my images were shot at an ISO of 1000-1200, higher than what I am accustomed to, but the noise on the images is hardly noticeable.

The Beijing Opera of China is inscribed on UNESCO's World Intangible Cultural Heritages List in 2001 (as is Dao Mau, Vietnam's Mother Goddess religion), and is a national treasure with a history of more than 200 years. It is the most influential sort of traditional operas in China. The performers' make up takes hours to apply, using the color red, purple, black, white, blue, green, yellow, dark red, gray, golden and silver, with each color representing a unique stereotype character.

I intend to pursue this project as far as it will take me. It might come to an abrupt stop should I be unable to find a "connection" to it, but all signs so far are that it may work out.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Wing Shya | An Influence

Photo © Wing Shya - All Rights Reserved
"Of course Wong Kar Wai yelled at me. Imagine some guy coming to photograph Leslie Cheung and everything comes out blurred. You'd wonder, what's this guy's attitude?"

Whilst thinking and working on one of my side projects (tentatively known as The Red Qi Pao), I sought the influence of Wong Kar-Wai's cinematography, especially in evidence in his seminal In The Mood For Love. Then discovered the photography of Wing Shya, known for his raw, smoky images from the golden era of Hong Kong cinema.

Reading various of Wing's interviews just a few days ago, I learned that he writes film scripts for his editorials, and that every photograph has a complete, fictional backstory. And this is what I started doing almost a year ago in my initial effort of that sort, and which I titled The Old China Cafe, and whose sequel will be The Red Qi Pao, currently a work in progress. 

I write about this very thing in a previous blog post, saying "My "chinoiserie" phase is not really about fashion and/or attractive models (although it's obviously nice to include them), but about a theme. The theme of "Shanghai-1940" is one that I seek to recreate through still photography and audio, and weave a narrative into stories...akin to short movies."

Wing Shya is a prolific contemporary artist best known for his award-winning film and photography. He studied at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Canada, and was appointed by film director Wong Kar-Wai to work exclusively as his photographer on several acclaimed films such as Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, Eros and 2046. 

It is out of these experiences that his photographs are imbued with so much  cinematographic styles. He used fashion photography as his primary style, and blurred the boundaries between still photography and movie making with his images appearing as captured stills from a film.

He is one of Asia's most iconic photographers, well known for his evocative images depicting tan erstwhile era of Hong Kong, and I look forward to further study his work. While my own project will not be restricted to a specific location (other than being a Chinatown and following my Chinoiserie phase), his work in fashion and Hong Kong will be of tremendous help.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Malay Princess | Fuji GFX50s & X-Pro2

I had many chances of using the combination of my newly-acquired ('medium format') Fuji GFX50s with a 63mm fixed lens, along with my favorite go-to camera X-Pro2 and the 16-55mm lens in Kuala Lumpur.

One of these opportunities to put the GFX50s through its paces was to produce a themed project involving a Malay young woman (Ms Sarah Dalina) wearing the traditional dress called kebaya. The kebaya is a traditional blouse-dress combination that originated from the court of the Javanese Majapahit Kingdom, and is traditionally worn by women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Burma, southern Thailand, Cambodia and the southern part of the Philippines.

Through the help of Ms Shuhada Hasim (herself a talented photographer), we settled on a traditional Malay house located on Jalan Datuk Keramat, in the center of Kuala Lumpur. This lovely house was the perfect backdrop for the project. While traditional Malay houses have diversity of styles according to each states, provinces, and sub-ethnics, there is some commonalities between them such as, being built on stilts (this one was not), having external staircases, partitioned rooms, vernacular roofs and colorful decorative accents.

The Malay Princess gallery consists of 4 GFX50s photographs, and 5 were made with the X-Pro2. Naturally, it'd be quasi impossible for anyone to distinguish between the two as these were processed using Iridient Developer 3 and toned with Color Efex Pro 4.

I particularly liked two of the photographs in this series: the one in which Sarah poses on the house's porch with a lantern in her hands, and the last photograph in which she sits curled up in an antique 'plantation-style' chair enjoying the cool air from an old floor fan behind her.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Thaipusam Festival In Singapore | Hendra Lauw

Here's an interesting and compelling slideshow on Thaipusam, the Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community during January or February. It's mainly observed in countries where there is a significant presence of Tamil community such as India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.

Thaipusam is a celebration dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan (youngest son of Shiva and his wife Parvati). 

This particular slideshow was made of a combination of color and monochrome photographs. Thaipusam is a rather striking festival with devotees shaving their heads and undertaking a pilgrimage along a set route while carrying out various acts of devotion, which may include self-mortification by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers.

For my taste, the slideshow relies too heavily on the Ken Burns effect; presumably thought by the photographer to add focus to the scenes, but I thought was distracting. Nonetheless, the slideshow made of photographs from a Fuji X-T1, X-T2, and Fujinon XF 14mm f/2.8, XF 23mm f/2.0 and XF 90mm f/2.0 lenses, provides a thorough view of the festival as it occurs.

Hendra Lauw is a Singapore-based photographer. With a background as programmer and IT project manager, he also won the Singapore Best Photography Blog Award in 2010, Best South East Asia Photoblog in 2007 and was finalist for the Best Portrait Photography Photoblog in 2007. He can also be followed on Instagram.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Travel Photographer's Chinoiserie Phase

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
Chinoiserie (from 'chinois' the French for Chinese) is a style inspired by art and design from China, Japan and other Asian countries. Fashion designers, furniture makers, wallpaper designers, artists and photographers have consistently been heavily influenced and inspired to produce work that reflect this aesthetic.

My chinoiserie "phase" has been bubbling for quite a while. Certainly influenced by my travels over the past two years to Hanoi, and annual visits to Kuala Lumpur, it was triggered by a couple of visits to The Old China Cafe; an atmospheric eatery in KL's Chinatown's vicinity, and which in turn resulted in a short audio-slideshow bearing the same name.

My immersive experience in the Vietnamese Hầu Đồng rituals for my photo book was another push in this direction, especially with the fashion sense and the ethnic costumes of the mediums.

Yet another influence of mine is In the Mood for Love (Chinese: 花樣年華), the 2000 Hong Kong film directed by Wong Kar-wai, starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. It's moody theme is especially inspiring. 

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy -All Rights Reserved
Whilst in Kuala Lumpur in the past couple of weeks, I was fortunate to have the help of Stanley Hong; a part-time photographer, who shared my getting involved in a couple of "chinoiserie" projects, and made it possible for us to photograph at various exotic locations such as the Old China Cafe and Opium; both in Kuala Lumpur.

My "chinoiserie" phase is not really about fashion and/or attractive models (although it's obviously nice to include them), but about a theme. The theme of "Shanghai-1940" is one that I seek to recreate through still photography and audio, and weave a narrative into stories...akin to short movies.

What I also enjoyed during my photo shoots in Kuala Lumpur is 'directing'. Whether with Tracy Yee or Carolyn Yin, I conjured a storyline that could fit into a longer one, and that will hopefully and ultimately result into a multi-episode work.

For these photo shoots, I used the Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fuji GFX50s.

Friday, 21 April 2017

And On To The Travel Photographer Society

I will soon be on my way to Kuala Lumpur to attend the many events at Travel Photographer Society; whose mission it to promote the work and expertise of photographers from across the globe, as well as providing enrichment programs such as workshops, talks, photo contests and photography exhibitions.

I am scheduled to give a 6 days workshop on 'telling stories with photographs and audio'; a sort of simplified multimedia workshop for photographers and photojournalists.

I shall also give a 40 minute talk on "The Joys (And Angst) of The Personal Project"; during which I will share how I immersed myself in the world of Vietnam's Hầu Đồng rituals, and the joys (and disappointments) in producing Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnama 170-page photo book, over the course of 18-24 months.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Experimenting With The Fuji GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
I had been ruminating getting involved with medium format photography for quite some time. In fact, I had used the analog Mamiya 645 many years ago, but when I tried to have its defective shutter replaced a few months ago, I was told that the lack of readily-available parts would make it difficult, lengthy and potentially costly. Then I reflected on having to get involved in buying films, have them processed, scanned et al. So that impulse came to a halt.

I've been using the X-Pro2 (and a panoply of prime and zoom Fuji lenses) as my primary go-to camera since mid-2016 and was (and still am) perfectly content with the quality of its images. I also used -to a lesser extent- two Fuji X-T1 cameras which came in handy when I needed them for certain situations. So my gear needs were more than satisfied in terms of image quality and job requirements.

Nevertheless, the medium format itch was still there. I read all the reviews that were available on various photography websites. Many were obviously overly-gushing in their praise of the camera, whilst a few were more sensible and measured in their recommendations. 

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
My just acquired "new-car-smell" GFX50s was in my hands on March 21st in Tokyo. When testing it at the retailer, I immediately and instinctively understood the menu (almost identical to the X-Pro2's), and the ergonomics felt perfect. I did think a couple of buttons were awkwardly placed, but reading through the online manual, I assigned the function of playback to the down selector button (as one example).

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I thought fitting the GFX50s strap could wait until I was back in NYC, bought a hand strap/cord fitted to the tripod mount, and carried it in a should bag. I tested it quite a lot in Senso-ji, the famous Tokyo  shrine, and in the streets of Kyoto. 

I did not find it too heavy to carry or to hold. As I said earlier, it's lighter than my Canon DSLRs, and its ergonomics are comfortable for hand-holding. That said, it's certainly not an X-Pro2 for street photography, and it's auto-focus is not as fast; with or without the face-detection option. I managed to shoot a few on-the-fly photographs of people walking about, but, for the time being and until I get the hang of it, it's not ideal for the kind of street photography I am used to. This too will have to wait.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Other than that, the GFX50s performed flawlessly when I used it to photograph rather static subjects and the not-so-static but very willing young women posing in their kimonos in Kyoto and Tokyo. Its image quality is superlative, but I found I needed to choose the aperture/iso wisely as its heft/weight meant that on occasions my hand-holding was not steady enough for pin-sharp photographs.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Whether on my laptop or desktop, I used Iridient Developer 3 to process either the GFX50s' RAW or jpgs with no difficulty at all. If need be, I used Color Efex Pro 4 to add some saturation and vignetting to the images.

A few months ago, I've written a blog post titled 'Can The X-Pro2 Do The Job Of The GFX50s?', and now that I have both, I believe it can (despite the variance between the X-Pro2's 24 megapixels and the GFX50s' 51.4 megapixels -which matters to pixel-peepers-).
However, using the medium format will push me into an ancillary trajectory to my "travel meets photojournalism" niche, and merge fashion-travel photography style into it, and it will allow me to photograph thematic ethnic fashion wherever I travel.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Terri Gold | Still Points In A Turning World Exhibition

Photo © Terri Gold - All Rights Reserved
Terri Gold is an award-winning photographer and artist based in New York City, and has built an impressive reputation for her infrared imagery of rituals, rites of passage, festivals, celebrations and portraits from all over the world. 

Her work “Still Points in a Turning World,” is a life-long series of images exploring our universal cross-cultural truths: the importance of family, community, ritual and the amazing diversity of its expression. The images are from Niger, Namibia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and China & India, and will be shown at a forthcoming exhibition here in New York City: 

It's one of many well deserved recognition of her talent and energy, and of her unwavering commitment to her craft. Her work has garnered many awards, is shown in galleries internationally and has been published extensively. Recent exhibitions of her work have taken place in Spain, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Colorado, Vermont and at The Annenberg Space for Photography in conjunction with the "No Strangers" exhibition. Recent awards include the International Photography Awards, Prix de la Photographie, Paris (Px3), Humanity Photo Awards, and the Black and White Spider Awards.

Terri's work has been published by Random House, Penguin Putnam, and Henry Holt, featured on numerous high profile photography blogs. She is represented by Getty Images, and has taught at the Cape Cod Photo Workshop and ICP. Terri is also a member of ASMP and National Association of Photoshop Professionals.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Tokyo Noir With the X-Pro2/18mm

As all large metropolitan cities (and this one is the largest and most populated), Tokyo has proven to be a 'gift that keeps giving' for street photography. This megapolis has super modern skyscrapers, neon lights (that rival NYC's Times Square), unusual fashion sense, faceless salarymen (and women) with surgical masks, temples and narrow alleys from the 1940s, small eateries that ought to have samurais in full regalia as patrons, occasional kimono-clad ladies and an eerie cleanliness....and everything seems to work efficiently, painlessly and politely.

Wandering the various distinct areas of Tokyo such as the famous crosswalk intersection in front of Shibuya Station; Shinjuku, Japan’s largest red light district, and the narrow alleys of of Golden Gai and Memory Lane; the red light district of Kabukicho; Harajuku and its crowded Takeshita Dori; Ginza, the capital's most famous upscale shopping district; Asakusa with the incomparable Sensoji temple; and Tsukiji Market, one of the largest fish markets in the world and its surrounding stalls and eating places, are all areas 'created' for taking street photographs.

I found that the Tokyo-residents were generally not as 'photo-friendly' as other Asian nationalities. As an example, some of the cos-play dressed young women walking in Harajuku covered their faces when they saw my camera. Most of the “maids” advertising Maid Cafes in Akihabara also covered their faces with their hands or their pamphlets whenever they noticed cameras pointed at them....understandably perhaps, as dressing up in maid costumes, and enticing young men (mostly) to go to their cafes is not exactly well-regarded....but it's a job.

My style of "shooting-from-the-hip" worked well in the streets of Tokyo. I managed to capture a lot of facial expressions that wouldn't have been there if I had raised my Fuji X-Pro2 to my eye, and composed normally.

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Greatest Show On Earth With The X-Pro2/18mm

In his 2013 episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain called the Robot Restaurant as "The Greatest Show On Earth". It is in the narrow streets/alleys of Kabukicho, Shinjuku, that the Robot Restaurant's facade immediately assaults one's senses, by standing out in its utter glitzy gaudiness amongst its more "normal"neighboring establishments.

Since Bourdain got the shock of his life here, it has become a magnet for foreign visitors seeking to experience the same "buzz' he had. the cabaret show is reported to have cost in excess of $10 million (some say $100 million, which beggars belief), and provides an overwhelming LSD-like experience of robots, loud thumping electronic music, strobing neon lights, giant animatronics, hyper pop songs and naturally, scantily-clad shapely dancing girls whose names range from Namie Osawa, Love Katase and Rin Tanba.

While the whole atmosphere looks more like the interior of a very gaudy cruise ship and more lights than Las Vegas, the show is unique and mind-boggling (or mindless). It's very popular despite that it's $60 per person to watch the 60-minutes show. Imagine robots engaging in mock battles with beautiful bikini-clad, drumming and ninja fighting Japanese women riding neon tanks and giant fembots; while other robots roller-skate and dance swathed in a rainbow of neon lights.

I had read somewhere that photography with "large" cameras was prohibited, and that's perhaps the reason I was freely able to use the small X-Pro2 and the Fujinon 18mm 2.0 during the whole show. Its small size let it slip under the radar. l just pushed the ISO almost as high as it would go and, almost instinctively, snapped away as fast as I could with little disregard to composition. The blinking strong multi-colored lights often fooled the camera's exposure system.

I wasn't optimistic at the number and quality of the resulting images, so was extremely surprised that there many more that were completely usable...way more than I expected. I knew Fuji cameras have been known for their high ISO performance, but I am very pleased with the performance of the X-Pro2 and the 18mm Fujinon lens (at its largest aperture) at such a venue with disparate light intensities, and rapid movement of the performers.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Travel Photographer Society Awards 2017

© Zarni Myo Win-Courtesy Travel Photographer Society
It has been a pleasure and an eye opening experience to be part of the jury that adjudicated the Travel Photographer Society Awards 2017. The entries were incredibly powerful, beautiful, compelling and imaginative. And it's extremely gratifying to have Zarni Myo Win of Myanmar winning the overall prize with his monochromatic photograph of three boys jumping off a mythical lion statue into the Irrawaddy river near Mandalay's Mya Thein Tan Pagoda, .

It is infrequent to see a monochromatic image submitted to travel competitions, and the composition of the scene is "balanced". The sense of timing is perfect. I also liked the toning done to the photograph...it gives the clouds an ominous look, but the waters are dark but calm, and the unmistakable insouciance of the youths gives the overall image a wonderful feeling.

Congratulations to all the winners, and for more of the top 45 TPS Awards, click here.

Some of the other and equally talented category winners are:

Category Winner Landscape/Environment. © Giuseppe Mario (Etna Eruption)

Category Winner Travel/Documentary: © Yen Sin Wong. (Suri)
Category Winner: People/Culture. © Corneliu Cazacu (Girl With Bear Skin)

Category Winner: Street. © Moin Uddin (The Man’s Stare)
As for the Editors' Choice Winners, these are:

Landscape/Environment: © Jan Pusdrowski. Flames of Herostratus
Travel/Documentary: © Nick Ng Yeow Kee (A Day’s Work)
 People/Culture: © Suhaimi Abdullah (Color My World)
Street: © Maria Kassimatis. (British Commonwealth)

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Short Break In Tokyo And Beyond

It's thrilling -and sometimes disconcerting- to be in a country that is totally both new and so different in its complexities. That said, the politeness and kindness of the Japanese are heartwarming and dispel the presumption of stiffness and formality.

The young lady in her rented kimono at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is emblematic of the youth of this fascinating society. 

I will try to post as the days go by....however at a lower frequency than usual.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Hầu Đồng Ca | Le Thanh Tung/Ngoc Nau

It certainly seems like my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam and the subsequent inclusion of Đạo Mẫu (the Mother Goddess religion) in UNESCO's List of Intangible Heritage has ushered an increased awareness and interest in this indigenous faith-based tradition in Vietnam and elsewhere (excluding New York-based Asia Society's shameful and incomprehensible cold shoulder). 

Many local and foreign artists are embracing this wonderful ancient tradition, and some are emerging from the "wilderness" they had been in because of the past disapproval of the Vietnamese government towards it. It took time for this attitude to soften, and Đạo Mẫu is currently no longer under a cloud.

I thought I'd feature two distinct art forms celebrating Đạo Mẫu and Hầu Đồng. The first is an eclectic project by two Vietnamese artists; Le Thanh Tung and Ngoc Nau as per the above short movie of a wireframe of Ngoc dancing in a 3D environment.

The purists and traditionalists might not appreciate it, but I believe if it brings the "new" into the "old", the tradition will grow stronger. It mixes the lovely tradition chau van music/song with a sort of electronic musical track, and the 'dancing' is by Ngoc Nau. Le Thanh Tung is an Art Director who successfully has been working on commercial projects with international brands. Nguyen Hong Ngoc is an artist who combines the use of photography, light and experimental video.

Painting © Tran Tuan Long - Courtesy VN Express International
The other -but much more traditional- is by Hanoi artist Tran Tuan Long, who just unveiled two decades of lacquer paintings depicting the deities and spirit mediums of Đạo Mẫu. VNExpress International newspaper recently featured his work in an nicely written article by Ms Trang Bui Quynh.

I was fascinated to read that Long first stepped in the world of Đạo Mẫu and Hầu Đồng in 1995. In the dark of night, he witnessed a group of mediums quietly offering furtive calls to the Mother Goddess as police and farmers quietly slept.

Three years later, he painted his recollections of the experience on a wooden board. For the next 20 years, mediums in colorful costumes became the protagonists of Long's 26 lacquer paintings, each of which took a month to complete.

I'm looking forward to see the work of more Vietnamese artists celebrating their nation's heritage and indigenous faith, whether in photography, painting, installation and music.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Christian Rodriguez | Xiếc (Vietnamese Circus)

Photo © Christian Rodriguez - All Rights Reserved
I've always thought that circus performers had sad lives. Perhaps it was becasue of the clowns with their tragic-comical faces and makeups. So I'm not all all surprised that Hanoi’s prestigious state-run circus, a relic of Vietnam’s Marxist past, lost a third of its budget and will have no government funding at all by the end of the decade.

It is reported that a majority of circus artists suffer occupation-related illnesses.Common conditions include broken limbs, fractured bones, spine curvature, and stomach ailments, while bruises and bleeding occur on a daily basis. And circus artists in Vietnam are paid poorly, face numerous health risks, and even suffer life-threatening, debilitating conditions from their lifelong dedication to their profession.

Christian Rodriguez brings us close to the backstage lives of these Vietnamese circus performers in his compelling Xiếc photo essay. He spent eight months in Vietnam over the years of three trips from 2009 to 2012, and managed to produce intimate images of these workers by living amongst them; taking up residence for four months in an abandoned theater in Hanoi, where the performers had to build their own rooms out of wood and plastic. 

He tells us that the circus artists in Vietnam make about $150 a month, plus another $4 for each performance. This is not enough to live on, so most of them augment their salaries by performing at private parties or nightclubs. The Vietnam Circus Federation was founded by Mr. Ta Duy Hien (1889-1966) on January 16, 1956. However, things change and although circuses are still popular in Vietnam, especially in small towns and villages, the Vietnamese in the larger cities have found other forms of entertainment.

Christian Rodriguez is an Uruguayan photographer, whose work focuses on issues related to gender and identity. He studied different drawing and painting techniques, and worked as cameraman at VTV (Uruguay). He joined the staff of the newspaper El Observador (Uruguay), and collaborated with various news agencies such as France Presse, AP, EFE, and Reuters. He also produced fashion and advertising campaigns. Amongst his assignments were the coverage of the conflict between Israel-Hezbollah in the southern Lebanon. In 2011 he was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass of the World Press Photo. His work has been published in different international media such as The New York Times, ​The Guardian, The New Yorker, El Mundo, Yo Dona, Esquire, La Nación, El País, Página 12, ABC, El Observador, and Lento, among many others; and it has been exhibited in Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, United States, Spain, France, Italy, UK and Cambodia. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Leonid Plotkin | The Bauls, Men of Heart

Photo © Leonid Plotkin | All Rights Reserved
I've lost count as to how many times I have featured Leonid Plotkin's work on The Travel Photographer blog. 

His latest work is Men of Heart, and is on the Bauls who are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal (Indian State and Bangladesh). The Bauls are members of a syncretic religious sect, and a follow a distinct musical tradition. A very heterogeneous group, with many sects, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims. They are often identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments. 

Baul music celebrates heavenly love, but does this in very earthy terms, as in declarations of love by the Baul for his female partner. Baul devotional music also transcends religion and some of its famed composers criticized the superficiality of religious divisions.

The music of the Bauls and its lyrics carry influences of the Hindu bhakti movements and a form of Sufi song exemplified by the songs of Kabir. Their music represents a long heritage of preaching mysticism through songs in Bengal.

Apart from his compelling photographs, what I like about Leonid's work is that he adds very informative captions under each of his photographs, so take the time to read each one as it'll give you a very good idea about this musical genre.

Leonid Plotikin is a freelance documentary photographer and writer. His work has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The Economist, Penthouse Magazine, Student Traveler, Budget Travel, Discovery Magazine, MSN.com and others.


While leading the Kolkata's Cult of Durga Photo Expedition/Workshop in 2011, we were fortunate to photograph a private -and mesmerizing- performance by the Baul Satyananda and his partner Hori, a Japanese woman who was fluent in Bengali. I believe that Leonid's photograph featured on this blog post is of Satayanda. 

Here is mine.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Friday, 3 March 2017

Corentin Fohlen | Haiti's Karnaval

Photo © Corentin Fohlen | All Rights Reserved

Every year in the small port of Jacmel, in the south of Haiti, the most important festival is held with residents wearing incredibly colorful and fantastical costumes. The festival is called Karnaval and for more than 100 years, it has been held in various cities around the island to showcase the island's unique creole culture.

Corentin Fohlen began to photograph Haitians by creating a makeshift studio on a city sidewalk near the Karnaval celebrations, where he could create portraits of each unique costume. 

The Karnaval festivities were traditionally considered sinful to Protestant Haitians, and participation was discouraged by their churches.  The festivities were criticized for condoning sexually-suggestive dancing, profanity-filled plays, music lyrics mocking authority, and vodou music rhythms.

As with other Mardis Gras carnivals, the festivities in Haiti enabled its people to enjoy the pleasures of life before the beginning of the Catholic Lent season, a period of 40 days and nights of fasting and penance leading up to Easter. The tradition was imported to Haiti and elsewhere in the Americas during European settlement. 

I am always fascinated at how Haitian Creole has absorbed French words, and morphed them into its own language. For example, here is a phrase used during the Karneval:

mete menn' anlè which in French is 'mets les mains en l'air' ('put your hands in the air').

Corentin Fohlen is a French photographer, whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Monde magazine, Paris Match, Libération, Stern, Polka Magazine, Le Monde, le Figaro, 6 Mois, Le Point, l’Obs, le JDD, l’Express, Marianne, Le Temps, L’Hebdo, Die Zeit, la Vie, les Inrockuptibles, Jeune Afrique, Afrique Magazine, le Pèlerin, Causette, La Croix, Le Parisien Magazine, Wondereur. He has also worked for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Handicap International, le Haut Commissariat aux Réfugiés (UNHCR), ASMAE-association Soeur Emmanuelle.

Since 2012, he has been involved in long term projects in Haïti. He is endeavoring to show a different view of the island nation. As a consequence of his 19 stays in Haïti,  he produced the book HAÏTI, published in January 2017. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Giselle Natassia | Thailand's Vegetarian Festival

Photo © Giselle Natassia - All Rights Reserved
This blog post will lead to a photo gallery that featured graphic and possibly disturbing images.

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is a nine-day Taoist celebration starting on the eve of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and is observed in a number of Asian countires, including Thailand.

In Thailand, this festival is called thetsakan kin che or the Vegetarian Festival. Celebrated throughout the entire country, it is at its height in Phuket, where more than a third of the population is Thai Chinese. The festival honors the nine Taoist emperor gods. During the Vegetarian Festival, Thai people practice jay, or veganism.

Men (rarely women) participate in this self-mutilation ritual, and are called masongs. They are men possessed by gods or deities during the festival. Only pure, unmarried men without families of their own can become a masong.
 The deities inside them protects them from feeling any pain, and allows them to walk across hot coals or exploding fireworks and bathe in hot oil. They pierce their mouths, cheeks, ears, and arms with fish hooks, knives, razor blades and bamboo poles.

Often, a person is contacted during a dream, vision, or period of long illness, and are told they have been chosen to become a masong. There are several reasons that a masong is chosen. The chosen person may be close to impending doom or death, and becoming a masong extends their lifetime. Also, such a person may be rewarded for maintaining good moral qualities during their lifetime.

After this preamble, you might be ready to view Giselle Natassia's Vegetarian Festival.

Giselle Natassia is an Australian photographer specializing in advertising, documentary and entertainment photography. She has a BA in Creative Advertising Design and a Bachelor of Creative Industries. She won numerous awards and has been published both at home and abroad. The publications include National Geographic, Vice Magazine and Pilerats. 

Saturday, 25 February 2017

In The Courtyard of The Beloved

IN THE COURTYARD OF THE BELOVED by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

Ms Fatima Bhutto, daughter of Benazir Bhutto, recently wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times bemoaning the gruesome event of an attack by the so-called "Islamic State" on a Sufi shrine in Pakistan, and described the Sehwan shrine as "... an egalitarian oasis formed by the legacies and practice of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism merging into one.

The shrine of Moin'Uddin Chisti is another.

Over the course of about a week, I photographed -virtually non-stop- at this shrine during the annual Urs (commemoration of death anniversary) of the Sufi saint Moin'Uddin Chisti. The shrine is in Ajmer, Rajasthan (India) and hosts one of the largest Muslim pilgrimages in the world. 

It was most certainly one of my three most intense photographic experiences. 

The 'ecosystem' feeding off the shrine consists of pious pilgrims, vagabonds and charlatans, sightseers, mendicants and beggars, fakirs, shoppers, established and opportunistic vendors, pickpockets and thieves, the poor, the wealthy, the venal and the innocent...who come here during the Urs to seek spiritual salvation, riddance of 'jinns', money and entertainment. Even the transgendered hijras come to Ajmer to take part in the veneration of Gharib Nawaz. 

The pilgrimage is populated by Muslims (Shi'a and Sunni, Sufis and non Sufis), Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Christians and non-believers, who all congregate to pay homage to the most important Sufi saint of South Asia. 

This blog post and an update to the gallery was prompted by the recent news that a suicide bomber affiliated with the so-called Islamic State attacked Sehwan Sharif, one of the most revered Sufi shrines in Pakistan, killing more than 80 people, including 24 children, and wounding more than 250. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Shinya Arimoto | Portraits of Tibet

Photo © Shinya Arimoto - All Rights Reserved

I don't think I've featured the work of a Japanese photographer on The Travel Photographer blog before, and especially not one who traveled a number of times in Tibet.

Tibet, on the situated on the Tibetan Plateau on the northern side of the Himalayas, is an autonomous region of China. It shares Mt. Everest with Nepal. Its capital, Lhasa, is site of hilltop Potala Palace, once the Dalai Lama’s winter home, and Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s spiritual heart, revered for its golden statue of the young Buddha.

While some quarters argue that China’s invasion of Tibet ended feudal and theocratic rule and started a liberation process, the fact remains that Tibet has been subjected to an old-fashioned colonization. The invasion by China produced tens of thousands of refugees, manmade famines, and attempts to wipe out local culture, religion, and language. It also brought in thousands of Chinese Han immigrants, and ruling officials.

However, let me set aside the geopolitics and introduce the work of Shinya Arimoto whose galleries of Tibet are mainly monochrome and in the square format.

Arimoto has three galleries: Portraits of Tibet, Why Now Tibet, and Tibetan Way (color). He visited and photographed in Tibet from 1994 to 1998, and published these monochrome photographs in his first photo book “Portrait of Tibet” in 1999. He revisited Tibet in 2009 to start another project which is still ongoing.

Shinya Arimoto learned the fundamentals of photography in a photo school in Osaka. He mainly uses a Hasselblad 903SWC, however, he used a Rolleiflex 2.8F when traveling in Tibet. He was photographing in India, and met a Tibetan in Dharmasala who motivated him to continue northward (illegally) into Tibet. 

He is currently teaching photography at the Tokyo School of Visual Arts, and has supervised and led the artist-run Totem Pole Photo Gallery since founding it in 2008.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

POV : Photojournalism's Uncertain Future

The New York Times recently featured two articles concerning the future of photojournalism, through interviews with Donald R. Winslow (editor of the National Press Photographers Association’s News Photographer magazine and newspaper) and Leslye Davis, a young video journalist and photographer for The New York Times.

In essence, the viewpoint of a veteran and an another  from an 'emerging' photojournalist.

Some of the statements made by both interviewees just jumped at me...total deja vu for me. Why deja vu? Well,  because I said exactly what they said during my classes at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshops and more recently during my 2016 talk at the Travel Photographer Society in Kuala Lumpur.

The statements that mirror mine (or vice versa) are:

"If you’re going to earn a living now, you have to be a photographer who occasionally does photojournalism. You have to be able to do wedding photography, corporate photography or event photography." (Donald Winslow).

"There were a few hundred people, mostly white men, who could make a good living internationally by parachuting into other countries." (Interviewer James Estrin of the NYT)

"You should be published, and you should also be able to do that if you’re black and you live in sub-Saharan Africa. Or if you’re Indian, or if you’re Japanese— your unique perspective is valuable, and it’s to the benefit of us all that it be shared." (Leslye Davis)

I said these words...almost verbatim to the photographers -veterans or emerging or non-professionals- who attended my workshop classes (and my photo talk in KL), and I started to say them in 2011. 

In January 2011, I was leading a workshop in Gujarat (India) and watching every night the Tahrir Square demonstrations that led to the Egyptian Revolution, and read and re-read the non-stop coverage in various on-line newspapers and magazines.

Many of the news outlets quickly dispatched their "top-notch" (most of them "white" men) photojournalists to Tahrir...but the so-called battled hardened conflict photographers had no real idea where to go, so they just 'parachuted' amongst the masses of the demonstrating Egyptians, and sent their photographs back to their employers. To me, most of their images seemed to have been taken by a camera affixed to a rotator...automatically clicking the shutter every seconds of the surrounding crowds.

And then I saw compelling images of Tahrir in Egyptian newspapers...made by young, and perhaps still inexperienced, local photojournalists with crappy cameras, and borrowed flash cards...who knew where to go in the crowds, in the back alleys of Tahrir...and get the real stories. They stayed...while the "parachutists" decamped in a couple of days when things got too risky for them. And slowly, these compelling images made their way to the world's media.

It was there and then that I realized that the age of "parachuting white" photojournalists" ended, and the era of talented non-Western photographers and photojournalists was on the upswing.

I had the pleasure of meeting many different ethnicities in my workshops and classes, and repeated my point of view that now was their time to shine....their time to break the monopoly (or oligopoly)...the grip that Western photojournalists had on the stories...on the "I bear witness" stories...and some of them did.

Is the grip completely loosened? Almost but not quite. 

I remember recently seeing a powerful photo essay by a well-known Australian photographer and photojournalist (and a regular contributor to The New York Times) covering the war on drugs in the Philippines, where thousands were killed since Rodrigo Duterte became president. The photo essay deservedly won first prize at the 2017 World Press Photo Contest, however I also saw an equally compelling photo essay by Raffy Lerma, a Filipino photojournalist which didn't receive much attention.

So, as in my own personal experience with the blinkered Asia Society has proven, the dinosaurian gatekeepers, editors or curators are still trying to have the ultimate say in who gets published, featured or gets a chance to succeed.

However, this too will not last long.