Thursday, 28 February 2019

Peng Xiangjie | The Wandering Tent

Renyao ("ladyboys") Photo © Peng Xiangjie | All Rights Reserved
The origins of the circus are debatable; some say that circuses date to Roman times with horse and chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, gladiatorial combat and displays of (and fights with) trained animals....whilst others say the circuses as we know them today originated in England, and started by a Philip Astley in 1768.

In common with my current long term project of documenting the unsophisticated Chinese opera troupes, I imagined that Chinese circuses offer an enormous disparity between the "glitz" of the shows and the ordinariness - and shabbiness - of its backstages.

And it is the backstages' ordinariness and seediness that are so photogenic! 

It is with delight that I explored The Wandering Tent; the work of Peng Xinagjie (彭祥杰/简历 ), a Chinese photographer, whose monochromatic work of rural circuses in Shaanxi, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia. 

Peng is said to have dedicated himself thoroughly to a single project at a time. For The Wandering Tent, he followed one specific troupe during their tour, befriended the performers and returned to their village, in order to get an a deeper insight into their background.

This specific project was started in 1992, when he followed a circus performers company to witness the life of jugglers, acrobats, dancers and singers; with a special interest in the quirky characters that are the circus world’s soul: the dwarves, strippers, and the snake women to mention but a few.

Similar to Chinese Opera, rural circuses in China will soon be a thing of the past in the face of technology and modernity.

How I wish I could that with a rural Chinese Opera troupe!

Peng Xinagjie started his photography by focusing on rural daily life and funerary ceremonies in Shaanxi in Central China. His photographs are taken by a Mamiya from the 70s and are printed in his dark room.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Kevin Frayer | Sichuan Opera

Photo © Kevin Frayer | All Rights Reserved
I have long followed the work of Getty's Kevin Frayer; an award -winning photojournalist based in Asia, who was a photographer at the Canadian Press and a Chief Photographer for the Associated Press based in the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and New Delhi. He is currently working with Getty Images.

However I didn't realize that he had done lovely work documenting a rural Chinese opera troupe in Sichuan featured on the International Business Times..thus providing me with valuable inspiration for my own long term book project involving Chinese opera of the Diaspora. My primary focus in this project is on the "rural" or provincial troupes who perform their art during Chinese celebrations and religious observances.

The troupe photographed is the Jinyuan Opera Company in Cangshan (Sichuan province), which was founded in 1984 and in the absence of government asistance and subsidies, currently operates on a shoestring with poorly paid enthusiasts as performers.

Chinese opera has a long, rich history that dates back to 200 A.D. Over the centuries, a handful of styles of opera emerged — each with its own distinct makeup, music, and acting traditions — reflecting the eras and tastes of the changing dynasties. Sichuan opera is the youngest style, emerging around 1700 in Chengdu, Sichuan province, where it is still performed today by a dwindling roster of troupes.

I am more interested (visually-speaking) in the elderly performers, whose features show the tribulations of their hard lives still visible despite the heavy make up. This image by Mr. Frayer is an exemplar of what I mean:

Photo © Kevin Frayer | All Rights Reserved

And of my own while, not as colorful, is of an elderly performer awaiting his turn during an opera performance in Kuala Lumpur.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The Beijing style of opera, widely known as Peking Opera, was popularized under the Qing Dynasty, which was brought down by the Chinese Revolution of 1911. It had ample support from the court and spread because it was sung in a language widely understood across China, while regional varieties such as Cantonese, Shanghainese and Sichuanese opera stuck to their own dialects and songs.

Although the Communist leadership remained keen on Peking Opera after it took power in 1949, it was later during the Cultural Revolution that it was banned. It not until the 1980s that private theatre companies began to form again in China.
However all forms of Chinese opera have had to compete with new forms of entertainment that came with China’s economic boom. In the 1960s there were more than 300 varieties of Chinese opera, dwindling to about 200 at this present time. 

Saturday, 9 February 2019

POV: The End of Shanghai's Lòngtáng Neighborhoods

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
On the two recent occasions I was in Shanghai, I was thrilled by the abundance of candid street photography opportunities that presented themselves in its old neighborhoods. The narrow lanes crisscrossing these neighborhoods are called lòngtáng (弄堂) or alternatively, lilong (里弄), where whole communities live and sometimes work. The Shanghai lòngtáng can either refer to the lanes that its houses face onto, or to a group of houses connected by them. 

A large variety of housing styles can be found in these old neighborhoods. The best known and most characteristic is the shikumen (石库门), two- or three story terrace houses with a wall and large gate in front of each dwelling.

Interestingly, from the 1850s to the late 1940s, neighborhoods with shikumen structures were often the center of Shanghai's red light district. Gambling and opium dens commonly appeared in these neighborhoods, along with fortune tellers and other underground activities.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I was eagerly planning to revisit some of the neighborhoods with lòngtáng on my forthcoming trip to Shanghai and add to my inventory of candid photography, but was disappointed to read that large areas of Laoximen; one of the most well known of these neighborhoods, are being demolished by the city's government in the name of modernizing the area and raising living standards.

According to Sixth Tone, Laoximen land clearance and resettlement is scheduled for completion by the end of this year with major works to start after this Chinese New Year. This extremely informative blog has a number of well researched articles on the progressive demise of Shanghai's old neighborhoods, and it's well worth the time for those interested to read them.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
In March 2018, I traveled to Shanghai to give a lecture and a street workshop at Imaging Group, and recall doing some location scouting in Laoximen with Tamia Tang (my assistant). We met an elderly resident who had lived in her small rooms virtually all her life, and had been told that she would have to vacate them soon. She claimed satisfaction that the city would be offering residents alternative housing or monetary compensation as the weather in Shanghai was too cold for her. 

From my reading of the Sixth Tone article, I gathered that the reaction of  Laoximen's residents to being given alternative housing elsewhere and/or monetary compensation is mixed. Some are resigned to moving whilst others claim that they will not move, and will hold out to the end. It's not clear what their prospects are.

I intend to find out next month when I'm in Shanghai, as Laoximen and other similar neighborhoods are on my list. 

In the meantime, here's a gallery of monochromatic photographs made in various lòngtáng neighborhoods.


shanghai by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Beyond The Frame : The Sādhanā Way

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It was in 2006 when I traveled to the sacred city of Varanasi for the third or fourth time; this time in search of real sadhus rather than those I encountered on the ghats of the river Ganges. The more photogenically flamboyant of those would "earn" a few rupees from tourists and photographers who sought to augment their inventory of exotic portraits of these characters; perhaps paying them a tidy sum if they agreed to be photographed in a rowing boat or next to a temple.

Though they made compelling portraits, I wasn't interested in them at all this time. I was interested in those who adopted the way of the 
sādhanā. The term means spiritual exertion towards an intended goal, and those who undertake to practice it are sadhus. These are essentially religious ascetics, who renounce worldly life.

Becoming a sadhu is supposed to be the fourth phase in a Hindu's life, after studies, being a father and a pilgrim, but for most people it is an impractical option as it requires severing familial, societal and earthly attachments.

My personal opinion -after having met many such characters- in India; either in Varanasi, Rishikesh, Vrindavan et al, as well as at the Kumbh Mela, is that the majority of them are fake in the sense that they're not dedicated ascetics, but individuals who are adopted a vagabondage lifestyle, begging for alms and food...under the guise of being holy and religious.

Hence my quest to meet with real ascetics who had embraced Vairāgya; the Sanskrit term used in Hindu philosophy that translates as detachment or renunciation from the pains and pleasures in the temporary material world.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
At some distance from the ghats of the Varanasi, my fixer and I entered an ashram which consisted of a spacious open courtyard encircled by small rooms where the sadhus spent most of their days studying the scriptures and socializing.

With one exception (top photograph), none of the sadhus expressed any interest in sharing their life-stories with me...although some were very willing to be photographed. Most ignored my cameras, and seldom raised their eyes from their readings. Others just retreated into their cell-like rooms until we left.

The patrician-looking (and rather taciturn) sadhu in the top photograph did tell me that he had a family, had held a managerial position in the Indian Railway from which he earned a pension (now paid to his wife), but had decided to detach himself from temporal life and was currently studying the Vedas. These are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. He was the embodiment of a real sadhu who had really espoused the Vairāgya, and was far different from the "sadhus" I encountered on the ghats of Varanasi (below) almost 8 years later.

Photo ˙ Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Devansh Jhaveri | Fashion-Culture

Photo © Devansh Jhaveri | All Rights Reserved
I've recently described myself as a travel photographer gone "rogue" on account of my recent photographic projects that involve storytelling using Chinese traditional fashion (qi pao/cheongsam) in traditional settings in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur. 

So it's with considerable pleasure that I noticed the not too different work of Devansh Jhaveri in his gallery titled Fashion. Many of his staged images use traditional locales and backgrounds in India...I believe some could've been made in Old Delhi, and Rajasthani or Gujarati architectural sites.

The juxtaposing of attractive women decked in (probably) expensive traditional saris and tribal-influenced gowns with dilapidated surroundings highlights the traditionality and history of Indian fashion and culture, and provides depth and context to the images.

Devansh's documentary credentials are also in full display with his Maatam gallery which depict Muharram rituals associated with Shia Muslims, and his Kumbh gallery.

Devansh Jhaveri is a freelance photographer based in Ahmedabad, India. He has been published in newspapers across India, and his photographs were used as book covers for books by Penguin Books. He has been widely exhibited by Pix Delhi, at the Delhi Photo Festival, the Chennai Salon, and the Asahi Shimbun in Japan. He has also been part of two personal solo shows named Trespass and Distortions. His latest series "The Red Dress Project" was exhibited at the British Council Delhi and will be traveling to other cities this year.

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.