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.
"HẦU -DỒNG: 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 Dức Thịnh. The renamed “Mother Goddess Religion” (Dao Mẫu) was eventually promoted to the status of an indigenous Vietnamese religion and entered UNESCO’s list of the Intangible World Cultural Heritage in December 2006. In this context, the New York City–based freelance photographer El-Sawy attended hau dong ceremonies in March–April 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 Barthes’s terms, El-Sawy provides here his “denoted” message, 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 eye” in this chaotic ritual. Short bio-data of mediums provide context for the competition between mediums based on “artistic-like creativity” and 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 treasures” and 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 informants’ accounts of their particular rituals. A coffee-table book fails to do justice to these dimensions.
Universiti Brunei Darussalam