Friday, 20 January 2017

POV: Asia Society's "Tin Ear"

As readers of this blog know, I spent the better part of the past two years on a wonderful project documenting/photographing/researching the indigenous Vietnamese Mother Goddesses religion (known as Đạo Mẫu) and its rituals (known as Hầu Đồng and/or Lên đồng) in Hà Nội and in the northern regions of Vietnam.

A few weeks after the birth and publication of my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam , Đạo Mẫu was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity. This prestigious acknowledgement was received in Vietnam with enormous nationalistic pride as it honors its heritage, and I was privileged to have had the opportunity to give three talks and multiple television interviews about my book, the project and how a non-Vietnamese was able to acquire an expertise in these rituals.

On returning to New York City, still reeling from the euphoric feeling of having done a meaningful project, I decided I would try to interest one of the prime repository of Asian culture in the possibility of (1) setting up talks (including my own) about Đạo Mẫu, and (2) to set up shows of Hầu Đồng rituals which would coincide with -or follow- UNESCO's endorsement which occurred on December 1, 2016 to the jubilation of the Vietnamese.



(This print was enclosed to the above letter as a gift)


I wrote up a detailed proposal to the Asia Society (excerpts above), and Fedexed it to its destination a few days after the UNESCO announcement. 

As of today's date, no reply, no acknowledgment, no reaction of whatsoever nature emerged from the Asia Society. Not even a "thank you, but we are not interested" email or voice mail.

This from an institution whose stated mission is "Across the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, the Society provides insight, generates ideas, and promotes collaboration to address present challenges and create a shared future."

Two issues are raised here. The first is that it is stupefying that the Asia Society hasn't been at the forefront of celebrating the inclusion of this Vietnamese heritage on the UNESCO list. To date, there's nothing about Đạo Mẫu on its website...Vietnam is certainly part of Asia the last time I checked.

The second issue is the blatant lack of civility in not responding to an obviously serious approach, which fundamentally was making it aware of an important cultural happening in Vietnam. The Asia Society is supposedly a vibrant cultural institution, with staff that ought to be aware of cultural developments, and it certainly appears they're not.

I am not bothered by rejections...but what I'm principally bothered by is the lack of awareness and secondly, the lack of civility and by the disrespect. 

More to come.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Mattia Passarini | Inked Faces

Photo © Mattia Passarini - All Rights Reserved
The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian "tatu" which means "to mark something." It is claimed that tattooing has existed since 12,000 years BC, and its purpose has varied from culture to culture and from era to era.

The recent tattoo popularity in the Western world most probably has its origins in Egypt during the time of the construction of the great pyramids. When the Egyptians expanded their empire, the art of tattooing spread as well. The civilizations of Crete, Greece, Persia, and Arabia picked up and expanded the art form, and China joined in around 2000 BC.* 

Inked Faces by Mattia Passarini is a gallery featuring various tribal individuals sporting intricate tattoos. I found the most extreme to be the Ramnami of Chhattisgarh who tattoo the word "Ram" on their whole bodies. Also included are the Konya, the Khonds, the Baga, the Apatani; all from the far reaches of India. The Chin of Burma, the Li and Doling of China, and the Lawae of Laos are also represented. 

Mattia Passarini is an award-winning freelance photographer based in China since 2006. He is focused in photographing the remote corners of the globe and the cultures that inhabit them. His passion in capturing disappearing cultures, ancient rituals, and everyday life leads him to travel to the most neglected countryside areas. In recent years he focused his research on their varieties, locations, habits and especially on their visible distinguishing features, which they express through face tattoo and body modifications. His photographs are exhibited in museums, galleries, and photography festivals around the world.

* This website has a thorough history of tattoos.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Ania Błażejewska | Balinese Idyll

Photo © Ania Błażejewska -All Rights Reserved
I should preface this post that some of the photographs are of tasteful nudity, and may be considered as NSFW.

Ania Błażejewska's Old Bali gallery, which only appears on her Polish-language blog, is of set up scenes with models to represent life on the island as it was many years ago, before its becoming a tourist destination. Her photographs are tasteful and luminescent, and the models chosen for this particular photo shoot are all just gorgeous.

Through these arranged scenes, she has recreated a traditional Balinese way of life, with roosters (for the cock fights), the religious offerings (canang sari), the temples, the abundant fruits, the dances, the gamelan, and markets.

This may not be travel photography as such, but it's certainly "time travel' photography with reenactment of what may have been commonplace in Bali in the 1920's or earlier. One can view actual old images here to see the accuracy of the reenactment.

Ania Błażejewska is an established and talented travel photographer who is based in Bali. Her website is replete with gallery after gallery of exceptionally well produced photographs and stories, ranging from traditional tattooing and Catholic flagellants in the Philippines, Theyyam rituals and Kathakali performers in Kerala, funeral rites in Tana Toraja of Indonesia's South Sulawesi, to the powerfully colorful Masskara festival in Bacolod, Philippines which shames the more accessible Venice Carnavale. She also documented the northern tribes of Vietnam and many others in her Photoshelter archive.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Viet Ha Tran | The Soul of Vietnam

Photo © Viet Ha Tran-All Rights Reserved
My previous blog post dealt with the question as to whether the Fujifilm X-Pro 2's capabilities mitigates my "need" for acquiring its medium format GFX 50S to seriously indulge in my interest in "fashion-lifestyle-travel" photography. I concluded the jury was still out, and that most probably the X-Pro 2 was more than capable of producing exquisite images without the weight and cost associated with its medium format cousin.

As I was checking Google News for recent updates on my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam in the Vietnamese newspapers, I chanced on an article lauding the work of a Vietnamese photographer, whose name I was not familiar with, and who wasn't in my extensive Facebook network. Some of the work I viewed exemplified what I am interested in pursuing (to a certain extent).

I chose the lovely photograph above, which is one of many in Ms Viet Ha Tran's The Soul of Vietnam gallery, as an example of what I regard as "fashion-lifestyle-travel" imagery. The ethnicity of the model, the historical and cultural influences of her costume, and the "scenery"...the typical Sino-Vietnamese furniture et al. 

I am also impressed by the photographer's delicate The Lotus Lake gallery, which was photographed in Hanoi's West Lake. In summer when lotus flowers bloom, the lake is popular with Vietnamese women along with photographers. The Vietnamese have so much affection for the lotus flowers that it is the country’s national flower.

Viet Ha Tran is a Vietnam-born fine art photographer, and is based in Spain. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan and a Master in Marketing Management from IE Business School, Spain. She studied a photography course at  EFTI (Centro Internacional de Fotografía y Cine). 

Having started her photography in 2013, her images have been published in over 90 different magazines and newspapers around the world. Semi-finalist in the Spanish National Digital Photography Contest in that year, she also won Honorable Mentions in Fine Art Categories of the International Photography Awards, Los Angeles. She was invited by Vogue Italia to photograph for Vogue Talents Shooting in early 2014. Later in 2014, her works appeared at Brighton Photo Biennial, on of the UK’s largest photography festival.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

POV : Can The X-Pro2 Do The Job Of The GFX 50S ?

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved (X-Pro2 + 16-55mm)
I am not an impulse buyer, not do I have the dreaded (or lauded) Gear Acquisition Syndrome but when I saw that Fujifilm announced the imminent arrival of its medium-format GFX 50S, I admit my pulse raced a little faster than usual.

I own an old film Mamiya 645 along with an equally old 80mm 2.8 Mamiya lens in a drawer somewhere, crippled by an unfixable broken shutter according to the Japanese repair center that looked at it a few months ago. It has been infrequently used, so it may have been either a manufacturing defect, or a mishandling on my part. Consequently, medium format wasn't on my radar screen until the Fuji GFX 50S announcement.


According to the prevailing mix of facts and rumors, the mirrorless GFX 50S will be released on February 23, 2017 at a body price of $6500. It is weather-sealed and uses the X-Processor Pro (used in X-T2/X-Pro2), and has a 51.4MP 44 x 33mm Medium Format Bayer Sensor. Along with a GF63mmF2.8 R WR (50mm equivalent) lens costing $1500, the price tag will be $8000 before sales tax (if any).

This is a significant amount of cash, but it's much lower than many comparable medium format cameras. So the question arises as to whether it ought to continue attracting my attention.

I consider my cameras and lenses to be tools. Nothing more. Nothing less. They are chosen, bought or ignored based on my perceived present and future need, available cash liquidity, and whether they supplement, complement or replace an existing tool.

Whilst there's no dispute that the GFX 50S is exciting and interesting for what it it is, I have a few thoughts about its usefulness to my style of photography, and my impatience for setting up shoots. 

My migration from the Canon system to the mirrorless Fuji cameras and lenses was caused (among other reasons) by the weight factor, by the portability factor and by its rangefinder design (insofar as the X-Pro1 is concerned). I subsequently expanded my inventory of Fuji lenses and acquired two X-T1s with body grips, cementing my Fuji association. The GFX 50S body alone is about 800 grams (about 1.8 lbs), almost the same weight as the Canon 5D Mark II of 850 grams (1.9 lbs).  So the GFX 50S would bring me back to the same weight issue.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | The Travel Photographer
The other factor to consider is what I would use it for. The GFX 50S and lens would weight about the same as the Canon 5D Mark II, and I imagine it would have to be wielded in the same way. My principal style is "on-the-fly", street-type candid travel photography, and a lot of documentary photography of festivals and religious/ceremonial rituals. Will the GFX 50S lend itself well to this style? 

I viewed a bunch of GFX 50S promotional videos put up by Fujifilm, which are slick and well produced. However, these were, for the most part, photographers shooting in controlled environments, or in studios, or -in the case of a travel photographer in India- shooting with the help of strobes, reflectors and soft boxes.If the weight and my style of photography were the only two factors influencing the decision to adopt the GFX 50S, then the answer would be an easy no. But in the mix there's the newish factor of my being interested in the sub-set of "fashion-lifestyle-travel" photography. 

What on earth is "fashion-lifestyle-travel" photography? Well, something similar to the work by Anne Menke, a renowned fashion photographer, who occasionally merges fashion-travel photography styles. I've merged travel photography with documentary photography into a genre that I describe as "travel photography meets photojournalism", and I'm gravitating to yet another genre that would allow me to photograph ethnic fashion wherever I travel.

The photo gallery of Mansi Zhang's images made in the Old Quarter of Hanoi is a precursor of what I intend doing as part of my travel photography trajectory. I've been toying with this idea since 2014 -or even earlier-, and it's a style that I enjoy doing. For example, the portraits of Ms Hường Đặng and Ms Trần Hiền Trang which I made in 2014 and 2015 are also such examples. 

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The photographs of Ms Mansi Zhang were made using the X Pro-2, and I am stunned by the quality of the images straight out of the camera. It's versatile, intuitive, lightweight, it delivers 24.3 mp.6000x4000 pixel images and I already have a panoply of Fuji lenses.

So the question that remains to be answered is whether the return on investing in a GFX 50S would be worth it. Would the quality of the GFX 50S surpass that of the X-Pro2 by such a factor that it justifies its $8000 expenditure? 

The jury hasn't even convened yet...but as I await more results and reviews of this new medium format tool, what I haven't seen so far is still short of being totally convincing.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Souvid Datta | India's Fading Musical Tribes


Photo © Souvid Datta - All Rights Reserved
One easily falls head over heels for India. No question about it. It happened to me in 1998, and I've traveled to its four corners (with some exceptions) over 20 times, imbibing its people, sights, smells, cultures, music and everything in between.

It's well known for its diversity, various physiognomies, languages, religions, traditions and cultures. Across the country’s 29 states, over 500 dialects are spoken, over 800 million reside in booming metropolises, and its rural enclaves are home to over 2000 tribes.

However modernity and globalization exact a price on all nations; especially those with traditions and cultures as deep as those of India. And may well cause the disappearance of its tribes, cultural practices and musicians. For example, the dancing Veerghase troops of Karnataka, the formidable hunting tribes of Nagaland, the revered Kawaili singers of Rajasthan: these groups, once essential and symbolic of their regions, may no longer exist in 15-20 years.

I, for one, delved head first in the hypnotic music of Qawwali, Baul singing, Kathak and Odissi dancing, Kathakali theater and Kalbelya tribal dances....certainly not enough to give me a deep understanding of the musical heritage of this vast country

However, I came across the wonderful Fading Musical Tribes project that documents many of the musical and dancing tribes and artists in India by Souvid Datta, a young Indian photographer, musicologist and videographer.

Souvid Datta was raised between the two metropolises of Mumbai and London, within an artistic and politically active family. He developed an interest in the fields of multimedia journalism, social justice and conflict studies, and although specializing in international law, he developed a passion for photography. He completed commissioned and personal projects across the UK, Italy, Spain, Egypt, India and China, working for clients including The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Independent and Monocle.

Here is a trailer for Souvid's ongoing film series Tuning 2 You: The Lost Musicians of India exploring 12 states across the sub-continent and documenting their spectacular but fading music, dance and art traditions.

 

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Nhi Dang | Dreams Of Myanmar


Myanmar, or Burma (as I occasionally prefer to call it) is a wonderful country which I had the pleasure of traveling in some time before its recent "modernization". Its people consist of a mix of settlers and invaders from all sides; the Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar migrated through Tibet, and by the year 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centered in Bagan. 

For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests in Thailand and in India, then shrank under attacks from China and due to internal rebellions.

Photo © Nhi Dang-All Rights Reserved
I am often on the look out for young talented travel photographers to feature on this blog, and, because of my own background, I'm especially partial to those who left the "comfort" of a corporate career for a life of creativity, travel and cultural affinity.

My current feature is about such an individual; Nhi Dang who describes herself as a videographer, photographer, traveler, nomad, and as a food video blogger. Living in Hanoi, she graduated from university with a degree in economics, but -as she puts it- "oppressed with office work", she quit her career and restarted her life-journey working in graphics and video editing.

Based in Ho Chi Minh City, she traveled to Indonesia, Myanmar, India, Ladakh, Cambodia, and naturally her native Vietnam. Not content to narrow her work to travel photography, she also produced a number of videos, including fashion and commercial trailers.

Her videos can be viewed at her Vimeo page.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Jørgen Johanson | Guì Zhōu

Photo © Jørgen Johanson - All Rights Reserved
Guì Zhōu or Guìzhōu Shěng is a province in the southwest of China, and is demographically one of China's most diverse provinces, with minorities accounting for more than 37% of its population. These include the Miao, Yao, Yi, Qiang, Dong, Zhuang, Bouyei, Bai, Tujia, Gelao and Sui. 

The Miao people -at more than nine million - are one of the largest minority groups in China, and almost half of them live in Guì Zhōu. The self-given name Long Horned Miao refers to the women with their own (and false) hair wrapped around a large horn-shaped wooden comb. In the past, this comb was smaller and the tips only just protruded out from the hair. In more recent times, and especially amongst older people, the comb is extremely wide, almost the size of buffalo horns. During festival times, young women wear as many as thirty skirts and several long jackets. 

Jørgen Johanson's Guì Zhōu gallery features a number of photographs of the "long-horned" women, along with other views of the life in this province. 

In 1985 Jørgen went on his first trip to Asia. Completing the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, he tells us he was hooked on Asia and on traveling.

While most of my working life has been in software development for companies in Oslo he managed to do some long distance traveling each year, and has taken a sabbatical just to travel. Many Scandinavians actually do this. Most of his trips have been to Asia, but recently he also traveled to Africa, but he keep returning to India and China, especially in those regions with Tibetan culture and the Himalayas.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Trupal Pandya | The Last Headhunters

Photo © Trupal Pandya - All Rights Reserved
The Konyaks are found in Myanmar, in a couple of districts of India's Arunachal and Nagaland, India. They are known in Arunachal as Wancho Konyak. In Nagaland, there are sixteen major indigenous tribes with different cultures and traditions. The most fascinating of these tribes are the Konyaks; the largest in number, identifiable by their tattooed faces and a history of fierce headhunting. Headhunting was important place in the Konyaks' tradition and culture.

For the Konyak, killing an enemy and bringing back the head used to be considered a rite​​ of passage, and was rewarded with a tattoo on the face or chest of the warrior. The more tattoos the fiercer (and more respected and feared) was the warrior.

During the 1970's, the Konyaks converted to Christianity and consequently many ​traditional practices and rituals have vanished. What now remains are​ ​a few old men with faded tattoos.These men are idling about certain villages, smoking opium​ and sharing stories about their glorious past.

The Last Headhunters is a series fascinating portraits of the Konyaks by Indian photographer Trupal Pandya.

Trupal has a bachelor’s degree in photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC), and started his photography a few years ago.  He participated in the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2014 and interned with Steve McCurry. His work was published in CNN, Huffington post and National Geographic Magazine and he has been on an assignment with the United Nations to Iraq to photograph the refugee camps.

His portfolio includes pictures of the tribes of Omo Valley in Ethiopia, Huaorani people of the Amazon Rainforest, Headhunters, Brokpas, Aghoris, eunuchs and shepherds in India. He has traveled to countries like Ethiopia, Ecuador, India, Iraq, and Sri Lanka mainly focusing on communities that are standing on the edge of modernization. 

Monday, 19 December 2016

Alessandra Meniconzi | Golden Mountains

Photo © Alessandra Meniconzi-All Rights Reserved
I am pleased to feature the work of Alessandra Meniconzi, one of my favorite travel photographers, on the Berkutchi of Central Asia. She tells us that in Kazak language, Berkutchi, means “hunters with the falcon”. Hunting with eagles is a traditional form of falconry. With extreme patience and dedication the Kazakh have domesticated golden eagles, and their techniques were originally adopted by nomadic populations in Central Asia’s plateaus, and eventually spread to the rest of the world.

For those interested in linguistics, the Kazakh word for golden eagle is "bürkit", and the word for "hunter with eagles" is bürtkitshi.

There are only about 40 officially recognized eagle-hunters in Kazakhstan today, but a village named Nura is its epicenter because it has 14 of them. Kazakh interest in eagle-hunting has been growing since the republic became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Hunting with eagles was discouraged in Soviet days, because it was considered an elite sport.

Alessandra Meniconzi is a documentary photographer whose work "centres on the ancient heritage, customs, spirituality and daily life of indigenous people". She prefers remote and rugged places, mountainous terrain and desert, and seeks people who manage to survive in such places, to discover and record their ancient way of life before they are changed by the modern era. Her photographs have been published widely in magazines, newspaper, calendars, postcards, as well as in four books: The Silk Road (2004), Mystic Iceland (2007), Hidden China (2008) and QTI -Alessandra Meniconzi, Il coraggio di esser paesaggio (2011)

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Vietnam Television's Interview | The Travel Photographer | Đạo Mẫu



In the afternoon of November 9, 2016 I was welcomed at the studios of VTV International (VTV4) at 43 Nguyễn Chí Thanh Street by Ms. Hoàng Thị Thu Trang (Head of VTV's English Division) and by Ms Duong T. Tran (host of Talk Vietnam) to record an in-studio interview  and to talk about my recently published: Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam photo book.

VTV4 uploaded it on You Tube. It is also currently is streaming on VTV4's website in broadcast HD quality.



In my jet-lagged condition, I was a ball of nerves before the interview, and being faced with three TV cameras, and hearing the call "Action!" did not make things better...but Ms. Tran was very gracious and her questions put me at ease. I had received the proposed script earlier in the day, and I had rehearsed as much as I could. The interview took 1-1/2 hours. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Denis Dailleux | Egypt

Photo © Denis Dailleux - All Rights Reserved
Every now and then, I chance on photographic work which fills me with nostalgia, and viewing the monochromatic images of Cairenes and other Egyptians by Denis Dailleux brings me back memories of growing up in a leafy suburb of what was at that a cosmopolitan capital. Unimaginable now of course, but at that time it was more European than Arab...and secularism was the norm. 

And Denis says it well in an interview: "I left Cairo more than a year, but return to it on a regular basis. I still love this chaotic city that spellbinds me, and I'm extremely sad of its current situation. However, if there is positive news out of Egypt, it is that of the courageous youths who got a glimpse of freedom."

I stopped at length at every of his photographs...easily imagining what these people would tell me, how they lived, would they share their troubles, their sufferings. Some smile, but others are stoic. A woman squatting in her kitchen looks at the camera with incredibly sorrowful eyes. A laughing father hugs his child, whose future is uncertain. A man sits at a sidewalk cafe, his mind seemingly elsewhere. 

There is no joie de vivre, no joy of life, in any of these photographs. Egyptians were reputed for their sense of humor, their exuberance, their hospitality and their kindness. Where has it gone? All I see from these photographs, supplemented by the barrage of disturbing news out of Egypt, are people who have been ground to dust by life exigencies, by bad luck, by governmental mismanagement, by poverty, by illiteracy, by inequities, by corruption, by intolerance and by religious misinterpretations.

That's all I see.

Denis Dailleux is a French photographer, who lived in Cairo for many years. His photographic work is imbued by the strong bonds he develops with those he frames with his camera. His passion for people has led him to take up portraiture as his preferred means of representation. He has patiently constructed unique portraits of people in his beloved Cairo

Friday, 9 December 2016

Flore-Aël Surun | 10,000 Spirits


© Flore-Aël Surun - All Rights Reserved
After my return from Hanoi where I launched my Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam photo book, I am naturally keen to start on a new long term project, and researching Asian spirit mediumship, I found Korean shamanism to have many similarities to the Vietnamese Hầu Đồng rituals I spent almost two years photographing. By the way, it is said that shamanism is what humans followed before the advent of organized religion.
The Korean shamans are called "mudang", and are usually female (in contrast to the "gender equality" amongst Vietnamese spirit mediumship practitioners). They are known to perform ceremonies called gut in local villages, to cure illness, bring good luck or plentiful harvests, banish evil spirits or demons, and ask favors of the gods. After a death, the mudang also help the soul of the departed find the path to heaven. They communicate with ancestral spirits, nature spirits, and other supernatural forces.
There are two varieties of mudang. The kangshinmu, who become shamans through training and then spiritual possession by a god, and the seseummu, who receive their power through heredity. In both cases, the mudang is initiated after a process called shinbyeong, or "spirit sickness."
The spirit sickness often includes a sudden loss of appetite, physical weakness, hallucinations, and communication with the spirits or gods. The only cure for shinbyeong is the initiation rite, or gangshinje, in which the mudang accepts into her body the spirit that will bring her shamanist powers. This has some similarities to what the Vietnamese spirit mediums experience, although in their case, initiation rites with a master medium must occur.

Flore-Aël Surun's photographs of South Koreans shamans in her 10,000 Spirits gallery consists of more than a dozen photographs of the practitioners either performing their craft or portraits. She tells us that " A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing."

She has also produced a short photo-film of her photographs accompanied by the audio of the shamans' chants. It is well worth viewing as it gives an added dimension to the eeriness of the practice.




Flore-Aël Surun studied photography in Paris, then lived in Romania for a year totally immersed in the daily life of kids living on the streets of Bucharest. This documentary, entitled “Sur-vie sous” (Survival Under) was awarded the Special Jury Prize of the Angers Festival of Scoop and Journalism in 1999. In 2001, commissioned by the Joop Start Masterclass, she made the documentary “FTM-MTF”, a series of portraits of women who have become men, which questions the notion of identity.

Since 2002, she has begun a series of documentaries on world peace which have led her to join a Buddhist march in the Negev Desert, hideouts in Canada for young American deserters and among other places, a village in which the three great religions coexist.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Leonid Plotkin | Mysterium Tremendum

Photo © Leonid Plotkin - All Rights Reserved
"Mysterium tremendum et fascinans" 
Mysterium Tremendum is a Latin phrase meaning fearful mystery, which was coined by Rudolf Otto who is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion.

This is how Leonid Plotkin -a photographer whose work I've featured a number of times on this blog- titled his photo essay of Buddhist rituals and of ceremonial dances made in the remote regions of Ladakh and Zanskar.

Some of the photographs are of Cham dances; the masked and costumed ceremonial performances associated with Tibetan Buddhism performed during Buddhist festivals. These dances are accompanied by music played by monks using traditional Tibetan instruments. The dances offer moral instruction relating to compassion, for good to defeat evil and bring merit to the performers and the audience.

Leonid Plotkin is a freelance documentary photographer and writer. His work has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The Economist, Penthouse Magazine, Student Traveler, Budget Travel, Discovery Magazine, MSN.com and others.

Friday, 2 December 2016

The Mother Goddesses Tradition | UNESCO


The Việt beliefs in the Mother Goddesses of Three Realms, also known as Đạo Mẫu, was inscribed on December 1, 2016 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

And the inscription comes as an important chapter in my 18+ months journey documenting this indigenous belief system which I stumbled across during a photo expedition in northern Vietnam in September 2014. It also serves to underscore the importance of this tradition to the millions of Vietnamese who flock to it for their spiritual needs, and to gain help in achieving good health and success in their communities, occupations and social circles.

I am proud to have launched my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam in Hanoi just 3 weeks before the formal announcement, and contributed in a small way to the anticipatory buzz of the mystical world of Đạo Mẫu and Hầu Đồng.

My three photo talks and my photo book were written of in more than 18 different newspapers and other publications, shown on various television programs, and I had no less than 4 television appearances/interviews including some that involved my photographing Hầu Đồng ceremonies with tv cameras trailing me.


I guess timing is everything. Had the UNESCO inscription taken place at the end of 2015, I would have missed the "hoopla" boat, and my book and talks may have had much less media traction than what I experienced earlier this month.

Rather than rewrite the back story on how and why I started this photo book, this older post will provide a detailed explanation. 


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Mark Bennington | America 2.0


Photo © Mark Bennington - Courtesy Huffington Post
Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on,” his campaign said in a release. June 28, 2016
I never thought I'd see a fascist running for President of the United States, and win the election on a platform of hatred, misogyny, racism and discrimination...but one did.

I was thrilled to see Mark Bennington's America 2.0 portraits which, as he describes them, are his direct response "to the politicized images of American Muslims depicted as a plagued foreign diaspora". He found it to be the time to start this project that dealt with the aspirations of ordinary people, and give them a voice through his portraits and interviews.

Reading these young and accomplished people's thoughts is an eye-opener. It is what our country is all about : E pluribus unum, the 13-letter traditional motto of the United States of America; the "Out of many, one" which is at the core of our very strength. It's not the febrile election campaign's loose and empty talk from a fascist that can and will ever change that.

The Huffington Post also featured America 2.0 here.

Mark Bennington is a portrait photographer based in New York City who travels for commercial/corporate/editorial assignments and personal projects. He was also an adjunct professor of photography at S.I. Newhouse School. His first book "Living the Dream: The Life of the 'Bollywood' Actor" will release in December 2016 (HarperCollins).

Monday, 21 November 2016

Travel Photographer Society | Contest And Workshops


Travel Photographer Society (Kuala Lumpur) has announced its annual travel photography contest, as well as its schedule of unrivaled workshops.

The travel photography contest is known as TPS Awards 2017, and having seen and judged the 2016 entries, I can confirm that the quality of the submissions were spectacular...and I expect the 2017 submissions will surpass them. So submit your best work, and impress us all!



I am also pleased to invite photographers to enroll in my workshop "Storytelling With Photographs And Audio" during which I shall share my thoughts on how to weave still photography into stories, how to use ambient or other recorded audio to enhance the stories, and how to use these images and audio to produce cogent photo stories under the simulation of publishing deadlines.

The workshop will be from 27 April 2017 - 02 May 2017, and will push its participants to unleash their inner creativity by producing short (3 minutes) multimedia stories; whether documentary, street life or fictional. The underlying objective is to have fun in unleashing the participants' creative juices with no restraint.

While teaching this workshop in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, I produced a totally fictional story of a man searching for a red-cheongsam clad woman in the Old China Cafe. A pure figment of my imagination triggered by two short visits to this well-known atmospheric establishment.



Other workshops will feature Dr. Shahidul Alam, Etienne Bossot (Travel Photography) and Calin Kruse (Design of a Photobook).

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Dina Goldstein | Modern Girl

Photo © Dina Goldstein | Courtesy The Guardian
My visual sensibilities, undoubtedly influenced by my just completed trip to Hanoi and my brief foray in "street fashion" portraiture, were tickled by the recent work of Dina Goldstein, as seen in The Guardian newspaper in its China Girl feature.

According to Ms Goldstein, her Modern Girl gallery is inspired by Chinese tradition and the evolution of international commercialism. With a photographic/design sleight-of-hand (and in a tongue-in-cheek manner), she reworks the iconic advertising posters of 1930s Shanghai, China.

Actual models replace the girls shown in such adverts, which followed the societal emergence of the Asian women chipping away at Confucius traditions that demanded total obedience. Women were expected to demonstrate obedience before all other virtues, and at every stage of life. Girls were required to obey their fathers; wives required to obey their husbands; widows required to obey their grown-up sons. At no point in her life was a woman, according to the traditional Confucian views, expected to function as an autonomous being free of male control.

Dina Goldstein is an Israeli-born photographer with a background in editorial and documentary photography. According to her biography, her photography is intended not to produce an aesthetic that echoes current beauty standards, but to evoke and wrest feelings of shame, anger, shock and empathy from the observer, as to inspire insight into the human condition. She independently produces large-scale tableaux photographic series that are philosophical, satirical, technical and visually attractive.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The Autumnal Nymph Gallery


The Autumnal Nymph by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

(scroll down on cover image to view the gallery) 

Yes, I've been absent from updating my blog for almost a month...but as I've explained in my earlier post, I've been extraordinarily busy setting up three photo talks in Hanoi. These took place for November 5, 11, and 12 at well known and popular venues in the capital's art scene, and were attended by Vietnamese TV stations and its newspaper media. More about that later.

I used the little downtime I had to try my hand at street fashion photography. I accidentally met Zhang Mansi near Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, and asked her to pose for me during the few free hours I had.

Mansi is a native of Dali, one of Yunnan's most popular tourist destinations in China. She is a third year student in Hanoi University. She reminded me of Luo Shen, a mythical figure of ancient China, who became popularly known because of a poem, Ode to the Nymph of the River Luo (Luo Shen Fu), composed by Cao Zhi of the Three Kingdom period.

This is certainly not the first time that I dip my toe in the so-called "street fashion photography". I find it to be quite a break from my travel photography, and it -this time- also provided me with a welcome change of pace from the photo talks' grueling schedule.

My travel photography is infrequently posed, and relies mostly on candid images...unposed and not set up; a kind of travel photography meets photojournalism. So finding suitable spots in Hanoi's Old Quarter and directing the lovely Mansi as to how to face the light was a welcome change, and distracted me.


Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam | Talks In Hanoi


I've been extraordinarily busy these past few weeks setting up three photo talks in Hanoi. These are scheduled for November 5, 11, and 12 at well known and popular venues in the capital's art scene.

These talks will include about 80 color photographs; most -but not all- featured in my newly published Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam photo book. The talks will be in English, as well as Vietnamese by a translator. 

The interest has been beyond my most optimistic expectations, with major Vietnamese newspapers already reporting on the book and on the three public events. 



Members of Hanoi’s Hầu Đồng community are invited, along with the members of the press and a handful of television stations, such Vietnam News Agency, VTV4 and Hanoi TV will be there as well.

Marketing and commemorative materials such as posters of the event are planned, and will hopefully be ready by the time the photo talks are held.

So I look forward to welcome Hanoi'ans (and others perhaps) to attend my talks, and enter the world of the mystical world of Đạo Mẫu and its rituals.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Media Blitz


I'm preparing for a forthright of media appearances and two or three photo talks that will take place in Hanoi about my photo book: Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam.

The "media blitz" will take place during the first two weeks of November 2016, and I'm slated to be interviewed on television by Vietnam News Agency (VNA), VTV4 and Vietnam National Television.

I've also been interviewed by various Vietnamese newspapers, such as the National Times, Thanh Nien Newspaper, Viet Nam News (Expat Column) and Hanoi Grapevine. A lengthier feature will soon be published in Ho Chi Minh City's Oi Vietnam magazine. 

Friday, 23 September 2016

Takehiko Yagi | Holi

Photo © Takehiko Yagi-All Rights Reserved
"I have been fascinated by the colors of the sacred festival of Holi for nine years now. I fell in love with the festival for the first time when I saw it on television as a high school student." 
This is very possibly a first. 

My Twitter feed has the link to the photo gallery Diving Into The Colors of Holi by Japanese photographer Takehiko Yagi, and naturally I followed it to view it.

Scrolling down the intensely colored images of the well known Indian festival, I stopped at the above photograph, showing the spiritual intensity on the faces of devotees in the temple of Banke Bihari in Vrindavan, the epicenter of the Holi festival. 

I recognized this exact scene because I was there as well....at the same time, and photographed these very same devotees. And then I remembered being shoulder to shoulder with an Asian photographer, who, now I know, was Takehiko Yagi. We were both swathed in scarves and eye protections; our cameras protected by makeshift (or ready-made) plastic covers, and we had our backs to the stage where the idol was periodically shown to the mass of devotees in the temple's hall.

This is my own photograph:


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
While the scenes at Banke Bihari Temple, the epicenter of Holi devotional revelry in Vrindavan, provide incredibly compelling photographs of devotees covered in color, I remember concluding that the scenes were also repetitive, and there was the risk of hitting the point of diminishing returns after a while.

Most photographers prefer to remain to the sides of the temple, but not Mr. Yagi or me. We preferred venturing in the courtyard where the frenetic activity was, and where we were most at risk from the Holi weaponry. I recall being drenched in colored water thrown at the crowds by the temple's priests.

Takehiko Yagi was born in Fukuoka, and attended the Tamagawa University College of Agriculture, and started his career as a professional photographer in 2014. He was awarded
a Nikkei National Geographic Photo Prize in that year, and was Grand prize winner of the 4th Nikkei National Geographic Photo Prize.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Hanoi Grapevine | The Spirit Mediums of Hanoi


I'm very pleased that Hanoi Grapevine has featured news of my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam on its popular portal.

Hanoi Grapevine describes itself an important and active promoter of the arts in Vietnam. It provides bilingual content of high-quality art and culture happenings in the contemporary landscape of the country and offer reviews by interested, informed and opinionated commentators. 

It has also announced that Hanoi’s expats and local citizens will have chance to talk to me about Đạo Mẫu and Hầu Đồng when I am in Hanoi in early November for a number of appearances at different photo talk venues.

Fuller details will be announced on this blog once I have the firm dates. The venues are in central Hanoi and are popular for art, photography and music events.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

My Book's Back Story | The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam

All Photographs © 2016 Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I remember September 12, 2014 very well. I was in Sa Pa, the famous hill station in northern Viet Nam, and despite the early morning humidity, the Black Hmong vendors were already waiting for tourists. I was walking on Fansipan Road, bantering with some of them, when I heard religious music wafting from a nondescript building. I asked the vendors and was told it was a temple. I walked in and met women dressed in red traditional clothes who, through sign language, told me that a ceremony would start at 9:00 am.

This is how my two-year long journey into the world of Đạo Mẫu, the indigenous Vietnamese mother goddess religion and hầu đồng, the ritual of spirit mediumship, started. Totally by accident. Serendipitously. 

I was flabbergasted that I hadn't heard of Đạo Mẫu before. My so-called specialty as a travel photographer is/was ethno-photography with special interest in esoteric religions and cults. And here, on a silver platter, was an ancient indigenous religion that had escaped my notice. To me, that was analogous at how cats react to catnip...the "happy" receptors in my brain went haywire.

It was after attending another 'stumbled-on' hầu đồng ceremony, this time two days later in the market town of Bac Ha, that I resolved to explore the religion, its rituals, its history and its practitioners. 

I had quickly researched the topic online, and discovered -to my surprise-  that no non-Vietnamese photographer had documented the religion and the ceremonies. There were commercial videos on YouTube and other sites, but no serious photographic essays or documentaries. It was at this point that I took it as a sign that I had to be the first to do that...and eventually this evolved into publishing the book: Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam.

Sharing The Ceremonial Wheat Wine Known As "Rượu Cần". Photo ©2016 Kim Nga
It took more than 18 months since that first accidental encounter with a Đạo Mẫu religious ceremony to reach the point where I felt I was ready to produce a substantial book about my journey into the depths of this esoteric religion, in its sacred rituals and music. 

Apart from the five or six trips of two weeks each to Hanoi, from attending over two dozen hầu đồng ceremonies in the capital, suburbs and further afield, and from interviewing some of the most popular spirit mediums, I researched Đạo Mẫu in as many publications and books that I could find. It wasn't readily available, and even the venerable New York Public Library wasn't able to find a specific historical tome in its inventory. I learned a lot from interviewing the mediums and by observing their mannerisms and styles during the ceremonies and in social settings.


On reviewing the material I had gleaned from my research and trips, I concluded my book would end up being between 150-200 pages, with about 100 full page color photographs.  I carefully chose and edited my photographs out of the thousands I had taken, and I started typing the manuscript.

The next step was to choose a print-on-demand publisher. I had toyed with the idea of using a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publishing costs for an offset printing, but decided against it as too time-consuming and potentially a time-waster. After a few tries, I settled on Blurb Books.

I have had past experience with Blurb Books, when I published two monochrome photo books:  Bali: Island of Gods and DARSHAN, but this would be the first time that I'd use them for a color photo book. Setting that aside, I had a number of reasons to use this popular print-on-demand publisher.

Firstly, I was used to Blurb Books' BookWright free tool, which allows users to publish custom photo books, magazines, and novels in either print or ebook format. I wasn't interested in its templates as I wanted total creative control on my book's layout, but I could use the rest of its features, including the ability to eventually produce the book in printed form and ebook.

At work using Blurb Books' BookWright
Secondly, Blurb Books has its own bookstore for books, and has a option which allows its users to publish their books on Amazon. Thirdly, I knew that Blurb Books could produce my books very quickly, and could deliver them efficiently to my eventual buyers.

This brings me to my efforts to get an international publishing house interested in my book. I collected a few of my best photographs of hầu đồng ceremonies, added a few paragraphs on the religion's background and emailed TASCHEN, TeNeues-USA, Phaidon and others. Most of the publishing houses demurred or didn't respond.

Being very pleased at the quality, layout and color reproduction of the dummy test book, I ordered a hard cover large format landscape version of the book, and offered it for sale as a special edition on my own website at a discount to start the marketing momentum. Not only were the results very encouraging, but the feedback made it all worthwhile.

Đạo Mẫu (and its Hầu Đồng rituals) is a fascinating syncretic religious practice mixing a number of artistic elements, such as music, singing, dance and the use of costumes. It also happens to be a joyous religious ceremony, without the dour, morose, guilt-ridden and fearsome ambiances of some other established religions we all know about.


The ceremonies are often joyous and engage the audience.

I had remarked in an earlier blog post that I had found a calling with this book project. My photographic expeditions-workshops were characterized with constantly having a definite documentary objective to them. Whether the objectives were Sufi festivals, obscure Hindu religious events such the gathering of the Vellichappadu and Theyyam, or the Cao Dai tradition in central Vietnam, I always had an intellectual, and not only a photographic, interest in such esoteric activities, and those who joined my trips seemed to have shared that. However, being practically unable to spend but just a few days at such events meant that significant ‘coverage’ was impossible, and this frustrated me. Spending weeks in a single location or on one single religious event was impractical with a half dozen or more other photographers in tow.

Literally stumbling on the Vietnamese religious tradition of Đạo Mẫu, and its ceremonial tangential manifestations such as Hầu Đồng and Hát Chầu Văn in late 2014 has literally supercharged, and reinvigorated, my enthusiasm for documentary photography, audio recording, storytelling and multimedia production over these past two years.

Pondering what to do with a gift of money and a lit cigarette during a ceremony. Photo © Hoang Anh
The special editions ready to go.