Wednesday, 3 October 2012

POV: Highlights Of Vietnam's Photo-Expedition/Workshop

Looking back at my recently completed my Vietnam: North of the 16th Parallel Photo Expedition/Workshop, here are my main favorite photographic experiences.

But before listing them, let me make the point that it's the people one meets on such trips that make them memorable. In my case, it was spending a few hours listening to Mr Dao's life story in Hoi An, with Mr Nguyen Bao in Hanoi and with Mamei near Sapa.

 1. Street Photography in Hanoi:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Hanoi is a dream come true for street photographers. Its residents virtually live their lives in the streets...conducting their daily routine in the open, eating and interacting with each other in the open. This obviously gives rise in innumerable opportunities for amusing and ironic life vignettes. I could easily spend days upon days wandering Hanoi's streets and alleys; especially those of the Old Quarter.

Actually, street shooting in all the cities and towns on the itinerary was the highlight of the trip. Whether it was Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An...walking in the streets with a camera in hand is just a sublime experience for those who like this style of candid photography like I do. The only problem? Too many scooters parked on the sidewalks!

2. Cao Đài in Hue:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Driving into Hue from Da Nang, I had noticed an unusually looking structure and saw a sign that proclaimed it to be a Cao Đài temple. I just could not let this opportunity go by, especially as I thought the only  temple was in Vietnam's delta. Following telephone calls and my visit with Maika Elan, we secured the approval of the head priest to photograph its daily prayers. I can't emphasize enough how gracious and welcoming the congregation was...despite our many faux-pas during their prayer ritual.

This was a big deal for me as I always wanted to witness the rituals of this new indigenous religious tradition.

3. Model Photo Shoot in Hoi An:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Many of the walls of Hoi An are painted yellow-ochre, which symbolizes wealth. The town is a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries, and is a delight to walk through. With Maika, I set up a photo shoot with one of her acquaintances who posed for us along one of its photogenic streets.

I'm not a fan of frozen and posed portraits, but the exercise in itself is both fun and educational. The best for me was to capture unposed moments such as this one when a child looked out of a window while the model adjusted her ao dai.

4. The Hilltribes of Sapa & Bac Ha:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I greatly enjoyed wandering in the markets of Sa Pa and Bac Ha...especially the latter where the Hmong and Dzao, and a handful from over 10 other tribes, attend Bac Ha's famous Sunday market to buy, sell, barter and eat. I'm still scratching my head as to the genetic mystery behind this Hmong child's blond hair. 

I wandered in these markets for hours...occasionally using my Canon 5D Mark II, but relying more on my Fuji X Pro-1 in my street photography style...shooting from the hip to capture as much candor in my photographs as possible. 

An audio-slideshow was born from these wanderings, and can be viewed on my Vimeo page.

5. Halong Bay:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Being cooped up on a boat...even for 24 hours...and even if it's a luxury not my kind of thing. However, I must agree that Halong Bay is visually gorgeous, and amply deserves its World Heritage listing. I only include it as a highlight because its land-seascape is beautiful.

As I wrote elsewhere, I included this 24 hours cruise on our itinerary in the hope that the group participants would use the time to complete their audio slideshow projects. Some did and others didn't.

6. Vietnamese Buddhist Funeral:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

On the way back to Hanoi from Halong Bay, we encountered a funeral. Both Maika and I went ahead to seek permission from the family to attend it and to photograph the rituals. I wasn't optimistic, but the head of the family readily agreed provided I lit an incense stick and presented my respects to the memory of the deceased. This I did, and planted the stick at the shrine. The deceased was born in 1925, and his name was Cu Pham Van Bao.

I was invited to drink green tea, and sat amongst the head table along with our host. The funeral rite is called le dua tang, and some of the mourners (presumably close relatives and families) wore coarse veils of gauze.

Being allowed into their midst at a time of sorrow by these Vietnamese mourners is a testament to their graciousness and kindness.

7. Catru: Vietnamese Religious Music:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

We attended a Catru concert held at an old building in the heart of Hanoi's Old Quarter. High-brow and very traditional, this musical genre was already played during the 15th century during ceremonies at the Vietnamese court, but during the 1950s fell in disrepute due to its association with opium and similar nefarious activities.

The musician/singer in the above photograph is Ms Pham Thi Hue, a famous practitioner of this art form, who performed beautiful musical pieces during the hour-long session. 

8. The Vee Sign:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Perhaps it's moving from the high brow (above) to a low brow topic, but many people hate the V-sign that Asians seem to do when being photographed. The V-sign was flashed as soon as young Vietnamese women asked me to take their pictures while celebrating the pre-Lunar festivities in Hanoi streets. They also did it when they posed for photographs with me. Not only are the Vietnamese youths camera-friendly (very friendly!) but they also know cameras. I was frequently stopped and asked about the X Pro-1 and the M9...but not once about the 5D II which many of them already have.

But I got used to the V-sign, and always expected it...I won't go so far as to say it's charming, but it certainly was part of the scene all around me when photographing the celebratory activities where I call the "street of the gaudy decorations". I got different interpretations for it. Some said it was a way to say "Hi"...and others said it was the peace sign. 

9. Meeting A Vietnamese Star:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy- All Rights Reserved
Ms Ngô Thanh Vân is a top Vietnamese actress, and was filming a movie in Hoi An. It's by total serendipity that we saw her. Very approachable, she was charming and we exchanged a few words. NTV (as she's known in Vietnam) asked me where I was from, and what was I doing in Hoi An.

I naturally took as many photographs as I could of her on the set without interfering with the going-ons.

If this brief encounter is not a highlight, I don't know what is.