Friday, 11 January 2019

POV: Posing Storytelling Photo Shoots

Yiyi as The Girl of Nanjing (Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved)
One of the facets of my photography is the one that involves fashion, travel, tradition, culture, history and last but certainly not least, storytelling. Despite searching for similar work on the internet, I wasn't able to find an equivalent for such a production. Sure, there are many extremely talented photographers who specialize in awesome fashion and glamour imagery, and some who even go to striking artistry with fantastical extremes in makeup and elaborate backgrounds (such as the well known Japanese photographer Haseo, as an example).

Whether I'm the first (or only) photographer to adopt this storytelling fusion of fashion, history, tradition etc or not, I find working on the projects to be incredibly rewarding and challenging. 

Embarking on such photographic projects make me look for relevant snippets of history, social mores and art (for example, the occupation of Shanghai by the Japanese in the thirties, the  Chinoiserie fad of the 18th century, fictional stories similar to that of Madam Butterfly et al). I also learned the aesthetic of the cheongsam (aka qi pao) in its various forms, and the beauty of Chinese calligraphy. I also scoured the internet for Chinese legends, poetry and songs/music that inspired the 2-3 minutes plots of my photo films; as I call these audio slideshows.

And naturally, there's the bonus of working with beautiful and interesting women; whether professional or non-professional models. 

Ren Li Fung in The Legend of Hua (Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved)
The other challenge is to scout for and find the locations for the photo shoots; locations that provide a "badge" of authenticity to the resulting photo films. In the the case of The Girl of Nanjing, it was the water town of Qi Bao near Shanghai....and in the case of The Legend of Hua, it was the water town of Xinchang' at some distance from Shanghai as well...while the backdrop to The Songstress of Temple Street was Hong Kong's famous Tin Hau Temple and the Canton Singing House.

However, the most challenging of all the tasks involved in producing these photo films is to have the models literally become actors in the stories...not only because I want them to look the part of the betrayed lover, of the returning scorned avenger, of the famous singer haunting her past venues, but because I like them to narrate the story itself.

Consequently, the challenge is to talk the model into acting the part in front of my camera, and into an audio recording device. The latter is the most difficult,  as most have no previous narration experience. However, with some coaching...and many takes, they produce very usable narrations that add aural 'texture' to the slideshows.

Sapphire Kiu in The Songstress of Temple Street (Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved)
Naturally, some of the models will combine their "mechanical" posing experience with their acting skills, and that is the best of both worlds.

There are methods to make models comfortable. Some are already ready to act the part, while others need some handholding. In advance of the photo shoot, I provide models the story lines (or script) I want them to narrate. This is crucial, since with it in mind, they can act the role. The other method is to encourage them as they pose...not so much as how or where they are to stand, but reminding them of adopting certain poses following the script as in "show me how Meili wishes she had never met the gweilo"...or "show me how Hua is scared of seeing her aging lover...".



Since the scripts are naturally written in English, they have to be translated into Mandarin or Cantonese...and as can be seen by the handwritten corrections, this can take anywhere from an hour to a painstaking 4 hours (in a singularly complex narrative)  to get the right word(s) and the appropriate meaning. 

Another delicate process is the audio editing. Editing audio multi-tracks and synchronizing it with the sequencing of the images is a demanding process, and syncing can be either spot on, or a little off by a second or two to accommodate the images flow. 

So not all is unadulterated fun...but over all, it's one facet of my photography that I will continue to enjoy and refine.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Five Best of 2018 | Fashion Themed Story-Telling | GFX50s

Sapphire Kiu in The Songstress of Temple Street (Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved)
I usually end the year by posting a variety of my favorite photographs made during the past 12 months, but this year I'll feature only those images made for my fashion (cheongsam/qipao)-themed story-telling audio slideshows, AND using the Fuji GFX50s "medium format" camera along with its 63mm and 45mm prime lenses.

The image of Sapphire Kiu; a Hong Kong-based model (above), was made in early December 2018 on the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Temple street, and will be part of a forthcoming audio slideshow (aka photo film) titled "The Songstress of Temple Street". It will tell the story of Qin Yi, a famous Shanghai singer in the 1930s, who "returns" to Hong Kong where she started her career. Some of the images were made in Temple's Street Canton Singing House and the Tin Hau Temple.

The image's technical details: GFX50s + 45mm 2.8. 1/250. f4.0. 800 iso. center weighted average metering. It was processed with ON1's LUTs and the Chinese letters were added with CS...as were on the rest of the images in this blog post.


Feng Lee in The Fairy & The Erhu (Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved)
The second image is of Feng "Lisa" Lee, a tea cultivator and business woman from Taipei. It's one of the images of Lisa that was shot in the confines of a photo studio owned by Timothy Huang in mid December 2018. A selection of these studio shots along with other exterior images at the beautiful Lin Ben Yuan Family Mansion (林本源園邸) in Taipei were woven into a photo film titled The Fairy & The Erhu. There is no narration in this audio slideshow....just the lovely sound of the erhu; the traditional Chinese two-stringed bowed musical instrument. 

I chose to use Chinese letterings in the same color as the color of the qi pao/cheongsam worn by the talented and photogenic Feng Lee. 

The image's technical details: GFX50s + 63mm 2.8. 1/125. f7.1. 400 iso. Average metering. It was processed with Iridient Developer 6, and Color Efex.


Jinru Lee in The Phantom of the Opera  (Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved)
The third image is of Jinru Lee; a student and part-time model in Georgetown (Penang Island, Malaysia). It was made in late August 2018 under the sweltering sun of Penang, and inside the Cheah Kongsi Clan House Temple on Lebuh Armenian. I was in Penang to photograph the various Hokkien operas during the Hungry Ghost festival, and took the opportunity to set a photo shoot in its streets for a forthcoming audio slideshow (aka photo film) titled "The Phantom of the Opera". 

It will tell the story of a young woman named Yan Yan born in Penang in 1850, and kidnapped by pirates in the Malacca Straits to eventually become a leading Chinese opera performer. 

The image's technical details: GFX50s + 45mm 2.8. 1/30. f2.8. 400 iso. Manual Pattern metering. It was processed with ON1's LUTs and the Chinese letters were added with CS.



Ren Li Fung in The Legend of Hua (Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved)
The fourth image is of Ren Li "Betty" Fung; a marketing executive with an international corporation in Shanghai. It was made in late March at the lovely Shanghai Hanxiang Water Garden; a few miles outside of the megacity.  For this particular photo shoot, I had ordered a very sober qi pao/cheongsam and had it delivered directly to Betty's home.

Mixing the Hanxiang Water Garden photo shoot and another in the water town of Xinchang, I produced "The Legend of Hua"; a complex photo film meshing the topic of ghosts, opium, Shanghai in its 1930's heyday, traditional Chinese cultural and supernatural elements; all revolving around a plot of betrayal. Its plot is influenced by a 1988 movie by Stanley Kwan (in turn based on a novel by Li Pi-Hua (also known as Lillian Lee), one of the most influential Chinese TV writers, film writers and reporters.

The image's technical details: GFX50s + 63mm 2.8. 1/130. f2.8. 800 iso. Center Weighted metering. It was processed with ON1's LUTs and the Chinese letters were added with CS.



Yiyi in The Girl of Nanjing Road (Photo © Tewfic EL-Sawy | All Rights Reserved)
The fifth photograph is of Yiyi; a professional model, photographer and business woman in Shanghai. I had previously enjoyed working on a photo shoot with Yiyi, and in late March 2018, I wanted to produce a sequel and "The Girl of Nanjing Part II" was born.

The sequel's photo shoot was held in Qi Bao; an old water-town easily on Shanghai's extensive subway. The photo shoot was fun as it was a perfect spot for Yiyi -dressed in a red qi pao- to pose languidly posing amongst the benches and tables of the teahouse, disrupting the daily routine of the elderly men at its card tables.

The story tells us about a Shanghainese girl searching for her foreign lover during the turbulent 1930s when Japanese army was invading parts of China, and the city was a foreign concession. I added sound effects (bombs, bullets whizzing, etc) to give a wartime feel to the piece.

The image's technical details: GFX50s + 63mm 2.8. 1/1300. f4.0. 1600 iso. Pattern metering. It was processed with Iridient Developer 6, Color Efex and Chinese letters were added with CS.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Alessandro Bergamini | China's Guizhou

Photo © Alessandro Bergamini | All Rights Reserved
As a continuation of my own Sino-centric photographic trajectory, I'm on the lookout for the inspiring work of adventurous travel photographers whose travels have taken them to China's various provinces and regions to add to my blog.

I have found Alessandro Bergamini's China gallery to hit all the right notes in that regard. Most of his images were made in Guizhou; a province located in the southwestern part of the country, and well known for its traditional rural villages, inhabited by minority groups like the Miao and Dong. Other images in the gallery were made in Guangxi , another autonomous region bordering Vietnam, and home to the famous cormorant fishermen of Guilin. I haven't been but I read that even though the water is too polluted now for fishing to be sustainable, these fishermen are catnip for many photographers, and earn their living in that fashion.

Aside from his China gallery, don't miss exploring Alessandro's other images of Ethiopia, Myanmar (Burma) and India.

Alessandro Bergamini tells us that he is an Italian travel photographer from Finale Emilia in Italy. He started his photography with an old camera donated by his father, and traveled to some of the most remote regions of the world, capturing the spirit and visual cultures of his encounters. He perfected his post-production techniques to better reflect the atmosphere of the images he gleaned from his travels. During 2019, he offers travel workshops in the Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan) and Kashmir.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

On The Fly | Hong Kong & Taipei

on the fly by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

Playing the tourist in Hong Kong and Taipei for a couple of weeks last month gave me the opportunity to indulge in some candid street photography which is essentially the very definition of 'on the fly' photography.

The main shopping thoroughfares of Hong Kong such as Nathan Road and Canton Road (as examples) provide opportunities for street photography, although I must say the proliferation of cell phones (in Taipei as well) makes it a rare event to witness (and capture) a meaningful public interaction.

Aside from interactions, I was attracted to the facial expressions of individuals as they went about their day-to-day lives; whether in the markets or subways. 

The most interesting sites for people photography in both Taipei and Hong Kong are in and near temples such as Man Mo and Longshan. The night markets are also a trove for photogenic characters such as the tattooed fellow who stood akimbo guarding his inventory of bric a brac items that lay down in Xichiang market...whether this inventory was honestly procured or otherwise is left to the imagination of viewers.

Another place to capture expressions are the subways; either on the platforms or in the cars themselves. My favorite images are the one of a young woman avidly watching a movie on her smartphone, while wearing a single hair roller to tame her fringe....and of the young girl who appears to be viewing a smart phone screen on an ad on a subway platform while her mother is busy texting on her real phone.

All the photographs in this gallery were made using the Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fujinon 18mm 2.0 pancake lens. Since I keep camera dangling from my neck as I click the shutter, the lens aperture ring occasionally slips, so I have a small piece of gaffer tape keeping it at 2.8 or 4.0 at all times. I also keep the iso at 640 most of the time. The photographs were processed with Silver Efex; my favorite monochrome software.

Friday, 28 December 2018

The Fairy And Her Erhu


the fairy and her erhu by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

With the enthusiastic participation of Ms Feng Lee, a fellow photographer in Taipei, I produced a short audio slideshow entitled The Fairy And Her Erhu which combines the traditional Chinese fashion of the qi pao, a quintessential Chinese architectural background, a classical musical instrument and ancient Chinese poetry and stylized calligraphy.

The setting for the photo shoot which resulted in the slideshow was the beautiful Lin Ben Yuan Family Mansion and Garden (林本源園邸) in the Banqiao District, Taipei. It was a residence built by the Lin Ben Yuan Family, and is the country's most complete surviving example of traditional Chinese garden architecture. It can be traced back to 1847 when it was built for storing of rice crop whose location was more convenient for the increasingly wealthy Lin Ben Yuan family. A few years later, it became the family's main residence.

I also added a number of ancient Chinese poems to the photographs using a cursive Chinese font; some of these poems are attributed to Li Qingzhao, a writer and poet in the Song dynasty, considered as one of the greatest poets in Chinese history. 

The erhu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument which can be used either in solo performances or with a larger orchestra. It can be traced to back to proto-Mongolic instruments introduced to China more than a thousand years ago. 

The audio slideshow is of two parts; one is of some of the many images made in a photo studio, complete with professional lighting (I even had a flash slave trigger rigged on my GFX50s), and the second part is of images made at the Lin Gardens; made under an afternoon cloudy sky and no artificial lighting.

Having little knowledge of studio lighting, I relied on the expert guidance of Tim Huang (studio owner) and Patrice Delmotte (a Taipei resident). However, I much prefer the comparative "looseness" of photographing under natural light, without reliance on directional artificial light...with authentic backgrounds et al.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Last Bamboo Birdcage Maker

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The Yuen Po street Bird Garden in Hong Kong was built in the late 1990's after the former "Bird Street" at Hong Lok Street was demolished. It was built to preserve the spirit and popularity of the bird stalls that once were in Mongkok. The Chinese have traditionally liked to keep birds as pets, and this tradition is maintained in this small garden. Men (I've not seen a woman there except those selling birds, birdseed and live crickets) walk around; whistling at the caged birds, from delicate canaries to colorful parrots, admiring their plumage and a few walking their pets in cages.

I had read about Chan Lok-Choi in a South China Morning Post newspaper article, and how he was described as the last of the traditional bamboo birdcage makers in Hing Kong. I had no preconceived plan to meet Chan, but came across him as he was opening his stall.

I introduced myself, telling Chan I had read articles about him. He didn't seem surprised at all, and brought a photo book -carefully wrapped in plastic- to show me more photos and a write up about him, along with other craftsmen in Hong Kong. I had seen Sunset Survivors; a book that tells the stories of Hong Kong’s traditional tradesmen and women through imagery and interviews. It covers a number of curious professions that are quickly falling into obscurity, from fortune telling to face threading and letter writing to bird cage making in the streets of old Hong Kong.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Chan is the last bamboo birdcage maker in Hong Kong, and has worked out of his small shop for decades. He is in his 70s, he taught the craft when he was just a teenager. It takes him about a month to make a bamboo bird cage by hand, although these days he spends most of his time repairing old cages.

He has since made a name for himself as a master of crafting traditional birdcages. Making a bamboo birdcage by hand is not easy, as one must shave pieces of bamboo, soak them in hot water for hours, bend and mould them under kerosene lamps, and then nail them altogether. The process can take months. 

Although there's no one interested to learn the craft, Chan is optimistic about the culture and tradition of bird keeping in Hong Kong. It will continue, and in the meantime, he continues to repair birdcages for the aficionados.

Top photograph: Fuji X-Pro2. 18mm. 1/110th. f2.0. iso 800. Aperture Priority. December 6, 2018.

Lower photograph
Fuji X-Pro2. 18mm. 1/100th. f2.0. iso 800. Aperture Priority. December 6, 2018.




Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Rosalynn Tay | Ethiopia

Photo © Rosalynn Tay | All Rights Reserved
I had seen Rosalynn Tay's photographic work on Ethiopia some months ago, and thought that it reminded me of Sebastiao Salagdo's style; black and white, stark and contrasty. 

Her 2014 gallery of images made during a photography trip to the south of the country are devoid of the artifices that are favored by many travel photographer who visit that region. 

In contrast to many photographers who feature images of tribes in south Ethiopia and the Omo Valley, depicting them in elaborate (and contrived) headdress, Ms Tay photographs her subjects in a natural setting...without having recourse to artificial props.


The Lower Omo River in south west Ethiopia is home to eight different tribes whose population is about 200,000 and it is there that they've lived there for many centuries. The tribes such as the Daasanach, Kara (or Karo), and the Mursi live along the Omo river and depend on it for their livelihood. The annual flooding of the Omo River feeds the biodiversity of the region and guarantees the food security of the tribes especially as rainfall is low and erratic.

Rosalynn Tay is a travel and fashion (as well as editorial) photographer based in Singapore, and is a peripatetic traveler whose fondness of travel led her to photograph in countless countries. She travels to Sri Lanka, Japan, Mongolia, Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, Siberia, Morocco and even ventured to North Korea. She is a graduate of Spéos, the internationally recognized photography school in Paris. She's also a committed Leica user, and has exhibited her work (Ethiopia -solo- and LeicaXhibition -group). 

She also has given photo talks in Singapore including Leica Women in Photography; an initiative founded to celebrate and showcase outstanding women who brought their unique perspectives to the field of photography.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Aga Szydlik | Singapore's Street Opera

Photo © Aga Szydlik | All Rights Reserved
Readers of The Travel Photographer blog know of my current long term involvement in documenting Chinese Opera of the diaspora; an involvement that will culminate into the production of a coffee-table book bearing the same title. It is for this reason that the blog has been recently populated with posts with excellent work of Chinese opera by travel and documentary photographers.

Aga Szydlik's Wyang: Singapore's Street Opera work is one of those. Her close-up portraits of the opera actors are striking by their unvarnished look.

The earliest description of wayang in Singapore dates all the way back to the mid-1800s. For more than a century, jiexi (street opera in Mandarin) enthralled more audience than any other form of live entertainment. 

At one point, the flourishing scene supported over a hundred professional troupes that staged thousands of shows each year. Some of them even had their own dedicated venues in the city state's Chinatown.

However, now only about 10 professional street opera troupes are left in Singapore, drawing an ever-smaller audience of elderly people. The decline of street opera in Singapore was caused by its government's policy to replace dialects (such as Hakka, Hokkien et al) with Mandarin, and the slow erosion of its audience. The spread of television, movies and social media platforms exacerbated the disinterest of the younger generation in this ancient art form.

Aga Szydlik is a professional culture photographer and a doctoral candidate based in South Africa. She tells us that her journey with photography started with Muay Thai (the famous Thai fight style) which she documented extensively. Based in Thailand, she able to explore South East Asia, onwards to Indonesia and South Africa. She is enthusiastic about alternative processes, analogue photography, Lomography and salt/albumin prints as well as mixed media.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Ben Owen-Browne | The 3 Baht Opera

Photo © Ben Owen-Browne | All Rights Reserved

"We sleep like dogs, eat like pigs, dress like angels." 

The lives of the itinerant Chinese opera artists are extremely hard, and none as much as those performing in Thailand. They are part of a small community trying hard to preserve a culture and heritage dating back to the seventh-century Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), which makes it one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world.

According to population and demographic studies, around 14% of Thailand's population is ethnically Chinese, which makes Thailand one of the world’s largest Chinese communities outside China.


Many of the artists in these Thai troupes cannot speak or read Chinese, and deliver their lines -usually in Teochew (a dialect originating in Southern China)- having learned them phonetically.

Years ago, itinerant Chinese opera troupes were common in Thailand, traveling to bring the entertainment to the inhabitants of small villages. With interest dwindling in this traditional art form, life is hard with an
 average monthly wage for a performer between the baht equivalent of $280-$500. 

Ben Owen-Browne's The 3 Baht Opera is a window unto the stage of such an itinerant opera troupe in Bangkok. According to his gallery, he tells us that he was invited to attend one of these performances, presumably during a Hungry Ghost festival. 

He also tells us that he "...strayed unto a place where a bunch of actors were performing an endless elegy for themselves, watched by no one else except ghosts"

Ben Owen-Browne is a British wedding photographer, previously living in Bangkok, and now in Vienna, Austria. He also worked in most aspects of photography; magazine covers, editorial, cookery books, travel, fashion, corporate events, jewelry and coffee-table photo books. 

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Diva | Using ON1's Black Background/Layer

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I'm one of those photographers that has a pathological dislike in being tethered to a computer, and spending more than fifteen minutes in post-processing an image is a task I just find intolerable. In some cases, I am naturally forced to...but I try to find ways and means to make it as simple as possible. 

In contrast with most of my peers, I seldom use Photoshop and have never used Lightroom. However, I rely on three post-processing/editing apps as my tools of choice...these are Color Efex Pro (originally of Google and now part of DxO Software, Iridient Developer (the raw image format processing software for macOS, and well known for its ability to process Fujifilm X-Trans raw files), and lastly ON1 Photo Raw ( a raw processor, photo editor and plug-in collection all in one).

Which editing app to choose and use depends on the processing I seek for the image I'm working on. With this blog post I will very briefly explain how I created a black background to the photograph of Gui Lian, the Hokkien Opera diva, who I met during her performances in Georgetown (Penang Island, Malaysia).

The original photograph (below) was cropped to a square format, and I used ON1 Photo Raw to process it as a first step.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I wanted to black out the extraneous shimmering stage curtains and red tassels, and found such a task not too difficult nor time consuming using ON1's Quick Mask tool. Naturally, one has to create a separate black underlay which will be one of the image layers.





Once a black image is created, I clicked on File> Add Layer(s) From File, and used the Quick Mask tool (yellow arrow on left) to "paint" a line around Gui Lian. The Quick Mask tool wasn't sufficiently precise in blacking out all of the targeted areas, so I also used the Masking Brush tool (red arrow) and went over these areas on complete the task....a task that took me no more than 12 minutes; well within my range of tolerance. I then pumped up the saturation using Iridium Developer tools...a task that took under a minute.

Amongst the reasons I favor ON1 is its website which has many easy to understand and follow tutorials. For those wanting to learn how easy it is to use its layer tools, it has product training videos here.

Monday, 5 November 2018

POV | The Character Actors of Chinese Opera | GFX50s

Actor In Teochew Opera (Hong Kong)
 Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
As no doubt readers of this blog have known for quite a while, I've been working on building an inventory of photographs of the various types of Chinese opera performances and backstages which eventually will be featured in the production of a coffee-table photo book "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora". 

So far, I've photographed a number of performances at different venues ranging from New York City's Chinatown, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang...most of which were held during Chinese festivals. I hope to do the same in Taipei and Bangkok later this year and early next.

Setting aside the eye-catching aesthetics of the costumery, the beauty of the performers, the intricacy of the facial makeups and the "live-in" atmosphere of the shows' backstages, I thought I'd share two of my environmental portraits made in the backstages of Chinese opera shows in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.

These two portraits are of elderly actors; the type that the cinematic world calls' "character actors" (these are generally defined as supporting actors who play unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters). I found these actors to be much more visually interesting than the glamorous divas; not because of their rugged and wrinkled physiognomies but because they had presence...and must've been part of these troupes for as long as they could remember.


Actor In Hokkien Opera (Kuala Lumpur)
 Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Although neither of these actors took the roles of "leading men" or "warriors" in the operas, they seemed comfortable in their skin to do less strenuous roles such as the elderly scholars, judges and other supporting roles.

Unfortunately, due the language barriers I wasn't able to interview either of these two actors to gain an insight on their lives and background. They also seemed reluctant to allow me more than a few minutes to photograph them, either because they were waiting to perform (as in the top photograph) or just uncomfortable with the the attention of a stalking photographer (lower photograph).

Both photographs were made with the fabulous Fuji GFX50s, the medium format mirrorless camera. Technical details are:

Top photograph: GFX50s. GF45mmF2.8 R WR Lens. 1/25th. f2.8. iso 800. Aperture Priority. September 4, 2018.

Lower photographGFX50s. GF 63mm f/2.8 R WR . 1/30th. f5.6. iso 800. Spot Metering. October 20, 2017. 

The top photograph was made during a Teochow opera performance at the King George V Memorial Park (Kowloon) during the Hungry Ghost festival.

The lower photograph was made during a Hokkien opera performance at the Tokong Kau Ong Yah temple (Ampang, Kuala Lumpur) during the Nine Emperor Gods festival.








Friday, 2 November 2018

Frederik Trovatten | The Day of the Dead


The Day of the dead by Frederik Trovatten on Exposure


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In the 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in Mexico, and quickly considered the Dia de Los Muertos to be sacrilegious, and tried their best to ban it. The ritual, dating to the Aztec and Toltec people some three centuries back, was not easily stopped and the Spaniards' efforts only succeeded in strengthening it.

Similar to other indigenous belief systems and rituals, the Dia de los Muertos merged with elements of the imported Christianity, thus achieving a form of syncretism with the invaders' religion. Originally celebrated in the summer, it moved to the first two days of November to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

In 2008, the Dia de los Muertos was recognized by UNESCO which added the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night.

For the Aztec and Toltec pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase of life. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit, and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Nowadays, people flock to cemeteries to be with the souls of the dead, and build private altars with photographs of the dead, and their favorite foods and beverages. The gatherings are often joyous in tone, and the families remember the lives of the departed.

Frederik Trovatten describes himself as a Danish press and street photographer living in Mexico City. He's also an entrepreneur with 10+ years experience in digital marketing and startup, having started his career in Adwords and worked in Analytics, SEO, Email-marketing, Blogging and Social media.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Anthony Gueguen | Phuket Vegetarian Festival


PHUKET VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL by laostreetphotography on Exposure

Although I've photographed Kuala Lumpur's Nine Emperor Gods Festival, I haven't had the stomach (yet) to do the same at its "cousin"; the Phuket Vegetarian Festival in Thailand.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival (also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or the Kin Jay Festival, is an annual Taoist event celebrated by the Chinese community in Thailand, and its version as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is celebrated over nine days in Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia by local Chinese communities.

In comparison, the religious self-mutilations performed by the devotees during the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket are considered to be extreme and shocking. The entranced devotees who perform these acts of religious self-mutilation are called mah song. They wear elaborate costumes, enter into trances and ask the gods to enter their bodies. Men or women (they are usually celibate) puncture their faces with hooks, spears and knives amongst other sharp implements.


It is said that the mutilations are done without anesthetic, and are performed either inside or near the temples surrounded by other devotees. The wounds are treated with only iodine and petroleum jelly by attendants wearing surgical gloves as precautionary measures.

Other than his Exposure website Lao Street Photography, information on Anthony Gueguen is unfortunately sparse, however he is a project advisor with a French NGO based in Vientiane called Comite de Cooperation avec le Laos (CCL). His profession enables him to travel within Laos and to other Asian countries.


Sunday, 28 October 2018

Back Story | Canton Singing House | Hong Kong

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I'm periodically on the lookout for interesting locales that inspire my so-called fashion-travel audio slideshows (such as the water town of Xitang, near Shanghai for The Legend of Hua), and I may have found another in Hong Kong.

On Temple Street, in the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood, the Canton Singing House has been in existence for ages (metaphorically-speaking, but more factually since the 60s or thereabouts). It's technically called a 'singalong' parlor; a precursor to the modern karaoke.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Some of these 'singalong' parlors still exist, faded and tired but otherwise unchanged, offering a taste of popular and cheap entertainment from a past era. How these survive in anyone's guess. The parlors usually have an organist (who can also play a guitar) and a handful of habitual customers who sing Cantonese songs...and occasionally Western oldies such as "Sealed With A Kiss" by the Canton Singing House organist.

My still-embryonic idea is to enlist the help of a local acquaintance who would wear a cheongsam (aka qi pao), and take the role of a sing-song girl. The photo shoot would take place in the streets of Yau Ma Tei, and in the parlor itself. Whether the parlor would allow it or not is an open question that will be answered when I'm there. The owners and clients seemed very laid back when I made these photographs.

The sing-song girls were the courtesans in nineteenth century China, but my story would much more recent than that era...perhaps almost contemporary.

Wikipedia tells us that "...before the founding of modern China in 1911, concubinage was legal. In Chinese custom, males carry the family name and the family's heritage after marriage. To ensure male heirs were produced, it was a common practice for an upper-class married male to have one or more concubines, provided he could support them."

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Similar to geishas, the "sing-song" girls (also known as 'flower girls' were trained from childhood to entertain wealthy male clients through companionship, singing and dancing in special sing-song houses. While the practice of concubinage was officially made illegal, it has recently been popular amongst the wealthy in China as a result of the country's prosperity.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Michael Wolf | Portraits Of Cantonese Opera Stars

Photo © Michael Wolf | All Rights Reserved
Continuing my obsession with Chinese Opera, and showcasing photographers who have superlative work involving this ancient art, I am delighted to feature the work of Michael Wolf titled Portraits of Cantonese Opera Stars.

In this creative approach, Michael Wolf photographed locally celebrated opera performers by having them pose in front of Hong Kong buildings in their costumes, and adopting poses used during their performances. The old Hong Kong neighborhoods and its crowded streets added interesting -almost incongruous- backdrops to the portraits.




Photo © Michael Wolf | All Rights Reserved
A few years ago, some of these portraits were also installed (see top photo) in the grounds of the West Kowloon Bamboo Cinema; a temporary project designed to provide spectators with performances at nominal prices. Cantonese opera performed in the setting of a bamboo cinema is a traditional art form combining music, martial arts, drama and architecture.

Michael Wolf is a German photographer based in Hong Kong. His main work's focus is life in mega cities, and documents architecture and the culture of metropolises.  He worked for 8 years as contract photographer for Stern magazine, but since 2001, he has concentrated on his own projects; many of which have been published as books.

His work was exhibited in numerous locations, including the Venice Bienniale for architecture, Aperture gallery in New York,  Hong Kong Shenzhen Biennial, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and others.


He won first prize in the World Press Photo award competition on two occasions (2005 & 2010) and honorable mention (2011). He was also shortlisted for the Prix Pictet photography prize. He has published more than 13 photo books. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Robert "Bud" Glick | NYC's Chinatown |MOCA

Photo © Robert "Bud" Glick | Courtesy BuzzFeed News 

I seldom attend photo exhibitions -and particularly avoid previews of of any sort of exhibitions- however I made an exception with the interesting Interior Lives: Photographs of Chinese Americans in the 1980s currently at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City. The exhibition will run from October 18, 2018 - March 24, 2019.

The story behind the exhibition is also very interesting. In 1981, the New York Chinatown History Project (now the Museum of Chinese in America) commissioned photographer Bud Glick to document the street life, people, and domestic scenes of NYC's Chinatown at a time when more immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China were moving into Chinatown, opening up new businesses just as older shops were closing down. The photographs in the series were captured between 1981 and 1984.

The complete (52) photographs can be viewed on Mr Glick's website. There are also various links to his work and interviews. These can be viewed on BuzzFeedNews, Slate, and HyperAllergic.

My interest in this exhibition was not only for the admirable monochromatic images, but because I'm fond of photographing Chinatown's streets which give me the smells, the sounds and the feel of the exotic produce of Hong Kong or Shanghai. Viewing the exhibition's photographs in MOCA's setting gave me the same sensations. I also read in the many interviews by Mr Glick that he connected with his subjects by establishing a good rapport with them, which is the optimal way to photograph people...and a way of photographing which I share wholeheartedly.

The exhibition is not a large one, but is well arranged to the left of the entrance in the museum. I estimate there is about 40 framed photographs on the exhibition walls. My very favorite image is of the late Mrs Chiu (above) who photographed in her apartment in 1981 just exudes an air of regal serenity.


Photo © Robert "Bud" Glick | All Rights Reserved
The other image I liked a lot is the one of an elderly dapper gentleman sitting in a cafe watching the world pass by.

According to an interview with PetaPixel, Mr Glick shot all his images on Tri-X using either a Leica M4P, Leitz Minolta CL, Nikon F3 or a Mamiya 645, and used Photoshop just to bring out the blacks. Mr. Glick is also embarking on a project with MOCA’s co-founder to reconnect with the subjects of his photographs. 

Robert "Bud" Glick has been a photographer for over 25 years. His clients include: Assurant, Inner-City Scholarship Fund, United Hospital Fund, Visiting Nurse Service of New York, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, NYU Medical Center, NYU, Pace University, Fordham University, NJIT, New York YMCA, Gannett, Stein Communications, Pfizer, AT&T, Syms Clothing, Fortis, Smithsonian Magazine, People Magazine, hgDesign, Arnold Saks Associates, DeSantis Breindel, Suka Creative.

He has taught as an adjunct professor in the art departments of Brooklyn College, Queens College, C. W. Post and William Patterson University.


Sunday, 21 October 2018

Mindy Tan | Teochew Opera


“As long as the Chinese shrines exist and people continue praying, any Chinese Opera can survive”
Continuing my obsession with Chinese Opera (and for photographers who show work that resembles mine), I discovered the lovely work of Mindy Tan who produced a video-slideshow of her images of a Teochow (aka Chiu Chow) opera troupe called Sai Yong Hong.

The Sai Yong Hong Chinese opera troupe has been performing in the Bangkok area for over 10 years. Considered as the most well known Chinese Opera troupe in the country, Sai Yong Hong has 34 actors in total. Five members come from China and the remaining 29 actors are from Thailand. There are about 20 Chinese opera troupes in Thailand, but they are reputed to be the most professional.

There are almost 10 million Thai Chinese in Thailand, making it one the largest Chinese communities in the diaspora, however the opera is not as popular as it once was.


Chiu Chow opera is a traditional art form with more than 500 years history, and is currently enjoyed by 20 million Chiu Chow people in many regions and countries. Based on local folk dances and ballads, this type of opera formed its own style under the influence of Nanxi Opera; one of the oldest Chinese operas and originated in the Song Dynasty, and originated in southern China's Chaoshan region. Clowns and females are the most distinctive characters of its shows, as well as fan-play and acrobatic skills.


Mindy Tan is a documentary and Street photographer focusing on Singapore and other Asian countries. Mindy began her career as a newspaper journalist. She won the Society of Publishers Asia (SOPA) award for excellence in Human Rights Reporting in 2007, before becoming a successful commercial and documentary photographer.

She worked for brands like Shell, Uniqlo, Mini Cooper and Huawei, and produces commissioned work for various editorial clients including Reuters, the Associated Press and Die Zeit.

An ambassador to Fujifilm on its international team of X-photographers, she has exhibited with Fujifilm in Cologne, and presented at Fujikina 2017, in both Kyoto and Tokyo. 
She is currently on artist residency with the Exactly Foundation.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Back Story | The Lost Diva of Penang

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
As I was planning my two weeks photo trip to Malaysia's Penang Island and Hong Kong to photograph the Hungry Ghost Festival, I started thinking of another fashion-travel-historical storytelling project to add to those already done in Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur such The Legend of Hua, The Girl of Nanjing Road, and The Red Qi Pao.

After a few false starts, I decided to concoct a story that would dovetail perfectly with the Chinese public operas that were to be held in Penang during the festival and a qi pao wearing opera diva, returning to earth from the afterlife. I don't want to divulge too much of the story line at this time, but it will merge fashion, culture (through the festival and opera) and to a certain extent history as well, due to the proximity of the Malacca Strait that was, and still is, a haven for pirates.

To that end, I enlisted the help of Venisess Hui, a Georgetown-based makeup artist, and bounced the concept off her. The only props I had was a black qi pao bought online from Taobao and a red paper fan. At my request, Venisess ordered a Chinese opera headdress which was also available online.

We agreed that Jinru Lee, a student and a resident of Georgetown would be ideal for the role of the Chinese opera diva that I had in mind. 

We met at my hotel on Lebuh Leith where Jinru got her makeup, dress and headdress. After an hour or so breaking the ice and a photo shoot, we drove off the some of the streets of Georgetown scouting for appropriate locations and decent light.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Decent outdoor light in Georgetown at this time of year is virtually impossible, since it's either monsoon rains or blinding sunshine, however we found decent spots under the colonnaded sidewalks in some parts of the town. Most of the spots we chose were facades of old shophouses and colorful and freshly painted walls. 

The heat was oppressive, and having had no sleep because of extreme jet lag and fatigue caused by the 20 hours flights travel time, I wasn't as sharp as I would've liked...and it's only when I view the images made during the photo shoot that my recollection of details returns to a certain extent. I suspect that my directions to Jinru and Venisess were not as precise as I would've liked. 
But no matter...the photo shoot was completed and I'll be working on stringing some of the images together to tell the story of the opera diva returning to her birthplace. I recorded Jinru's narration which, along with appropriate music, will accompany the images.

Ah, yes...the audio slideshow will be called "The Phantom of the Chinese Opera". Not entirely original, but it's descriptive.





Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Zarni Myo Win | Traditional Dance Troupes In Myanmar

Photo © Zarni Myo Win | All Rights Reserved
Due to my involvement in a long term project documenting Chinese opera in the Chinese diaspora, my "radar' is finely tuned to discover similar examples of music, drama and dance in Asia...and I discovered Myanmar's traditional dancing form.

As in many other Asian countries, music, dance and drama in Myanmar are a part of everyday life in the country, performed on makeshift stages by the side of the road rather than in elegant venues, and with an audience of chattering and cheering locals gathered for the occasion. Fairs and festivals are often cultural as much as religious in appeal, with traveling troupes of artists performing pwe, a distinctive Burmese blend of theatre, song and dance, mixing slapstick comedy with stories from the great Buddhist and Hindu epics.

In contrast with Chinese opera, which is struggling to survive in certain regions of Southeast Asia, a large number of Burmese troupes travel around the country's villages and during pagoda festivals, staging performances throughout the countryside during the dry season. They perform on temporary bamboo stages, whilst audiences sit on mats spread in front of the stage. 

Although the traditional dance-drama in Myanmar is said to have originated from Siam (nowadays Thailand) through the conquest of Ayutthaya in 1767, when a Burmese king returned with royal Siamese dancers, the similarities (at least backstage) with Chinese opera are striking.

It is such troupes that Zarni Myo Win documents in his wonderful Behind The Curtain project. 

Photo © Zarni Myo Win | All Rights Reserved
Zarni Myo Win is an award-winning photographer from Yangon (Myanmar), who travels around his country to document its culture, lifestyle and heritage. He is currently working on a long term photography project on Myanmar's traditional dancing troupes. His passion is to document the lives of Myanmar traditional opera performers, real life of Myanmar people, and patterns and lines in landscape.

I met Zarni in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 when he received the Overall Winner Award in the Travel Photographer Society competition. He also won many photography awards such as Third Place Winner, National Awards, Sony World Photography Awards, First Place Winner, Portrait & Travel Category of Mobile Photo Awards (2017), Second Place Winner, Others Category, IPPAwards (2017) and iPhone Photographer of the Year, IPPAwards (2018).

Unassuming but exceptionally talented, Zarni epitomizes the new and young talent that is emerging from Myanmar, and it is with considerable impatience that I'm waiting to see more of his work...and that of his peers.