Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | Khanqah of Shah Hamdan (Kashmir) | X-Pro1

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Amīr Khusrow Dehlavī (1253 – 1325was a Sufi musician, poet and scholar from the Indian subcontinent, who was quoted as saying of Kashmir: “If there is a heaven on earth, it's here, it's here. (“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin asto.”) It is also said that it was Emperor Jehangir who said these words...whoever said it (and my money is on Khusrow), Kashmir is indeed beautiful.

I'll set aside political views on the current (and recent) political events in Kashmir, and dwell on its beauty and spirituality....and its photographic magnetism.

Historians are united that Hazrat Bulbul Shah was the first saint who sowed the seeds of Islam in Kashmir in 1301, and he might have come from Samarkand or from Bukhara. It was he who convinced Rinchan, the then ruler of Kashmir to convert to Islam, and Sadruddin Shah (as he became known) was the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir. He ruled Kashmir from 1320 to 1323 and was instrumental in establishing Islam in Kashmir.

The above photograph was made from the interior of one of the oldest and most revered Sufi sites in Kashmir; the Khanqah of Shah Hamdan. It was built on the banks of the Jehlum river in Srinagar’s old city by Mir Mohammad Hamdani, the son of Shah Hamdan, who came to Kashmir in 13th century. 

The woman sitting forlornly near the window was an elderly widow, who had lost a son in the incessant conflict between Indian forces and Kashmiris youths. I eventually tried to speak with her, but she was unresponsive to my approaches. 

Another of my favorite photograph of Srinagar is the one of a mother giving her baby a drink of water. It was made within the interior of the most sacred shrines in Kashmir; the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib. I could not access that area as it's reserved for women, but I managed to get the photograph by raising my arms over the wooden screen called jalis.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
For more of my photographs of Kashmir, drop by Srinagar: Kashmir's Sufi Heart.

Kashmiri music has a lot of Turkish intonations, and here's a short clip I recorded of a local band that played on the houseboat we were at.




The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji X-Pro1+ 18mm. 1/65th sec Hand Held. f5.6. iso 800640. Pattern Metering. Date: 2013-05-07 at 18:11:00 (Srinagar time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Canon 5D MKII + 17-40mm. 1/30th sec Hand Held. f4.0. iso 2000. Pattern Metering. Date: 2013-05-08 at 14:40:00 (Srinagar time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex.



Sunday, 18 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Qi Bao Shuchang/Teahouse | Fuji X-Pro2

 A shuchang in Qi Bao. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Six months ago the words Qi Bao (totally distinct from qi pao, which is also known as cheongsam) and Shuchang would've been totally unfamiliar to me; yet during and after too short a trip to Shanghai this past September, they've become part of my vocabulary as I am planning my return to this exciting megalopolis at the end of next month.

Shuchang is a traditional teahouse where storytelling called "shuohua" is performed. Storytelling was one of the major forms of entertainment in the medieval cities of the Song period (906-1279), and contained both spoken and sung performances, and many of the themes told are still part of today's storytellers' repertoire. 

It's in the old water-town of Qi Pao that I walked in such a teahouse, and experienced a shuoshu storyteller performing his art of talking, joking, singing and acting; all accompanied by his three-stringed lute (pipa or sanxian). 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. 


Teahouse patio. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The teahouse was much larger than I initially thought, as it had three connected spaces: the first room opened to the street with chairs and tables, a patio (where the above photograph was made) and the actual 'theater' with long benches, and half a dozen tables along its corners.

There were a handful of men playing cards or sleeping in the 'theater' room at first, however when the storyteller arrives, the benches quickly fill up with spectators. The asleep woke up to nod off elsewhere, but the card players continued their game ignoring the commotion.

The young storyteller was dressed in a long, salmon-colored chang paozi, the traditional male gown favored by storytellers. I figured that the almost daily performance lasts about 2 hours; from 2 to 4 in the afternoon and perhaps later in the evening.

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. With an entrance fee that low, there's absolutely no way that this teahouse is commercially viable... so it must have 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 subsidies.

The moment I stepped in the teahouse, I imagined it would a perfect spot to set up a sequel to The Girl of Nanjing thematic fashion-travel photo shoot, with a model dressed in a red qi pao languidly posing amongst the benches and tables of the teahouse. I'm confident the seniors at the card tables will lose their concentration rather quickly when that happens.

Whether the shoot happens there or not when I'm in Shanghai, I'm bound to revisit the old teahouse on Nanda Street in Old Qi Bao.

Unfortunately, I didn't have my audio recorder with me that day, nor did I have the presence of mind to use my iPhone to record the storyteller's performance. However, I did find an audio clip of another performance in a similar teahouse with a female storyteller.


The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + 16-55mm. 1/25th sec Hand Held. f2.8. iso 640. Pattern Metering. Date: 2017-09-05 at 14:11:00 (Shanghai time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + 16-55mm. 1/800th sec Hand Held. f2.8. iso 800. Average Metering. Date: 2017-09-05 at 13:30:00 (Shanghai time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex.

For more photographs at this teahouse, drop by my Shanghai: Incongruities in Monochrome gallery.



Thursday, 15 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Getai Singer | Fuji GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The Beyond The Frame posts on The Travel Photographer blog are currently its most popular feature, and I'm glad to have recently restarted it after a long (and inexplicable) hiatus.

However, I intend its posts to not only be photographically 
informative, but also to include snippets of culture that may not be widely known, and which I frequently either intentionally seek or stumble upon on my photo journeys.

While wandering at the back of the stage of a Hokkien (Chinese) opera troupe in Klang (near Kuala Lumpur) taking photographs of the performers applying their intricate makeup and putting on their costumes, I noticed a young woman in an unusually constructed dress, nervously pacing to and fro, rehearsing her lines which she read off a scrap of paper. She wasn't part of the troupe, so I engaged her in a conversation to find out how she fitted in the upcoming show.

She informed me that she was the 'warm-up' show for the Chinese opera that would follow in an hour...and when it was her turn to come on stage, it was indeed quite an act.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved (Fuji X-Pro2)

She was a getai singer; singers whose live stage performances are usually boisterous, maximally amplified by enormous loudspeakers at each side of the outdoor stages, and could occasionally be off-key (at least, this one was). 

The getai shows emerged in Singapore during the years of Japanese occupation in the 1940s, and have long been popular concerts during Chinese festivals (such as the Hungry Ghosts and the Nine Emperor Gods festivals) since they are believed to appease ghosts, but also provide lively entertainment attracting younger audiences to the traditional and staid Chinese opera performances.

I watched this getai singer's half-hour show from the sides of the stage, and very briefly in front of the stage. Her performance was "Britney Spears meets Madonna" (in Chinese), but she managed to liven up (electrify would be too strong a word) an audience of middle-aged and elderly spectators who were there for the Chinese opera that would follow.

For readers who are brave enough to listen to a short live recording of her act, here's the clip. I could make out some words in English such as "what's goin' on"...




The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji GFX50s + 63mm. 1/580th sec Hand Held. f2.8. iso 800. Spot Metering. Date: 2017-10-27 at 21:11:00 (Kuala Lumpur time). SOOC.

For my galleries of the Chinese Opera back stages and shows in Kuala Lumpur, here's Backstage and Yan Yang Tian Troupe.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Passion For Travel Photography | Shanghai Talk


I've been hard at work for a number of days, pulling images from my voluminous archives; choosing some; rejecting others; changing my mind and reversing my choices...in what is a circular -and one could say almost agonizing- activity which will only subside when I'm completely comfortable with my choices.

The objective is to present no less than 100 of my photographs to an audience of passionate photographers in Shanghai, who are to attend my photo talk at one of the premier photographic venues in this jaw-dropping megalopolis.

Through these photographs, the photo talk will take the audience on a journey that starts in 2000-2001 and continues to the present day, interspersed with my thoughts on travel (and other styles) photography, as well as storytelling; thoughts that some may found controversial, provocative and debatable...such as this one:



My photo talk in Shanghai is to be hosted by the Imaging Group's IG Photography Art Gallery, a large building that includes IG Studio and the Shanghai Museum of Antique Cameras, founded by Mr Chen Haiwen; a master photographer as well as a the recipient of the highest photography award in China twice in a row and Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Photography Association. 

I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to share my "travel photography meets photojournalism" style of photography with Chinese photographers. My attendance of Shanghai PhotoFairs (at Mr Chen's invitation) in September 2017 was an incredible eye-opener, and I was mulling my involvement in Shanghai's photography scene in some fashion ever since.

To be continued at some later stage.
 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | Vietnamese Mourner | Canon 5D Mark II

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I was rummaging through my archives to pull photographs suitable for my forthcoming photo talk in Shanghai, and picked this one of a Vietnamese mourner at a roadside funeral.

I thought it was be appropriate to feature in this Beyond The Frame post since it will soon be Tết (or Tết Nguyên Đán as the Vietnamese Lunar New Year is called) during which families visit their ancestors’ tombs and clean grave sites. 

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese also have an identical tradition known as Qingming or Ching Ming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day) which is regularly observed as a statutory public holiday in China. In fact, the timing of my photo talk in Shanghai was brought forward to avoid the festival as many people would be traveling to cemeteries at that time. 

This photograph was made at a roadside funeral while I (and other photographers on my Vietnam: North of the 16th Parallel Photo Expedition/Workshopwas returning from Halong Bay on our way to Hanoi. Cooped in a boat cabin for more hours than I cared for during the Halong cruise, I was itching to go photograph on dry land, and when I noticed the funeral tent, crowd and sound system half way into our journey, I just had our vehicle stop to let my friend Maika Elan and I solicit permission to photograph the rites.

Permission from the head of the family was readily granted, and I lit an incense stick to my respects to the memory of the deceased. 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 many of the mourning relatives wore coarse veils of gauze.


The mourning dress is made of a very low-grade white gauze and is very loosely-fit on the person wearing it. The women mourners wear a sort of peaked gauze head dress wrapped around the head held with straw crowns. Some of the mourners use bamboo sticks for support as if they had difficulty walking.The carelessness of dress and the hesitant walk are to show how overwrought the mourners are. 

The atmosphere was very subdued. There were expressions of sorrow, but no wailing or any such outward manifestations. There were wreaths with pictures of the deceased outside the erected tent while inside in a room, was a group of women relatives praying.

The technical details are: Canon 5D Mark II + 17-40mm. 1/25th sec Hand Held. f4.0. iso 160. Pattern Metering. Date: 2012-09-23 at 14:14:00 (Hanoi time). Post Processing using Color Efex Pro.





Thursday, 8 February 2018

Nick McGrath | Chinese Opera Bangkok

Photo © Nick McGrath | All Rights Reserved
As followers of this blog may know, I've been deeply interested in Chinese Opera for a while, and I'm in the midst of a long term work-in-progress project to publish a photo book on the Chinese Opera in the Diaspora.

So it was with great pleasure and interest that I discovered the work of photographer Nick McGrath in his lovely gallery Chinese Opera Bangkok, and from which I chose the above image of a performer's compelling portrait to accompany this post.

Bangkok’s Chinese opera has long been a vibrant staple of Bangkok's Chinatown life. The Teochew Chinese, who immigrated to Thailand a couple of centuries ago, brought it with them as part of their cultural traditions, and to this day, during the Chinese festivals, there are regular performances at venues along Yaowarat Road.

In common with others regions that have received the influx of a Chinese diaspora, the art form is in decline. Partly caused by a younger generation who are interested in other more modern entertainments, Chinese opera has been relegated to that of a sideshow, now found in Bangkok's back streets and alleyways only during Chinese holidays and festivals, with its performances enjoyed by dwindling and elderly audiences.

Nowadays, the future of Chinese opera in the diaspora seems dismal if not for the valiant efforts of dedicated and passionate artists, individuals and organizations which are trying to keep this venerable art form alive.

Nick McGrath is a editorial and documentary photographer (as well as a videographer) based in Bangkok. He graduated from the Photography Studies College in Melbourne and was awarded the JR Haynes Award for High Achievement in the Advance Diploma of Photography major in Photojournalism. His work focuses on Southeast Asia's culture and sub-cultures, looking specifically at how people live within these contexts.

Here's more of his video work on Bangkok's Chinese Opera.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Robot Restaurant Show Girl | Fuji X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
This Beyond The Frame post features one of the many images I made at the Robot Restaurant, located in Tokyo's Shinjuku nightlife district, and described by many as one of the wildest shows on Earth....which is quite true.

Anthony Bourdain got the shock of his life here, and it has since become a magnet for foreign visitors (and locals) seeking to experience the same "buzz' he had.

The Robot Restaurant is located not far from the Shinjuku Station, and is in the area best described as the underbelly of Tokyo's nightlife...which includes all sorts of seedy venues and other activities best left to the imagination.

The 90-minute cabaret style shows include bikini clad futuristic dancers, performers dressed as robots and a host of oversized vehicular robots -- all in a laser-lit room. The dancers et al are highly trained and rehearse around the clock to perfect the complicated routines involving dancing to drumming, pole dancing and robot riding. 

There's no logical storytelling in the epic battles between enemy robot armies, with effects ranging from strident pop music blasts and lasers strobes...but it's a psychedelic experience that is a mind boggling profusion of colors and sound.  

The venue is extremely popular, even if it has 'mellowed' through the years, and the female dancers are not as scantily dressed as they used to be. The show is certainly bizarre in a Japanese way, but is immensely enjoyable.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | SOOC JPG.
Unaware that photography using "large" cameras was prohibited, I used my Fuji X-Pro2 all through the show's duration and no one asked me not to use it. The dancers were within arm's length from most spectators, and posed (for barely a second) whenever I pointed the camera at them. Its rangefinder size and the 18mm pancake lens must've given the impression that it was a point & shoot rather than a 24mp camera, so it passed muster.

Naturally, my success rate in having decent images was low...due to the light issues and the rapid movements of the dancers and the robotic contraptions, but choosing a wide aperture, a high iso and a high shutter speed produced more than enough to feel pleased of myself and in the capabilities of the X-Pro2.

For more of my images of the Robot Restaurant, drop by The Greatest Show  gallery on my Exposure site.

Technical details on the top photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + Fujinon18mm. 1/2700 Hand Held. f2.0. iso 2500. Spot Metering. Date: 2017-03-24 at 16:44:00 (Tokyo time). Post Processing using Color Efex Pro.


Sunday, 4 February 2018

Cira Crowell | Koyasan

Photo © Cira Crowell - All Rights Reserved
Koyasan is one of the most important Buddhist temple complexes in Japan. This monastic complex of 117 temples is dedicated to the study and practice of esoteric Buddhism. It's the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Chinese-influenced Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, one of Japan's most significant religious figures.

It is one of the best places to experience an overnight stay at a temple lodging pilgrims and visitors can experience a monk's lifestyle, eating vegetarian monk's cuisine and attending the morning prayers. Around fifty temples offer this service to both pilgrims and visitors.

The history of Kobo Daishi is interesting. In 816, after years of study in China, it is said he climbed the holy mountain of Mount Koya and created the first temple of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism among its eight peaks, said to resemble a lotus. He was regarded as a saint by the time he fell ill at the age of 62, when his followers believe he passed into a state of eternal meditation rather than death. Along with his body, the spirit of Kobo-Daishi, as he became known, is believed to reside at the end of a forest path in Koyasan.

Cira Crowell's Koya-San Procession is a monochromatic gallery of the monks and their rituals at this revered site. 

Her website's biography tells us that she is a third generation Leica photographer whose work includes fine art, adventure landscape, cultural studies, portraits and humanitarian documentary themes. She's a black and white photographer who started her career twenty-five years ago with her grandfather’s Leicaflex SL2 film camera and she still uses many of the same forty-year-old lenses on her Leica SL.

Don't miss her lovely work on her galleries of Nepal's Kumbu, Kathmandu, Kalachakra, Ladakh and Bhutan.

As a footnote: The New York Times has an article on the Koyasan experience.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Đàn Nhị Player | Fuji X-T1

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I thought I'd feature an audio file as well as an image for this post of Beyond The Frame; both which were produced during my The People of Tay Bac Photo Expedition-Workshop in September 2014; a trip which planted the seed for my two years book project Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam (now on Amazon).

Thổ Hà village is about 40 kilometers from Hanoi, and is reachable across the narrow Cau River which we crossed on a rusty ferry. The village is known for making rice paper and banh da (rice crackers); its two main exports since 1990.

We passed a a row of old houses, and met Việt in one of the courtyards. He welcomed us into his house, offering us rice wine in small goblets. Seeing a collection of traditional instruments on his living room's walls, I asked if he played them...and he said yes. Being encouraged to play, he grabbed one of the stringed instruments and started singing a number of traditional Vietnamese songs, and entertained us for over an hour.

His favorite instrument was the đàn nhị Vietnamese, also called đàn cò; a Vietnamese bowed string instrument with two strings. The word nhị means "two" in Vietnamese. Việt was a civil servant (and possibly served in the army when younger) and had recently retired on a pension. He intended to teach his young son to play a musical instrument.

Technical Details: Fuji X-T1+ 18-135mm. 1/20 Hand Held. f4.0. iso 1600. Aperture Priority. 10:30 AM (Vietnam Time). Post Processing with Color Efex Pro.

I'm not sure why I used the Fujinon 18-135mm lens in this instance...it's my least favorite lens, I had just bought it before the trip to use for a specific photo shoot in Hoi An and it was ill-suited for this indoor low-light ambiance. I had the X-Pro1 and the 18mm f2.0 lens, so I'm puzzled as to the reason.

I recorded Việt songs on a Tascam DR-40 4-Track Mobile Digital Recorder.







Sunday, 28 January 2018

Alfred Weidinger | The Last African Kings

Photo © Alfred Weidinger | All Rights Reserved
"The most important thing is to find one king -- when I have one, he will guide me to the others."Alfred Weidinger
With a couple of exceptions, African kings are traditional rulers who often derive their titles from the rulers of independent states or communities that existed before the formation of modern African states. Although they do not have formal political power, in many cases they continue to command respect from their people and have considerable influence.  There are only three African countries with constitutional monarchies – Morocco, Swaziland and Lesotho -- but there are several hundred traditional monarchs dispersed across Africa in urban, semi-urban and rural communities in independent countries.

It is estimated that there are about 70 such African monarchs as well as some 500 tribal leaders, whose dynasties and fiefdoms marked the history of Africa until the middle of the twentieth century. 

Austria-based art historian and photographer Alfred Weidinger spent over 5 years searching for the surviving monarchs of Africa's grandest kingdoms and for tribal leaders and important clan chiefs. Traveling from Nigeria to Ghana, Zambia to Cameroon, and from the Ivory Coast to the Democratic Republic of Congo, he photographed these rulers and leaders who are still committed to their old traditions, and are revered and respected by their people.

The biggest threat to Africa's last remaining monarchs isn't local governments, but modernity. The threat of globalization has disturbed the influence and social standing of many of his subjects.

The Last African Kings is a voluminous gallery of -mostly- monochromatic portraits of these rulers which were made over repeated trips to Ghana, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Mali, Sierra Leone, Niger, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.

Alfred Weidinger is an Austrian art historian, museum manager and photographer. He currently is the director of the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig. Since 1980, he has been touring Africa as a freelance documentary photographer and recording portraits. He photographs both digitally and with film, preferring black and white. From 1985 to 1998 Weidinger studied art history and classical archeology at the University of Salzburg. He wrote his diploma thesis in 1992 on the landscape paintings of Gustav Klimt, his dissertation in 1998 on the early work of the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Beyond The Frame | Vietnam's Bac Ha | Leica M9

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
One of my favorite photographs was made in the market town of Bac Ha of northern Vietnam, known as Tây Bắc (literally "Northwest"). It consists of six provinces, which include the province of Lào Cai.

Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, giving it the richest and most complex ethnic makeup of Southeast Asia. The majority of the ethnic minorities live in the hilly regions of the Northwest. The region is home to the Hmong, Zao, Nung, San Chay, Cao Lan, Giay, and Lolo, as well as the Tay, and Muong.


The photograph was made at the Sunday market in Bac Ha, which hosts around 10 of these ethnic tribes who come to sell or barter their produce and products. Bac Ha itself is a sleepy town that comes alive during the weekend, and when the bartering, buying and selling is done and the tourist buses from Sapa have left, it goes back to bed for the rest of the week.

In common with markets all over the world, "pop-up" eateries spring to life on Sundays to feed the hordes of vendors and visitors who descend on Bac Ha for the day or even for a few hours. 

Aside from photographing the colorful Flower Hmong women who were busy selling their handicrafts, eating ice cream and haggling over bolts of cloths, I chanced upon a group of Black Hmong men eating in silence under a tarp at one of the rickety folding tables. I stood there motionless for a few minutes, and none of them as much as looked up at me from their bowls of pho. I realized that their conical hats (non la) were obscuring their peripheral vision, so they could not see me.

I took the opportunity to hover over one of the men, and snapped a couple of quick shots. They heard the shutter, looked at me for a few seconds....then returned to their bowls of soup. 

I guess they were used to tourists, and were unconcerned about another one taking their picture. Two years later when I returned to Bac Ha, I saw first-hand how the continuing influx of tourists negatively impacted this sleepy little town. 

Even though there are no faces in the photograph, it's unmistakably 'Vietnam'...the conical hat, the bowl of soup, the chopsticks all point to Vietnam.

For my audio slideshow of the Tây Bắc region which includes ambient audio recorded at the Bac Ha market, visit Hill Tribes In The Mist.

Technical details are: LEICA M9 + 28mm. 1/25 Hand Held. f2.8. iso 200. Pattern Metering. Date: 2012-09-22 at 11:49:00 (Vietnam time). Post Processing using Color Efex Pro.







Thursday, 25 January 2018

iPhones For The Dead | MAEKAN

Photo © Mia Haggi | Courtesy MAEKAN
Through NEOCHA, I stumbled on an interesting Hong Kong based media entity called MAEKAN, which describes itself as a platform for "original storytelling in its purest through captivating audio, engaging words and beautiful visuals" and an "audio-first publication exploring unexpected connections in culture".

A few months ago, I was in Kuala Lumpur photographing various temple ceremonies celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods festival, and being a strong advocate in merging still photography with ambient audio, I consequently was interested in MAEKAN's iPhones For The Dead story. (Don't miss the audio link to the narrated story). 

In a Taoist temple in Kuala Lumpur, I recall walking in a warehouse full of paper replicas of money, miniatures of cars and appliances and other luxury items which were destined to be burned as offerings in the memory of Chinese ancestors.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
One of China’s more enduring traditions, involves taking care of one’s relatives in the afterlife by burning fake money known as “ghost money” and other gifts made out of paper. Since the afterlife is thought to mirror the real world, what and how much Chinese residents give their deceased relatives is something of a reflection of trends in the land of the living.

Some burn paper cars fashioned after luxury models like Bentleys, Porsches and Land Rovers, mansions, shopping complexes, laptops and airplanes. 

Millions of people of Chinese descent visit the graves of their ancestors to burn paper money and more as offerings during the annual Qingming Festival, or Tomb-sweeping Day, which takes place early April.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Beyond The Frame | Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine | GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) is an important, and very popular, Shinto shrine in Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari.

Naturally, the site is a magnet for tourists, who come here in large groups or individually, to walk its trails and to pose for either selfies or for pre-arranged photo shoots.

Not far from the entrance to the shrine, I watched one of these photo shoots in progress, which involved a young couple wearing identical dress being photographed by a photographer and his assistant. They had a chosen a spot that had small replicas of torii gates hung as souvenirs, and were clearly enjoying their pre-wedding event.

I approached the group, and asked permission to photograph as well...and it was readily agreed to by all. It turned out that the couple was from China, while the photographer was from Kyoto, hired for the photo shoot. Understandably, he was the least enthusiastic about my taking pictures, but was won over seeing I was using the Fuji GFX50s...which he had not seen before.

The photographer's directions to the couple as to how to pose were unimaginative and repetitive, but during a break while he was chimping, the bride-to-be just dropped her head unto the chest of her partner to show she was getting tired and/or bored...and I caught the tender and reflexive moment.

I had bought the GFX50s and its 63mm lens in Tokyo a few days before, and it felt very unfamiliar. I had decided to have all its settings on "auto"; essentially turning it into a point and shoot, relying on its "brain" to produce the images, rather than my inexperience blowing the opportunity.

Technical details are: GFX50s + 63mm. 1/200 Hand Held. f10. iso 800. Pattern Metering. Date: 2017-03-27 at 14:40:00 (Kyoto time). Post Processing using Iridient Developer 3.




Thursday, 18 January 2018

POV: Staging Scenes To Win Awards

Photo Courtesy PetaPixel
I've recently seen a blog post by PetaPixel (which is one of the blogs I visit very frequently for news on photography), and read that a photojournalist in Bangladesh vented his ire and frustration at non-professional photographers (or non photojournalists...and presumably non Bengalis)) who descend on the country during its largest religious festivals to make "award-winning" photographs.

His issue is that these photographers staged scenes to make compelling photographs to enter in photography contests, for a chance of recognition, cash awards and other prizes. He pleads with these photographers to not come to these festivals and ruin his, and other "real' photojournalists, chances at making their own (presumably) non-staged images.

I believe it's quite rich for any photographer to take such a position, and while a small part of me sympathizes with it, should the Bangladeshi authorities have no mechanism to only authorize accredited photojournalists to these important public events, the other photographers have as much right as he does to be at the events, and stage whatever they want to.

As an example for such restrictions, I understand that photographers seeking to attend the massive Kumbh Mela in India must provide some form of accreditation to enter a certain perimeter. Otherwise, they are left to wander in the area's peripheries. 

Some of the commentary on the PetaPixel post mentions the huge scandal caused by Steve McCurry's staging and photoshopping some of his well-known (and well remunerated) photographs. He called himself a "photojournalist", then confronted with proven facts, he backtracked and described himself as an artist...and has won a multitude of awards and recognitions.

I recall being in Kolkata a few years ago leading one of my photo expeditions during the Durga Puja festival, and how an Indian photographer was deliberately and aggressively blocking my shots during one of the religious ritual at the riverbank. There was no staging then, and I was there amongst a gaggle of other photographers but was singled out by him because I was a non-Indian and a non-photojournalist. When I confronted him, he angrily said I was taking "the bread out of his mouth". 

So my advice to the Bangladeshi photographer is the same I gave to the fellow in Kolkata...focus on making the best photographs you possibly can, and don't use whiny pretexts about staging scenes to explain shortcomings.

As to winning awards with staged images, that's up to the editors/judges to cull them out or accept them.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Photo Book Cover(s) | Chinese Opera Photo Book Project


Being confined indoors for long stretches by the recent horrible winter weather in New York City, I started to choose potential picks for its front cover, and will eventually choose its back cover as well. After all, one has to start somewhere in a photo book, and although others perhaps make the cover choice as their last step in the book creation process, I prefer to start with it.

It's common knowledge that people spend an average of 8 seconds looking at a book's front cover and 15 seconds studying the back cover before making a decision whether to buy it or not...so the choice of both front and back covers is obviously critical to the success of Chinese Opera In The Diaspora.

The initial short list for the front cover of Chinese Opera of the Diaspora (its tentative title) is as per the above thumbnails. Although this "contact sheet" is skewed towards male performers, I have much more images of female performers for another sheet, however I believe that the final front cover choice will be that of a male performer because their roles demands them to be more facially and bodily expressive, especially if these are warrior roles.

I found it difficult to specifically shoot for covers during the many Chinese opera performances I attended. Making sure that my images -while making them- had adequate negative space to host title and sub-title typography, was virtually impossible due the movements of the actors on stage, the stage lights and, in many cases, the decorative stage backgrounds. For the covers, I preferred shots of performers being on their own, holding accessories such as weapons, scrolls or jugs.

So those that made the cut were (1) of performers with strong expressions and gestures, (2) had plain dark backgrounds (a combination of low light, spot metering and post processing), and (3) could be stitched to provide ample negative space to accommodate title typography.

I also made the decision to use a single simple and uniform typography, rather than a combination of various styles, and chose the title color(s) to match those of the performers' costumes to bring those elements together.

On some of the cover choices, I added the script of 中国戏曲 (pinyin: zhōngguó xìqǔ which means Chinese Opera) almost like a Chinese stamp alongside the title to add visual "authenticity" to the cover. 

Out of these thumbnails, I have two favorites; the lower left for the front cover and the middle right for the back cover (although it will not have titles, but just a blurb about the book's contents, the ISBN etc.)

I look forward (sort of) to the next NYC snow storm to work on more options.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Antoine Schneck | Mali

Photo © Antoine Schneck | All Rights Reserved

Following the recent racist vulgarities uttered by the White House resident describing African, Caribbean and South American nations (among others), I decided to feature photographs of Malians by French photographer Antoine Schneck as a riposte.

I have rarely posted about Mali on The Travel Photographer blog and for those of us who need a geographical refresher, it's a landlocked country in West Africa, and is the eighth-largest country in Africa, with an area of just over 1,240,000 square kilometres (480,000 square miles). Its population is 18 million, and its capital is Bamako.

Setting aside its troubled recent politics, Malian music is glorious, and is derived from the griots, who are known as "Keepers of Memories". Its most well known is the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré and the Tuareg band Tinariwen, and the wonderful Fatoumata Diawara and Babani Koné.

Schneck tells us that he starts the process of his portrait-making by having the models sitting alone against a black fabric in a white fabric tent, with his camera protruding from a hole in the tent's fabric. He operates the camera from the outside, remaining invisible to the subjects. His post process further darkens the backgrounds to become pitch black, to obscure all but the models' faces. 

Aside from his Mali portraits, Schneck offers us portraits of Ethiopia (Omo Valley and Afar), India, Miao in China, Papua New Guinea, Burkina Faso and other projects.

Antoine Schneck lives in Paris. Portraiture has appealed to him from the start of his interest in photography. His work is developed in series, over the course of journeys, desires, projects, always a meeting. In 2007, Antoine Schneck went to Burkina Faso to stay in a small village, and he returned with over 300 portraits. He then went on to do series in China for photographs of the Miao and India for the Nilgiri, followed by Mali. 

For those fluent in French, here's his interview with RFI.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Alina Fedorenko | City of The Dead

Photo © Alina Fedorenko | All Rights Reserved
Cairo’s El-Arafa necropolis, known in English as the City of the Dead, is an unusual place to say the least. The necropolis has been around for more than 800 years in a city so crowded with about 20 million people that thousands have no option but to live here among the tombs and mausoleums .

It's estimated that anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million Egyptians live in the 4-mile-long cemetery zone. There are shops, schools, clinics and even car mechanics that cater to this population. Generations of heads of households that reside there are usually employed by the families whose dead are buried underneath these mortuary structures, and have been there for decades. 


Although this settlement is technically illegal, the Egyptian government has since given up on evicting residents since it would create urban problems that it can ill afford. Depending on the size of the tombs and mausoleums, these living quarters are larger and cleaner than many in other slums, having gardens and courtyards, an impossibility in other areas.

Alinka Fedorenko's City of the Dead is a gallery of photographs of a number of interior living spaces at the City of the Dead. She tells us that "the neighborhood is poorly policed, crime is on the rise. This place has its own rules and some of the criminals found here a place too, next to families who are raising children. I travelled to Cairo to visit families living in the necropolis, a daily life between the graves, where children play and clothes lines lead from one tombstone to another".

Apart from the City of the Dead, I also admired her Homes of India gallery.

Ms Federenko was born in Ukraine, but raised in Berlin, Germany. She studied Fashion Design in London, returned to German and altered her career path to become a photographer. She's fond of bright and rich colors, and documents people who live marginal existences. She's a single mother who travels for her work with her young child.

She has been recognized with more than international awards, of which the latest are The 10th Pollux Awards Winner in Category People and Daily Life 2017 and the Silver Winner at PX3 Prix de la Photographie Paris 2017.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Beyond The Frame | Lee Lee The Traveler | GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Spending a couple of weeks documenting the Chinese (Hokkien) Opera troupes during the Nine Emperor Gods festivals in Kuala Lumpur gave me the opportunity to continue my "Red Qi Pao" project which involves photo shoots in atmospheric interiors that are reminiscent of a 1930 Shanghai. This time, I chose to shoot in a studio setting (a first for me).

Along with Stanley Hong, a friend and photographer, we drove from mid town Kuala Lumpur to 512 Studio, Jalan SS 7/26, in Petaling Jaya...a journey that took us about half an hour or so. The studio is owned by Ms Osa Lim, and managed by the ebullient Ms Shay Yap, herself a photographer as well.

The small studio is reasonably well appointed, with 4 or 5 separate areas that are decorated in different styles; such as a dark bar with wine glasses, a red room with old Shanghai posters, another in a Japanese style, etc.

We were to met Lee Lee; a lovely friend who volunteered to model for us. She was already prepared with a 1930-style make up and hair-do, and would pose for me in two types of qi pao; a grayish cotton qi pao and a red silky one, along with a white fur stole.

Lee Lee works in administration, as well as a prolific blogger and what we now call an "influencer" who's involved in fashion and travel.




Lee Lee took her part very seriously, and was amenable to both my and Stanley's directions. We spent about 2 hours at the studio, adjusting the lights and positions. Shay Yap even provided us with an opened bottle of wine and glass as props. For the photograph in this post, the intent was to depict Lee Lee as a 1930 Shanghainese in a train station VIP waiting room, traveling to meet her lover.

Photographing in a controlled setting may seem easier to do than in an uncontrolled one, but I much prefer the flexibility of the latter environment. In contrast to the photo shoot I did in Shanghai's Guilin Park, the one in Studio 
512 felt more restrictive. Not only on account of the more limited space, but also because I am more at ease working with ambient light, and am uncomfortable (and unfamiliar) with studio lights. Nonetheless, I am very pleased with the results of the photo shoot.

Technical details: GFX50s + 63mm. 1/60 Hand Held. f2.8. iso 800. Spot Metering. Date: 2017-10-21 at 15:43:00 (Kuala Lumpur time). Post Processing using Luminar ("Enigmatic Vision" Preset + Adjusting RGB Curves and Orton Effect).


The GFX performed superbly (I also used the X-Pro2), and its 63mm lens was used wide open. In some respects, I wish I had its 45mm lens to give me a slightly wider angle, but taking a few steps backwards while shooting provided me with a similar viewpoint. I am not a tripod user (hence my discomfort in studio settings, nor did I use any reflectors. Stanley provided a small portable LED which was used a few times when we felt it necessary to have some fill light.

After the photo shoot, we all went for a Vietnamese dinner...the best I've had since Hanoi.

PS. If you look closely at the photograph, you'll see 旅游攝影師 (lǚyóu shèyǐng shī) in red under my copyright...it means 'the travel photographer' in Mandarin.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Christian Berg | The Old Ones

Photo © Christian Berg | All Rights Reserved
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) previously known as Saigon, has a population of about 8.5 million people, making it the most populous metropolitan area in Vietnam. The city's population is expected to grow to 13.9 million by 2025. Its French-influenced buildings earned it the nickname of “the Pearl of the Orient”, especially because of its tree-lined boulevards flanked by grand hotels with wide verandas.

Saigon's old buildings also formed the backdrop for “The Quiet American,” the Graham Greene novel set during Vietnam’s war for independence from France in the early 1950s, and for indelible images of the Vietnam War. The city
 was full old apartment buildings; built in the 1950s or 1960s while others dating back to French colonial times. 

As an aside: Although I've been to Vietnam many times, I've only been to Saigon once back in 2004, and I distinctly recall the Rex Hotel; the old and famed hotel where the United States military would hold its delusional briefings during the American (or Vietnam) war, and its roof top bar (where I had an excellent seafood meal), and which was the favorite watering hole for journalists, spies and military people.

These old buildings (as those in Hanoi and elsewhere in many Asian cities) have been, and still are, inhabited by generations of families. Some of the buildings contain living quarters, small shops, markets, and restaurants. However, more and more of these structures are being demolished due to safety reasons and to make way for new (and expensive) real estate projects. There has been much loss in Saigon's urban heritage which rips the city's social and historical fabric.

Christian Berg's The Old Ones is a gallery of photographs made of some of Saigon's heritage buildings. 

Christian is a Ho Chi Minh City based documentary photographer, available for freelance work in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. He holds a degree in Southeast Asian studies, and is fluent in Vietnamese.is work was published in The New York Times, The Financial Times, Elle, Forbes, National Geographic Traveler, The Telegraph, DKSH, Atlas Industries, Strategic Marine, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, Goethe Institute, Medicins du Monde and others.