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.


Sunday, 14 October 2018

My Photo Book | Rice University's Religious Studies Reviews


A Labor of Love by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure


I was pleased when I learned that Rice University in Texas published a review of my photo book Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam  in its June 2018 issue 2 Volume 44.

The review was written for Rice University by Dr Jeremy Jammes, Associate Professor at the research Institute of Asian Studies (Brunei), and co-editor of the Book Series 'Asia in Transition'. 

Here's the text of Dr Jammes' review (noting that there's an error insofar as my time spent in Vietnam to research the subject matter. I traveled to Vietnam 6 times for fieldwork over the period from September 2014 to August 2016).  

Another error: The “Mother Goddess Religion” (Dao Mẫu) was inscribed in UNESCO's list of Intangible World Cultural Heritage in December 2016, not 2006.

While pleased my photo book was to be reviewed for RSR, I stressed to the Rice University's interlocutors that it was just that; a photo-book...and not academic research into a religion. They insisted, so I acceded to their request.

"HU -DNG: THE SPIRIT MEDIUMS OF VIETNAM. By Tewfic El-Sawy. San Francisco: Blurb, 2015.Pp.169; 103 illustrations. Paperback, $89.99; eBook, $8.99.

As a reaction against anti-superstitious neo-Confucian and colonial taxonomies and policies, Vietnamese spirit mediumpractices kept a low profile until the 1990s. Len dong (to mount the medium) ritual, also known as hau dong (to serve the medium), experienced a renaissance and gained international recognition through the folklorist work of Ngo Dc Thnh. The renamed Mother Goddess Religion(Dao Mu) was eventually promoted to the status of an indigenous Vietnamese religion and entered UNESCOs list of the Intangible World Cultural Heritage in December 2006. In this context, the New York Citybased freelance photographer El-Sawy attended hau dong ceremonies in MarchApril 2015 in Hanoi and northern provinces. 

His photo coffee-table book is original in giving access to a visual diary, which includes color pictures, personal comments, ethnographic description, and the personal background of mediums. The book has both strengths and weaknesses: rough data full of details, sympathy with and naivety of the observed object, curiosity, superficiality, errors. In Barthess terms, El-Sawy provides here his denotedmessage, which is focused on the photogenia and the aestheticism of the ritual, which is amplified and justified by its place in the world inheritage.

Hau -Dong practitioners are here described and interviewed as artists. One can appreciate the artistic prowess to master the light condition and the art of maneuvering a foreign eyein this chaotic ritual. Short bio-data of mediums provide context for the competition between mediums based on artistic-like creativityand their symbolic efficiency (reputation). 

However, from an academic perspective (that this book never pretends to have), spirit possession is much more than a lavish and extravagant” effort of performance. The UNESCO branding of religious rituals as immaterial treasuresand their aesthetization are problematic in our understanding of these practitioners and their motivations, and it would require further ethnographic investigation to challenge the objectification of Vietnamese society and the aestheticization of its religious rituals. Visual ethnography is more than capturing an instant image of social life (initiation, groupies” around mediums, circulation money, and gifts). It involves a methodical unveiling of the context and discourses of the informantsaccounts of their particular rituals. A coffee-table book fails to do justice to these dimensions.

Jeremy Jammes
Universiti Brunei Darussalam

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Hungry Ghost Festival | Hong Kong

scroll down on the right....or click The Hungry Ghost Festival.

Following my earlier post on the Hungry Ghost festival in Hong Kong, I am now publishing my own gallery of the festival...with an interesting explanation as to the reason for street Chinese Operas starting and ending their performances with a sacred baby wooden doll.

It is one of the most popular rituals for the street operas, and is called the rite of "The Heavenly Consort Presents a Child" where the Heavenly Consort (one of the Seven Fairies) in the person of a made-up and costumed actress, who descends from the stage, bearing her "child", Hai Ji, represented by a wooden doll in her arms. The doll is dressed in red, and represents the godly essence of theatre in a wooden image.

During my few days at the site of the Hungry Ghost festival in Kowloon, I and a Hong Kong-based friend Ms Laura Donini-Rafee, met with a handful of volunteer officials, who were not only glad to see me as a non-Chinese photographer, but proceeded to quiz me on the tradition and helpfully correcting my insufficient knowledge. 

Posing with Mr Ma and Mr Cheung, officials at the Hungry Ghost festival (Kowloon)
Photo © Laura Donini-Rafee
While the Hungry Ghost Festival has weathered decades of decline, it's been sustained by grassroots sustenance from the tight-knit Chiu Chow communities in Hong Kong and beyond. Hong Kong has a very large number of Chiu Chow (or Teochew) people and their intense sense of kinship created powerful Chiu Chow networks across the Southeast Asian region.

The Chiu Chow community are responsible for over half of the 100 celebrations that take place around Hong Kong. Whatever their origin, each of these Hungry Ghost rituals serve similar purposes: to pay homage to the gods and ancestors, to sooth wandering spirits, to care for the living by giving away goods, to bring good luck to the neighborhood and to join people together.


Saturday, 6 October 2018

Gary 'Gaz' Jones | Hungry Ghost Festival

Photo © Gary Jones | All Rights Reserved
Readers of this blog know full well of my current 'obsession' (photographically-speaking) with Chinese Opera and its various incarnations, especially when performed during religious festivals and events.

I've posted a number of posts on this blog on the Hungry Ghosts festival during my recent trips to Penang (Malaysia) and Hong Kong...so it's with pleasure that I found the lovely work of Gary 'Gaz' Jones documenting Chinese Opera actors and performers during the festival in his city of Hong Kong.

A combination of color and monochrome images in his gallery Hungry Ghost Festival show us the versatility of these actors, and the various roles and types of make-up. 

Equally interesting is Sunset Survivors; a book project in which Mr Jones is involved along with its writer, Ms Lindsay Varty. The book 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.

For those interested, here's the South China Morning Post article that includes a sample of the photographs and interviews.

Gary Jones has lived in Hong Kong since 1990. He has been in the creative business since 1978, working as a designer and creative director both in London and Hong Kong. He currently runs his own creative consultancy in the city, which he set up in 1992. Fascinated by photography from his years at Art College in Hull, Gary now specializes in food, portrait and documentary photography, predominantly in black and white, using both film and digital cameras. He is a member of the Royal Photographic Society and holds an LRPS Distinction.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Unseen | Backstage of a Hokkien Opera



The Unseen is a gallery of monochrome photographs made backstage of a Hokkien Opera troupe during Penang's Hungry Ghosts Festival. 

Chinese opera - in all its various types - is known for the saturated colors of the actors/performers make-up and flamboyant costumes, but I chose to process my photographs in monochrome/black and white to avoid the facile seduction of color, and to accentuate the facial and body characters of the individuals depicted in them. 

The title of the gallery 'The Unseen' obviously refers to the backstage activities of this particular Hokkien opera troupe. It was obvious to me whilst photographing that there was a strong cohesiveness amongst its members who -in essence - live and work cheek to jowl. The Hokkien opera troupe hails from the Chinese south-western province of Fujian, and some live in Zhangzhou city which is about 450 kilometers from Hong Kong. 

The formal name of the troupe is “Southern Fujian Opera”. The members flew in from China to Penang on July 20 and will return in December, spending almost 5 months away from their families. Annually, during the seventh lunar month, makeshift stages made of old wood planks and bamboo scaffolding appear all in certain locations in Penang. It is on these stages that Chinese opera performances are held every night. 

Two types of operas are held in Penang; in the Hokkien and Teochew (aka Chiu Chow) dialects. The Hungry Ghost Festival, known as Yu Lan, is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in a number of Asian countries; many of which have large Chinese communities. 

According to traditional Chinese belief, the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when restless spirits roam the earth. It is believed the gates of hell are open throughout the Hungry Ghost Month. It is believed many hungry and wayward ghosts come to visit the living. Many Chinese people make efforts to appease these transient ghosts, while ‘feeding’ their own ancestors. As entertainment for these ghosts, Chinese operas are performed in public places and alongside temples. 

The annual observance of the festival stems from the tale of Maudgalyâyâna, a disciple of the Buddha said to have saved his mother from the harrows of hell with ritual chants. The story spread rapidly through local opera performances under the outward-looking Tang dynasty (618-907), when Buddhism peaked in the Middle Kingdom thanks to imperial patronage and deepening cultural and trade links with South Asia. 

The Hungry Ghost Festival is officially listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Beyond The Frame | Guo Gui Lian | The Diva

(Guo Gui Lian as Xu Wen Jen)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
I spent around a week in Penang during the latter part of August while the Chinese Yu Lan (Hungry Ghosts) Festival was being celebrated in various sites on the island. My purpose was to photograph the Chinese opera shows -and their backstages- that are an integral feature of the festival, in order to glean material for my work-in-progress photo book "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora".

(My black & white photo gallery The Unseen takes you behind the stage's curtain of this talented troupe).

One of the two main sites where Yu Lan rituals where to be held was Lim Jetty in an area called Pengkalan Weld. It's the site for the famous Sun Moon Temple dedicated to the Lim Tai Cor deity, the Lim clan patron deity. The Chinese opera (in this case, Hokkien) would be performing there on a makeshift stage of wood and thick bamboo.

The troupe performing on that stage was the “Southern Fujian Opera”, whose 16 members are mostly from this Chinese southeastern province. As I speak no Chinese, I initially communicated with Abao, one of the two male actors, using a translating app...and was able to obtain a few introductory nuggets of information, however it was with Guo Gui Lin, a lovely actress with whom I connected on stage and subsequently on WeChat on my return to New York City, that I was able to get additional information on the troupe and herself.

(Guo Gui Lian as one of the military generals)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
Guo Gui Lian is a 30 years old single mother with a son. She hails from the port city of Zhangzhou (漳州) in Fujian. She started her career at 18 along with her sister. Her parents are farmers, and she has four siblings back home.

Through ensuing WeChat conversations, I gathered interesting -albeit sometimes conflicting- details about her troupe's involvement in the Yu Lan Festival. She arrived in Penang with the “Southern Fujian Opera” troupe on July 20 and will return to China in December. They traveled by ship from Fujian to Brunei for two weeks' shows; the sea trip took a day. It was then a flight to Penang to perform during the Hungry Ghosts festival month, and in other venues in Malaysia till year end.

Guo Gui Lian has no favorite roles. Her versatility allows her to take parts of heroic warriors, evil people, elderly and wise scholars, young boys and more. I noticed that no actor has a set role...but there are a handful who seem to take the leading roles, while others take supporting ones. Lian is one of three who took martial roles, which include some spear-sword sparring.


(Guo Gui Lian as Zhao Qing) 
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
The troupe's costumes, headgear and various accoutrements are stored in Penang; presumably by the temple authorities, until it returns the following year. The amount of these items as seen backstage precludes traveling back and forth with them on flights....so I gathered they initially traveled by boat. The troupe's manager is paid by the temple(s) and provides lodging for the performers and their salaries. The actors, sound and stage hands are paid for each show...so if there's no performance, my understanding is that they do not get paid, although I may be mistaken.

Brought by Chinese traders, Chinese opera arrived in Malaysia in the mid-16th century, and was very popular in the late 19th century. Nowadays, this ancient art form appears to be largely ignored and/or unknown by the younger generations, although efforts are made to repopularize it in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong...especially during the Chinese festivals.

(Guo Gui Lian as Xu Wen Jen)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
In Penang, Lian and her Southern Fujian Opera troupe performed its shows in Hokkien; the Chinese dialect of the south-eastern part of Fujian Province and Taiwan, and spoken widely by the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Hokkien opera is one of the most influential art forms in Malaysia and Singapore. This regional genre originated from Taiwan and flourished in Fujian. Of the more than 300 types of Chinese opera, only about eight varieties made it to Southeast Asia, the most popular ones being Chiu Chow (or Teo Chow), Cantonese, Peking and Hokkien.

The Southern Fujian Opera Troupe
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved



Friday, 28 September 2018

Michael Benford | Ancient China

Photo © Michael Benford | All Rights Reserved
China's southeastern Guizhou Province region has for centuries been home to 49 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, including the Dong, genetically connected to the Thai and to the Lao, as well as the Miao minority, who are believed to be among the country’s first rice farmers (their villages are often 3,000 feet up). 

The region has a number of ancient villages, in which traditions have been preserved, although this may be changing due to the influx of tourists.

Michael Benford's lovely images Ancient China and its sister gallery Creatively Recharging -China introduces us very generously to the region's villages and ethnic minorities with remarkable color and monochrome images. In the latter gallery, he tells us that he finds it necessary to escape from daily routines, break out from comfort zones, and unplug from technology by exploring new countries...in his case, it was far flung provinces of China.

For those who are curious as to the locations of the villages and the ethnicities of those photographed Mr. Benford's galleries, here's what I found:

Qingman village is not far from Kaili City, the capital of Qiandongnan in Guizhou Provinc. It's described as a Miao people village with primitive simplicity. The Miao build houses along mountains and rivers in order to not occupy farmland. The village is a well-preserved Miao ethnic village, and has over 300 families with a total population exceeding 1,600.

Matang village is also an ancient village populated by the Geija, an ethnic subgroup of the Miao minority. The Matang villagers are easily identifiable in the colorful clothing they wear as their daily dress code and their fancy and colorful hand-fabricated adornments. 

The village of Zhaoxing, also in the Guizhou region, is one of the largest Dong Villages in Qiandongnan area. All the buildings in the village are wooden-stilt houses.

Michael Benford describes himslef as creative director and photographer with almost 20 years, developing innovative design and brand strategies. He currently oversees the creative direction for AMB Sports + Entertainment, which includes the Atlanta Falcons (NFL), Atlanta United (MLS) and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Hat Boi | VN Express | Thanh Nguyen

Photo © Thanh Nguyen | Courtesy VNExpress
After many weeks of silence on this blog; due partly to the need to take a time off to focus on photographic projects, travel...and just for a summer break, I'm back with an interesting article and images of a Vietnamese ancient art form called hát tuồng or hát bội.

The origin of this art form is truly fascinating. I had learned from scouring the internet that this classic opera is the Vietnamese adaptation of the Chinese opera that has been enjoyed by kings and provincial mandarins, and performed as a court art (as well as for popular audiences) especially in central Vietnam. The introduction of Chinese opera is attributed to the capture of a troupe of performers attached to the Mongol army that invaded northern Vietnam in 1285, and the actors’ lives were spared in return for teaching their art to the Vietnamese.

As in Chinese opera, makeup color and dress indicate the character type of each character: black for boldness and bravery, red for anger or rashness, white for treachery, and gold as the color of the gods.


And also as with its "parent" art form, hát bội is kept alive by poor artists afraid it will die with them. While the Vietnamese government is anxious in promoting its indigenous culture such as Hầu đồng and Ca trù, I suspect that hát bội will not receive the same governmental push, but who knows?

The article that appeared in the VNExpress newspaper introduces us to Ms. Nguyen Thi Hanh, a hát bội actress, who lives in a small rented apartment in My Tho, capital of the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang. 

At 67, she is the senior actress of the Ngoc Khanh troupe, one of the best known htroupes in the south of Vietnam (by the way, the art form is called hát tuồng in the north of Vietnam, and hát bội in the south.

My interest in the Vietnamese form of Chinese Opera started in 2012 whilst leading a photo-expedition-workshop to Vietnam in 2012. It was there in Hanoi that I took my group to a theater near Hoan Kiem Lake to photograph a hát tuồng show. Aside from us, there were less than handful of tourists in the audience. I had a limited time to photograph backstage, but it was enough to upload a few images unto a gallery.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved


Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Beyond The Frame | Yan Yang Tian Troupe | GFX 50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Although the Fuji GFX50s might not really be the most appropriate format to photograph theatre and opera, it produced interesting images while using it to photograph a live performance by the Yan Yang Tian opera troupe in
at the  Leng Eng Tian Khiew Ong Tai Tay temple in Kuala Lumpur during the annual Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival. 

For nine days, Taoists gather at various temples around the country to celebrate the Nine Emperor Gods festival, which begins on the eve of the ninth month of the lunar calendar.

The troupe performs traditional Cantonese opera, and has been on stage since its founder opera troupe owner Elizabeth Choy was 7 years old. Now in her late eighties, she is considered a treasure by the Chinese-Malay communities in Malaysia as well as those in neighboring countries.

While the popularity of Cantonese opera has dwindled, especially among the young, her troupe has continued to perform in local and international venues. She has led her troupe to perform throughout Malaysia and in other countries such as Vietnam, Hong Kong and Thailand. Sparing no expense, she sourced many of her opera’s lavish-looking costumes from Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong.


Accompanied by Stanley Hong and Mizuki Kato, I photographed the performers while they applied intricate makeup and donned their costumes in the back stage of the specially erected structure. Used to photographers, they seemed  oblivious of cameras being pointed at them; even when lenses were almost poking their necks to get their reflections in mirrors.

For those interested in gear: The technical details for the photograph are: Fuji GFX50s+ 63mm. 1/1000th sec Hand Held. f2.8. iso 800. Spot Metering. Date: 2017-10-20 at 20:48:80 (Malaysia time). Post Processed Iridient Developer 3.


Thursday, 5 July 2018

Ye Hong Qi | The Miao Portraits

Photo © Ye Hong Qi - All Rights Reserved
It's been a few weeks since my last post...but I needed a break to re-energize my blogging appetite, and with my time swallowed up with a forthcoming photo book, and the incessant demands of social media, blogging took a back seat.

However, I chanced on wonderful images by the Chinese photographer Ye Hong Qi whose long term project "The Portraits of Chinese Miao Nationality" (中国苗族人肖像) is just a delight for those who are interested  -not only in portraiture- but in anthropology and ethnic minorities.

Ye Hong Qi tells us that he started his project in 2012, seeking to document the Miao culture through portraits made in situ, eschewing artificial lights and other devices.

The Miao is an ethnic group belonging to South China, and is recognized by the government of China as one of the 55 official minority groups. They live primarily in southern China's mountains, in the provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, Guangxi, Guangdong and Hainan. 

Interestingly, the Chinese traditionally classify the Miao according to the most characteristic color of the women's clothes...such as Red Miao, Black Miao, the Big Flowery Miao, White Miao, Green/Blue Miao, and the Small Flowery Miao.

While the Miao people have had their own unique culture, the Confucian ideology had significant influences on this ethnic group. It is expected that men are the dominant figures and breadwinners of the family, and women are, having a subordinate figure, the homemakers.

In his biography, Ye Hong Qi describes himself as an amateur photographer from Shanghai. He started his photography in 2012 and started to record the life and remaining culture of Chinese minorities people. He was awarded a number of recognitions in China and the USA, and was published in PDN and PSA.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Faces of Chinese Opera



I've been photographing Chinese opera performers at performances and backstages in New York City's Chinatown, various locations in and near Kuala Lumpur and in Shanghai for the past 18 months or so. My intention is to eventually produce a photo book of these photographs; a long term project if there was ever one since Chinese opera is a subject of immense complexity and depth.

Influenced by the square format portraits by Andres Serrano (see my previous blog post), I chose 24 portraits of artists (12 male and 12 female characters) who performed in Cantonese, Hokkien and Jīngjù performances.

I mentioned the complexities of Chinese opera; it is said that there are as many variants as dialects in China. For instance, there's the Beijing Opera, known also as Peking Opera 京剧 (Jing Ju) which I've photographed in Shanghai; Cantonese Opera, known as 粵劇 Yue Ju, which is popular in the Cantonese speaking regions, such as Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Malaysia; Sichuan Opera (in Mandarin) mostly popular in Chengdu, and Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hubei and Taiwan; and also Ping Opera, Henan Opera, Kunqu Opera and Qinqiang Opera...to name but a few.

Click on "See The Full Post" on this post's photograph, and you'll be enjoying the two dozen portraits I've chosen to illustrate the magic of Chinese Opera.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Andres Serrano | Made In China

Photo © Andres Serrano | All Rights Reserved
Readers of this blog are well aware of my current "chinoiserie" phase, of my interest in creating Chinese fashion themed multimedia stories and of my working on a photo book on Chinese Opera.

So it's with great pleasure that I discovered the work of the famous photographer Andres Serrano, and his wonderful portraits of Chinese men and women in traditional garb and costumes in his Made In China gallery.

One of the most famous traditional Chinese clothing type is the Han Fu style. This is the type of dress worn by the Han people from the Yellow Emperor (about 2698 BC) till the late Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD). It became known as the Han Fu (“fu” means “clothes” in Chinese) because the fashion was improved and popularized during the Han Dynasty. It is usually in the form of long gown, cross collar, wrapping the right lapel over the left, loose wide sleeves and no buttons but a sash.

My very favorite is the qi pao or cheongsam whose origin is the Manchu female dress that evolved by merging with western patterns. Its features are straight collar, strain on the waist, coiled buttons (pankou) and slits on both sides of the dress. Materials used are usually silk, cotton and linen. 

Andres Serrano is the only son of an Honduran immigrant father and a mother of Afro-Cuban origin. He was born in New York and spent most of his childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Like his family, his predominantly Italian-American neighbors were devoutly Catholic, and religion played a significant part in his growing up - in school, at home and on the streets.

On his website, he tells us:
"I’ve never called myself a photographer. I studied painting and sculpture and see myself as an artist with a camera. I learned everything I know about art from Marcel Duchamp who taught me that anything, including a photograph, could be a work of art. 

Thursday, 31 May 2018

POV : William E. Crawford | Hanoi Streets

Photo © William E. Crawford | Courtesy The New York Times
I don't recall writing a blog post about an article that appeared on The New York Times' Lens feature, but I could not let the wonderful photography of William E. Crawford on Hanoi Streets go without giving it its due merit on the pages of this blog.

One of the photographs that I couldn't stop looking at is of this Vietnamese general. I have no idea who he is or what his history may have been...but I've met Vietnamese men (and women) of his age with similar facial expressions, whose astounding gentleness and courtesy to me -as a visitor to their country- are the most rewarding experiences I took away from my travels in Vietnam.

In the Lens article, Mr. Crawford is quoted as saying "despite the embargo and the wounds of the American War there was no obvious anti-American hostility ... the lack of hostility towards Americans, at least in the North, was a relief to me."

This is so true! Everywhere I went in Hanoi and elsewhere in Vietnam, I was received with open arms even though I was seen as an American (the difference between being American-born or naturalized seemed irrelevant to them). Even Vietnamese men who told me were Vietcong during the American War were friendly and extremely cordial...and shared meals and many cups of rice wine (and ribald jokes) with me.

William E. Crawford is a documentary photographer who spent three decades documenting Vietnam, and in particular Hanoi, its people and the surrounding countryside. As one of the very first Western photographers to work in post-war North Vietnam, he was drawn back to the country numerous times at regular intervals between 1985 and 2015 to record this fascinating country's culture, people, and society with beautiful, compelling and intimate photographs, concentrating on colonial and indigenous architecture, urban details, portraits, and landscapes. 

While he used a large format camera an tripod, he -as I did, but not with the same gear- wandered Hanoi’s busy streets returning to the same places, especially in the 36 streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

I could not find Mr Crawford's website, but he is publishing a book Hanoi Streets 1985-2015 which has close to 200 color photographs.

Since I mentioned the wandering in Hanoi's Old Quarter, I thought I'd add a link to my own Hanoi Color: Moments in Hanoi's Pho Co.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Jaranan In Java | Jay Tindall

Photo © Jay Tindall- All Rights Reserved
I've always been interested in documenting the unusual or lesser known religious traditions (especially those of Asia) whether these were derived from mainstream religions or were stand-alone. It was this interest that guided me to photograph a number of such traditions, including Vietnam's Đạo Mẫu which I documented for two years and produced a photo book of which I'm very proud of.

It's with this frame of mind that I discovered the tradition of Jaranan; an age old Javanese tradition though the photo blog post Exorcism In The Volcano's Shadow by photographer/entrepreneur Jay Tindall.

His blog post describes this tradition as "...an intense ritual of spiritual passion and trance-induced savagery", so I won't duplicate the interesting contents of his post, except to say that Jaranan is a dramatic genre of a horse dance performed in Java.

The most prominent feature of these performances is the trance dancers who establish contact with the spirits of their ancestors. These ancestors -in common with most Asian traditions- have a significant impact on the lives of their descendants, whether in fulfilling wishes or resolving problems and issues.

I have witnessed many of such trances during religious-traditional events, and they all follow a similar pattern. The person in a trance makes him or her totally self absorbed, and grants them a sense of total liberation from their surroundings. 



Jay Tindall also videotaped the scenes at the ceremony (possibly graphic to some) which confirm a similarity to other religious-induced trances that I've witnessed in other parts of Asia. 

Jay Tindall is the co-founder of a travel company, and it is through his work that he investigates Asia’s most interesting destinations. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Beyond The Frame | Qu Hui | X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I was officially recognized as the photographer for The Shade of Butterfly & The Red Pear Blossom opera at the community center theater in NYC's Chinatown. It was the first opera of the season, and is one of the most famous Cantonese operas, and described as a masterpiece.

The plot centers on a scholar Yu-chow and the courtesan So-chow who write poems to each other and fall in love despite having never met. The scholar is attached to the court of a treacherous high official who schemes to keep the lovers at bay. The two lovers meet in the final act much to the delight of the audience.

I was introduced to Mr. Qu Hui, a mainland Chinese performer, who was to perform one of the lead roles in the opera, and also to sing a few more modern songs. A charismatic tall man, seemingly very comfortable in high heels, he posed for my camera for a few minutes before the show.

Cross-dressing has been an integral part of Chinese Opera from its beginning, but the number of males taking the roles of females has substantially decreased. China's "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) dealt a death blow to the opera, and along with it the nan dan (male acting as a woman). Although the 1980s saw a gradual revival, the nan dan remained in the shadows with the rise of women performers on the stage, leaving only about 10 male who specialize as such. Having witnessed the audience's reaction to Hui's performances, it's quite possible that he is one of them.

I read that the traditionalists believe that nan dan are irreplaceable, and they have characteristics and tricks such as specific hand gestures to make the hand look smaller and softer...wearing specially designed footwear meant to imitate women's bound feet...and, according to some, have better sounding falsettos given their wider vocal range.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
Hui's brought the house down when he performed Cantonese torch songs, wearing a tight fitting cheongsam and then getting off the stage to shake hands with members of the audience...including me. 

I made a quick recording of one of these songs in which he used a high pitched falsetto to mimic a woman's voice.

 


The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + XF16-55mm f2.8. 1/100th Hand Held. f4.0. iso 400. Aperture Priority. Date: 2018.05.27 at 12:25:40 (NYC time). Post Processed Using Iridient Developer 4.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Fuji X-T1 + XF18-135mm f5.6. 1/300th Hand Held. f5.6. iso 640. Spot Metering. Date: 2018.05.27 at 15:15:00 (NYC time). Post Processed Using Iridient Developer 4.



Monday, 21 May 2018

The Legend of Hua | Multimedia


I have now completed producing 'The Legend of Hua', an audio slideshow (aka photo film) which recounts in just over 3:30 seconds (reportedly today's upper limit for our attention span) the story of Hua.

The story meshes the topic of ghosts, opium, Shanghai in its 1930's heyday, traditional Chinese cultural and supernatural elements; all revolving around a plot of betrayal. The 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.

I've recently produced a handful of audio slideshows that involve imaginary plots during the 1930s in Shanghai, featuring friends who take on the roles of wronged women...possibly wronged by either Chinese men or laowais/gweilos

My long-time readers know that I've embarked on a 
chinoiserie "phase" for quite a while now; a phase fueled by my travels over the past few years to Hanoi, annual visits to Kuala Lumpur and more recently to Shanghai and Hong Kong.

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

Aside from my travels, a major inspiration is In the Mood for Love (Chinese: 花樣年華), the 2000 Hong Kong film directed by Wong Kar-wai, starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. It's moody theme is especially inspiring. More recently, another movie Lust, Caution...the thriller film directed by Ang Lee
whose story is mostly set in Hong Kong in 1938 and in Shanghai in 1942.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Beyond The Frame | Huā | GFX50s



I've been absent from this blog for a while due to 'busy-ness', and working on a new audio-slideshow (aka photo-film) titled "The Legend of Hua"...which turned out to be more time-consuming than I anticipated, due to the various audio tracks that had to mesh with still photographs.

In the meantime, I uploaded a sample of the still images from the soon-to-be released audio slideshow unto my Exposure website, however I chose to post process these differently from those in the slideshow. 

I had read that a photographic technique merging silver printing with charcoal painting was widely popular in the 1920-1930s Shanghai, so I explored various modern digital post processing ways to try and imitate that 'look' as closely as I knew how.

After a number of failed attempts, I chose a process which mixes a combination of my own settings using two imaging softwares; ON1 Photo Raw 2018 and Iridient Developer 4. When I was satisfied with the resultant 'look', I saved the presets for the two programs, and it was more or less a cinch to just apply these to the images I had chosen for the gallery. That said, I still had to tweak a few of them...taking into account the disparity in lighting condition at the time of the shoots, so as to achieve uniformity as much as possible.

Insofar as the hardware is concerned, I used the Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm lens. This 'medium-format' camera is my go-to tool for such photo shoots, and I regret not having the 45mm I acquired after my Shanghai trip, as it would've given me a wider angle to work with.

All the images in this gallery were made in Shanghai and the nearby water town of Xitang. The latter is an idyllic setting and its ancient buildings date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, which include the teahouse where parts of the famed movie "Lust, Caution" was filmed.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

POV: The Human World Photo Contest | Winning Entry

Photo © Supriya Biswas | Courtesy The Human World
The Human World photography contest just announced its overall winner; Supriya Biswas with the above monochrome photograph, and four honorable mentions namely Thigh Wanna, Shoeb Faruquee, Robin Yong and Edoardo Agresti.

The Human World photography contest is organized by Matteo Vegetti, an Italian photographer, and is in its fourth annual iteration. 

As one of the contest's judges, I was gratified that the winning image was one of my top choices...and I'm glad the remaining judges on the panel seemed to have thought so as well. By the way, these judges are Diane Durongpisitkul, Jing Chen, Kim Hak, Sarah Trevisiol, Probal Rashid, and Gunarto Gunawan...a truly international panel representing the USA, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Italy, Germany, India and Indonesia.

My blog's readers may be interested as to the reason for this photograph being one of my top choices...and in all candor, I struggled with the decision and wavered a few times. My primary impulse insofar as photography is concerned is to follow Sebastiao Salgado's credo and to only take pictures (and like photographs) that illustrate the nobility of human beings.

My initial glance at this photograph was a rather negative one...I took it as something akin to a "poverty porn" image aimed at generating sympathy from the contest judges...but as I reflected more on it, I discovered more details that -to the contrary- ennobled these two men.

The apparent companionship between the men, not only in their handicap, but by sharing a newspaper since I imagined the one on the right reading the news to the one on the left, made a compelling story. Had they been soldiers in a conflict in which India was involved? Were they living in the same neighborhood? The details jumped at me...such as the leg prosthetic with the sandal obviously belonging to the man on the right, while the one without footwear was that of the man on the left. The reader was half-way through the newspaper...was he reading cricket scores? Do they live in an ashram for veterans or their in own homes...or were they laborers/farmers who lost their legs in accidents? One of them reads English...how does this level with my assumptions?

And what's going on with the cat and puppy? They mimic the head positions of the two men.

One could imagine a thousand short stories from this photograph...this slice of time...this instant when everything fell into place.

Despite all handicaps, life goes on. That is why this photograph got my vote.


Sunday, 6 May 2018

Beyond The Frame | Ren Li Fung | Fuji GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I'm currently working on a rather intricate "photo film" or audio slideshow that will mesh the topic of ghosts, opium, Shanghai in its 1930's heyday, traditional Chinese cultural and supernatural elements; all revolving around a plot of betrayal. The plot itself 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. 

It's funny how one thing leads to another...while planning my fortnight in Shanghai and preparing for my lecture and street photography workshop some six or seven weeks ago, I was invited to a number of WeChat groups by Yi Yi; a previous acquaintance from that super-modern city who would work with me on the second iteration of The Girl of Nanjing Road

Through these WeChat groups, I connected with Ren Li Fung ("Betty") who seemed very popular as a qi pao model with a number of fashion/commercial photographers. Employed by an American company, and holding a Masters in International Politics, she was quite fluent in English, and I put forth to her my interest in featuring her in my audio slideshow project. She accepted and we agreed as to the type of qi pao I thought would be best suited for what I had in mind. Since hers would be the narrating voice in the "photo film" project, she viewed the 1988 movie to get an accurate feel for what she would be asked to do when we started.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
A couple of days into my arrival in Shanghai, I scheduled a photo shoot couple of hours at the well-known IG gallery-museum which has an expansive studio complete with lights, reflectors and especially a Chinese screen which I liked a lot as a backdrop...as well as a Ming dynasty styled chair.

Helped by IG's Wang Hua with the studio's lights and reflectors, I used my Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm 2.8 lens to capture "Betty" in various poses until I was satisfied. We also were able to record the audio narration for the "photo film" in the back room until we were both happy with its pace and intonation.

Being an "on-the-fly" travel photographer (with an affinity for a photojournalistic style), I am always uneasy photographing in a static and controlled studio environment...as I'm not used to it. Directing the model to adjust her face or posture a hundred times doesn't come naturally to me. At IG, I had a mood board with me, and showed a few poses for "Betty" to adopt during the shoot to make it simple.

Having broken the ice with the studio photo shoot, we met a few days later at the Shanghai Hanxiang Water Garden (see above photograph). I was much more in my element in such an environment, but not a single teahouse was open in this 800+ acres park; probably since we chose one the three days of the Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping) holidays. In any event, I had scouted some of the buildings and chose a few that were appropriate...especially one having images of 1930s Shanghai beauties. More comfortable in such places, I know how to make use of the ambient light, where to place my subject and of the surrounding wooden railings, benches, etc.  


Naturally in such public places, there are always people milling around and I expected that some would gawk at the photo shoot. However, most of the Chinese visitors hardly took notice of us...others waited until I finished shooting a pose to walk across the scene. I don't know whether it was politeness or whether they were jaded...having seen photo shoots of women in qi paos before, but it was unexpected.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
On the weekend before my departure from Shanghai, we ventured south of the city to the idyllic setting of Xitang water town where -along with another photographer, a make up artist, and translator/fixer, I photographed Betty in various locations, including in the ancient teahouse where parts of the famed movie "Lust, Caution" was filmed (see above photograph).

The setting of Xitang was perfect for my purpose; it's one of the six most famous water towns in South China, with nine rivers converging in it, with many bridges linking its various parts together. The town has buildings dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.

All photographs were made with the Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm 2.8 lens. Except for the studio photo shoot, I relied on ambient light, eschewing reflectors and artificial lighting. For post-processing, I used Silver Efex for the monochrome image, and Color Efex for the rest (and Iridient Developer to process the RAW files).