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.