Saturday, 30 November 2019

My Work | The Ingénue

the ingenue by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

I've recently been following a number of Japanese photographers on my Twitter feed; some specialize in fashion, others in landscape photography...and I was struck by how many are fond of color-grading their work.

Wikipedia tells us that "color grading is the process of improving the appearance of an image for presentation in different environments on different devices. Various attributes of an image such as contrast, color, saturation, detail, black level, and white point may be enhanced whether for motion pictures, videos, or still images. Color grading and color correction are often used synonymously as terms for this process and can include the generation of artistic color effects through creative blending and compositing of different images."

While color grading is generally used in movie-making, it's also used in still images, and I decided to dip a toe in the process. I chose a sort of greenish tone to photographs I had made of Tian Yiyi at Film Park in Chendun that has movie sets of urban 1930 of Shanghai.

The ingénue is a stock character in literature, film and a role type in the theater; a term that has long been used to describe both a young, beautiful, bright-eyed starlet who's relatively new on the scene, and the kind of character for which such a woman might predictably be cast. The word comes from the feminine form of the French adjective ingénu meaning "ingenuous", or someone exhibiting naïveté.

There's no story in The Ingénue. It's just a gallery of photographs of Tian Yiyi. She had modeled for me for the production of The Immortal, the story of Ruan Ling-Yu who was known as the goddess of the Chinese silver screen. 

Monday, 28 October 2019

Back Story | Bian Lian aka Face Changing Art Form

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Beijing's Lao She Teahouse was established in 1988, and it was named after the well-known Chinese novelist Lao She and his drama “Teahouse”. While established relatively recently, it retains the charm and aesthetic of old Beijing teahouses; wooden windows, Chinese hardwood furniture, and overall decor.
It is here that visitors - mostly Chinese, although it welcomed Western notables-may also enjoy opera, acrobatics, dance, calligraphy, guzheng performances and other traditional art forms including Bian Lian.

According to Wikipedia, Bian Lian (變臉) is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the more general Sichuan opera. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly colored masks, typically depicting well known characters from the opera, which they change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of a fan, a movement of the head, or wave of the hand.

Legend has it that people in Sichuan put on colorful masks to scare predators away in ancient times. Gradually, those masks became a tool of entertainment. They are designed to represent different emotions of characters on stage.

As much as 8 masks can be changed seamlessly by top performers, all in the blink of an eye. Much of the intrigue lies in how performers are able to switch masks so rapidly and with such accuracy.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
There are four different techniques in swapping the "faces". The first is Blowing Dust where the performer blows black dust hidden in his palm or close to his eyes, nose or mouth, so that it obscures his face. The second is Beard Manipulation, where the beard's color is changed while the beard is being manipulated, from black to grey and finally to white, expressing anger or excitement. The third is Pulling-down Masks -which is the one performed at the Lao She Teahouse- where the actor (in this female) pulls down a mask which has previously been hidden on top of his/her head, changing the face to red, green, blue or black to express happiness, hate, anger or sadness, respectively. The fourth is Face-dragging where the actor drags greasepaint hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows across his face to change his appearance.

Revealing her face. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It is assumed the mechanism of the face swap itself isn’t very complicated, with the masks pulled upwards over the head by some form of wire mechanism controlled by the movements of the head. As with magicians, hands are almost purely misdirection. However, it's impossible to detect the sleight of hand, and the technique is kept well secret by its practitioners.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Luis Alarcón | The Last Dragons

Photo © Luis Alarcón - All Rights Reserved
I've become much more selective in terms of what appears of The Travel Photographer blog, and only post photography work that I personally would've loved to do myself, or have done (or doing). The work of Luis Alarcón falls very neatly in the first category, and I nod in appreciation to Photography of China for having brought his work to my eyes.

Alarcón's calls his latest work "Yellow", Last Chinese in Cuba, or perhaps more poetically, The Last Dragons (a title I much prefer). This excellent work is part of a larger visual anthropological project about the four main races that constitute the Cuban people's identity by documenting their current lifestyle and culture. 

Cubans largely originate from American Indians (which 
Alarcón labels as Red), Spanish conquistadores (White), Africans (Black) and Chinese immigrants (Yellow).

Having visited Havana in the late nineties, I had totally forgotten it had a Chinese presence, and was reminded of the fact when in Hong Kong last month and the subject was brought up by a fellow photographer who had recently been to Cuba.

The Last Dragons project focuses on the reduced Chinese community still existent in Cuba today, and documents some of their memories, surroundings and the few places they congregate in. Alarcón tells us this is a long term project in which he seeks to find and photograph all the China-born Chinese who live in Cuba, as part of the diaspora of the Chinese people.

Luis Alarcon is a documentary photographer, writer and travel designer based in Havana. He is an expert on the history of Cuba, and specialized in anthropology, genetics, migrations and miscegenation among the different ethnic groups that populate the island.

Monday, 16 September 2019

The Feast of San Gennaro (NYC's Little Italy)

san gennaro by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

Here's a gallery of two dozen monochromatic photographs made at the start of the San Gennaro festival in the Little Italy section of Manhattan.

Every September since 1926, in honor of the San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, the Little Italy section of Lower Manhattan comes alive with people, enjoying the sounds and food of Italy. Now in it's 93rd year, it is estimated the festival attracts more than a million people annually to the streets of Little Italy. The Feast celebrates the life of San Gennaro of Naples who was Bishop of Benevento, Italy and was martyred in 305 AD. His formal name is Januarius I of Benevento. He was Bishop of Benevento and is a martyr and saint of the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The 11 day festival -which started on September 12, features an endless selection of Italian food along with nightly live entertainment, parades, eating competitions, carnival rides, games of skill, and various vendors. The most visually interesting aspect of the festival is the non stop parade of people, local New Yorkers and out of towners, as well as foreign tourists and sightseers.

Although the Feast of San Gennaro is nominally a celebration of faith in the patron saint of Naples, the festive atmosphere and food and are what visitors come for.

Taking my Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fujinon 18-135mm as well as the 12mm Zeiss Touit lenses, I walked (in some places, shuffled due to the number of people) along the whole length of Mulberry Street, and Grand Street. I chose the lunch hours when the pedestrian traffic would at its highest, and when hemmed in by people, I used the wide angle Zeiss.  

The festival had almost nothing to with faith or religiosity, although that will happen to a certain extent when the statue of San Gennaro leads a procession for a mass at Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood.

It's really all about the food. From sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, cheesy and meat-filled Italian egg rolls, eggplant, chicken and meatball parms, cannolis, cheesecake cones and zeppoles. It's also how many in the United States need to be more careful with their diet and sugar intake.

And these photographs have been made into a audio slideshow with the unmistakable voice of Louis Prima singing "Buena Sera".

Saturday, 7 September 2019

The One-Yuan Teahouse | Fujifilm GFX50R

One Yuan by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

Having heard of the "One Yuan" teahouse on earlier trips to Shanghai, I resolved to visit it and arranged for a car to drive me to Digang on an early morning. The thousand-year-old Digang Village (荻港村, literally “reed harbor village”) is in the Nanxun District, about 2-1/2 hours west of Shanghai. I had read this humble village, with a population of just a bit over 4,000, once used to be a prosperous trading hub with no less than 13 teahouses; which at the time were the most popular hangouts among locals.

My objective was the only teahouse still left standing. Juhuayuan (聚华园) has been around for more than a century, and is also known as the "One Yuan Teahouse". Customers can sit in this teahouse the entire day from as early as 3 am, spending only 1 yuan ( $0.16) for the cost of boiled water, a table and a chair.

It was easy to find the teahouse. Digang is a sleepy small town where everybody knows each other, and there were few people milling about at this time of day....where the heat and humidity were very high. Pan Pingfu, the owner of the One Yuan Teahouse, and also a veteran barber who based his barbershop inside the teahouse, was having his tea, and on being told the purpose of my journey, welcomed me with a glass of freshly brewed black tea.

I sat with Pan, and asked him to tell me his life story. His teahouse receives about 20 to 30 guests per day, compared to the previous 70 to 80 back in its heyday, and has now become a simple gathering point for local elderly people. It is for that reason that Pan refuses -despite entreaties from his wife- to raise his prices.

Pan showing off a large photo of his teahouse. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

Pan's wife singing a local song. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

The Old Qi Bao Teahouse Photo Book | Blurb

Although I'm an inveterate proponent of on-line photographic galleries and websites, there's a certain frisson that runs down my spine when seeing my images in print and/or in book form. This is most probably in common with the majority -if not all- photographers.

So it was with this frisson that i started to view my latest photo book titles "The Old Qi Bao Teahouse". 

It's self published using Blurb and it's now available for sale in hard cover format and as a PDF.

The Old Qi Bao Teahouse
The Old Qi Bao...
By Tewfic El-Sawy
Photo book

For fuller background on the Qi Bao teahouse, I've published a gallery with explanatory text and monochromatic photographs here, as well as an audio-photo slideshow on Vimeo which includes ambient sound and a clip of a pingtan performance.

I chose an Image Wrap hard cover to give it heft and "gravitas"...and opted for the large format landscape format 13x11 inches (33x28 cm), with 56 lustre finish pages and using Blurb's ProLine Charcoal End Sheets Premium Paper. I used Blurb's proprietary software called Bookwright to produce the book's front and back covers, and its pages. Here are some of the screen grabs:

As for the processing of the photographs that were mostly made using the medium format Fuji GFX50R + 45mm 2.8mm,  I used Iridient Developer and Silver Efex Pro2. For the pages that required Chinese characters, I used Adobe Photoshop and downloaded the special Chinese font called Yengenyou.

Since Blurb only allows either JPEG or PNG, I preferred to use the latter as it's a lossless format. With all my photographs being horizontals, I reduced their size from 8256 x 6192 to 4500 x 3375 pixels and kept their resolution at 300 dpi resulting in file sizes of 10Mb or thereabouts. The color profile is sRGB IEC61966-2.1.

Monday, 13 May 2019

The Butterfly & The Teahouse | GFX50R

Hu Die (胡蝶) was one of the most popular Chinese actresses during the 1920s and 1930s. She starred in The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, which started a craze for martial arts films, Sing-Song Girl Red Peony, China's first sound film, and what is considered her best film, Twin Sisters. She was voted China's first "Movie Queen" in 1933, and won the Best Actress Award at the 1960 Asian Film Festival for her performance in Rear Door.

Also known by her English name Butterfly Wu, she was a fervent nationalist and refused to work with the Japanese during their occupation of Shanghai. Hu Die and her husband Pan Yousheng fled to British Hong Kong at that time.

In December 1941, Hong Kong also fell to the Japanese. When the Japanese pressured her to make a war propaganda documentary film, she refused to become a collaborator, and secretly escaped to inland Chongqing, the war-time capital of the Republic of China resistance.

The photo film The Butterfly And The Teahouse encapsulates her early life until her return to Shanghai in 1945. I imagined that she would have been constantly on the move to evade the Japanese, and arranged for a photo shoot with Ms Ren Li Feng at the Qi Bao of the very few ancient (and virtually untouched) teahouse in the Shanghai area.

Hu Die retired in 1966, after a career spanning more than four decades. She emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1975 to join her son. She died on 23 April 1989.

The lovely soundtrack is a song by Zhou Xuan; an iconic Chinese singer and film actress. By the 1940s, she had become one of China's Seven Great Singing Stars. She was the best known of the seven, nicknamed the "Golden Voice", and had a concurrent movie career until 1954.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Shanghai's Marriage Market | Fuji X-Pro2

Every Saturday and Sunday since 1996, Shanghai’s Marriage Market (人民公园相亲角) in the large People's Square provides parents (and grandparents) the opportunity to advertise their unmarried children by posting their vital statistics such age, height, educational qualifications and work history. 

Regardless of weather, the marriage market is held and is a popular outing for many parents and very infrequently, for unmarried youngsters as well. Posted on umbrellas and walls, hundreds of adverts with personal details important to the Chinese such as height, age, income, education, Chinese zodiac sign, and whether they own a car or an apartment... and in some cases, photographs.

I spent hours on two occasions in the Marriage Market; mingling with the locals, trying with occasional success to be invisible; or at least to become a familiar but unobtrusive sight.

Examining a poster of a glamorous woman hanging from a grille (it's in the gallery) somewhat too closely, I was almost immediately accosted by an elderly man who asked me -in sign language- if I was interested in her. Before I could indicate that I wasn't, he had called out to a nearby woman who was either the mother or was a marriage broker. Naturally, I fled rather precipitously.

I had read that the rate of success from all these adverts are very law, so I believe that the Marriage Market is primally a regular weekly outing for retired people, an opportunity to socialize with like-minded traditionalists...and yes, perhaps a chance -even a slim one- in being successful at match-making. 

In the People's Square Metro station, there's a whole corridor that is full of small stores selling wedding dresses, and other wedding paraphernalia. It must have a connection to the Marriage Market, but none of the stores were busy when I was there.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The Immortal Ruan Ling-Yu | GFX50R | GFX50S

Apart from (or perhaps as a result of it) the "travel photography meets photojournalism" aesthetic that I am fond of working under, I also construct short projects that are best described as a combination of fantasy-fashion-cultural-historical Chinoiserie audio slideshows. These invariably are of stories- some imaginary and some based on facts- involving women wearing qi paos (or cheongsams).

Prior to my travels to Shanghai, I stumbled on the life story of Ruan Ling-Yu, a silent film star of the 1930s in her native China. She was known for a charismatic on-screen presence and a tragic off-screen life. One of the most prominent Chinese film stars of the 1930s, her exceptional acting ability and suicide at the age of 24 led her to become an icon of Chinese cinema.

I thought I'd try to produce a short "photo film" whilst in Shanghai, and made plans accordingly, soliciting the help of a local fashion photographer known as Yimu of TucanoVision and Yan Li, both friends who had helped me during previous trips to this megapolis. We agreed that the photo shoot would take place at the Shanghai Film Park in Chendun that had sets of urban 1930 Shanghai. Yimu's ample "Rolodex" provided Tian Yiyi; a model who would fit the persona of Ruan Ling-Yu.

Another impetus for producing this audio slideshow (also available on Vimeo), is the movie about Ling-Yu's life called Center Stage, starring the divine Maggie Cheung. She won the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear for Best Actress. The movie was produced by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan in 1991.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Qi Bao Traditional Tea House | GFX50R

A few posts ago, I featured a gallery of monochromatic photographs of the old Qi Bao teahouse, and today I follow it up with a "photo-film" made of photographs and ambient audio recorded of the conversations I heard on site. I also added recordings (and a video clip) of Ms. Chen Lan Jun's electrifying Pingtan (评弹) performance. All these to give an aural texture and a -"as if you were there"- feel to the photographs.

The old (or ancient) teahouse is in the old water-town of Qi Bao (七寶鎮) where the highlight is the daily storytelling known as Pingtan. This is a genre of musical storytelling that originated in Suzhou at the end of the Ming dynasty and employs the Suzhou dialect as its linguistic medium.

On the occasions I was there. the storyteller performed her art of talking, joking, singing and acting; all accompanied by a three-stringed lute (sanxian). She had a lot of charisma, and knew how to keep her audience spellbound during her performance.

Most of the audience were elderly men who had paid around 2 yuan ($0.30) for a tea-pot and a place to snooze for as long as they want. I gathered that the audience must've heard these stories countless of times, and yet they frequently return...perhaps partly for the cheap tea, entertainment, the companionship and nostalgia for times past. 

By any stretch of the imagination, this teahouse cannot be commercially viable... so it must has the support of the Qi Bao municipality or similar; perhaps on account that Chinese storytelling is also considered as an intangible cultural heritage, and receives governmental subsidies. 

To my knowledge, there are fewer and fewer teahouses in Shanghai and its environs that still retain the authenticity of this one. The well known teahouses have been tarted up to cater to domestic and foreign tourists, and although traditional tea is served at them, the atmosphere is nothing like the one in Qi Bao. 

Friday, 19 April 2019

POV: Leica's Fiasco: "The Hunt" :

What a major cock-up! It was reported that Leica Ag got itself into hot water in China because of a five-minute promotional video that bears the catchy title of "The Hunt".

The Hunt follows a Western (aka white) photojournalist in various conflict zones; one of which is inside a Chinese hotel in 1989 as he tries to go outside to document the shooting of student protesters by the army, but is confronted and chased by Chinese soldiers.

Here's the of 2017, China was Leica's top growth market, and it was planning to open 20 to 30 new stores in the country. Naturally, this advert has given rise to nationalistic outcries from the Chinese public - especially because of its reference to the events of Tiananmen Square - and many have already called for a boycott of its products.

Forgive me for using the crudity, but this can easily develop into a shit storm for the German luxury camera maker. Unfortunately for it as well, many of the Western media have caught on the potential implications of this cock-up, and have written about how China has reacted to it.

Predictably, Leica has tried to distance itself by saying that the ad (which ends with the Leica logo) was "not an officially sanctioned marketing film commissioned by the company". Ridiculous, no? There is simply no way that an advert for Leica would've been released unless its executives have approved it.

Leica no longer makes cameras for photojournalists and/or photographers that work to make a living. Although very well made, its cameras and lenses are too expensive and they lag behind its Japanese competitors in terms of innovation, price and affordability.

Its cameras are for wealthy individuals, socialites, and collectors...and those eager for the "red dot" cachet...akin to wearing designer clothes with labels well in evidence.

And this is why China is such an important market for Leica. It'll be interesting to see how it extracts itself from the mess it created for itself.

And a word to Leica..focus on making cameras, and leave politics and human rights to the professionals.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

The Old Qi Bao Tea House | Fuji GFX50R

the old teahouse by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

It's been quite a while since I last posted here on the blog. This was partly due to my being involved in other activities, and planning for my 2019 travels; particularly the one on which I traveled to Shanghai and its environs.

I was able to work on a number of photographic projects in this magnificent metropolis, which will be posted here.

I will start with The Old Qibao Tea House; a gallery of about a dozen monochromatic photographs made over 4 days in an ancient traditional Chinese teahouse situated in a water town not far from Shanghai's center.

Not only does this gallery document the old style tea house and its regular customers, but also touches on pingtan or pinghua; a ancient storytelling tradition which may survive due to the Chinese government's efforts.

The old and traditional teahouse is almost invisible on the main street that's lined with shops selling local culinary specialties like pig’s trotters, boiled lamb, cakes made of polished glutinous rice, dried bean curd wrapped in lotus leaves, roasted sweet potatoes, rice wine and stinky tofu.

The teahouse features a wooden board at its entrance announcing a traditional pinghua storytelling performance, and the storyteller's name. This genre originated during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279). The stories are generally traditional romances, and the storytellers impersonate characters in the narration.

Stepping into the teahouse threw me back at least 50 years. Elderly men gossiping, drinking endless cups of tea, at wobbly square tables...a sort of social club for retirees. Mostly male since I only saw 3 women during my hours spent there.

More information on the tea house and the storytelling performances can be seen in the gallery.

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 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.