Sunday, 20 May 2018

Beyond The Frame | Huā | GFX50s



I've been absent from this blog for a while due to 'busy-ness', and working on a new audio-slideshow (aka photo-film) titled "The Legend of Hua"...which turned out to be more time-consuming than I anticipated, due to the various audio tracks that had to mesh with still photographs.

In the meantime, I uploaded a sample of the still images from the soon-to-be released audio slideshow unto my Exposure website, however I chose to post process these differently from those in the slideshow. 

I had read that a photographic technique merging silver printing with charcoal painting was widely popular in the 1920-1930s Shanghai, so I explored various modern digital post processing ways to try and imitate that 'look' as closely as I knew how.

After a number of failed attempts, I chose a process which mixes a combination of my own settings using two imaging softwares; ON1 Photo Raw 2018 and Iridient Developer 4. When I was satisfied with the resultant 'look', I saved the presets for the two programs, and it was more or less a cinch to just apply these to the images I had chosen for the gallery. That said, I still had to tweak a few of them...taking into account the disparity in lighting condition at the time of the shoots, so as to achieve uniformity as much as possible.

Insofar as the hardware is concerned, I used the Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm lens. This 'medium-format' camera is my go-to tool for such photo shoots, and I regret not having the 45mm I acquired after my Shanghai trip, as it would've given me a wider angle to work with.

All the images in this gallery were made in Shanghai and the nearby water town of Xitang. The latter is an idyllic setting and its ancient buildings date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, which include the teahouse where parts of the famed movie "Lust, Caution" was filmed.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

POV: The Human World Photo Contest | Winning Entry

Photo © Supriya Biswas | Courtesy The Human World
The Human World photography contest just announced its overall winner; Supriya Biswas with the above monochrome photograph, and four honorable mentions namely Thigh Wanna, Shoeb Faruquee, Robin Yong and Edoardo Agresti.

The Human World photography contest is organized by Matteo Vegetti, an Italian photographer, and is in its fourth annual iteration. 

As one of the contest's judges, I was gratified that the winning image was one of my top choices...and I'm glad the remaining judges on the panel seemed to have thought so as well. By the way, these judges are Diane Durongpisitkul, Jing Chen, Kim Hak, Sarah Trevisiol, Probal Rashid, and Gunarto Gunawan...a truly international panel representing the USA, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Italy, Germany, India and Indonesia.

My blog's readers may be interested as to the reason for this photograph being one of my top choices...and in all candor, I struggled with the decision and wavered a few times. My primary impulse insofar as photography is concerned is to follow Sebastiao Salgado's credo and to only take pictures (and like photographs) that illustrate the nobility of human beings.

My initial glance at this photograph was a rather negative one...I took it as something akin to a "poverty porn" image aimed at generating sympathy from the contest judges...but as I reflected more on it, I discovered more details that -to the contrary- ennobled these two men.

The apparent companionship between the men, not only in their handicap, but by sharing a newspaper since I imagined the one on the right reading the news to the one on the left, made a compelling story. Had they been soldiers in a conflict in which India was involved? Were they living in the same neighborhood? The details jumped at me...such as the leg prosthetic with the sandal obviously belonging to the man on the right, while the one without footwear was that of the man on the left. The reader was half-way through the newspaper...was he reading cricket scores? Do they live in an ashram for veterans or their in own homes...or were they laborers/farmers who lost their legs in accidents? One of them reads English...how does this level with my assumptions?

And what's going on with the cat and puppy? They mimic the head positions of the two men.

One could imagine a thousand short stories from this photograph...this slice of time...this instant when everything fell into place.

Despite all handicaps, life goes on. That is why this photograph got my vote.


Sunday, 6 May 2018

Beyond The Frame | Ren Li Fung | Fuji GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I'm currently working on a rather intricate "photo film" or audio slideshow that will mesh the topic of ghosts, opium, Shanghai in its 1930's heyday, traditional Chinese cultural and supernatural elements; all revolving around a plot of betrayal. The plot itself is influenced by a 1988 movie by Stanley Kwan (in turn based on a novel by Li Pi-Hua (also known as Lillian Lee), one of the most influential Chinese TV writers, film writers and reporters. 

It's funny how one thing leads to another...while planning my fortnight in Shanghai and preparing for my lecture and street photography workshop some six or seven weeks ago, I was invited to a number of WeChat groups by Yi Yi; a previous acquaintance from that super-modern city who would work with me on the second iteration of The Girl of Nanjing Road

Through these WeChat groups, I connected with Ren Li Fung ("Betty") who seemed very popular as a qi pao model with a number of fashion/commercial photographers. Employed by an American company, and holding a Masters in International Politics, she was quite fluent in English, and I put forth to her my interest in featuring her in my audio slideshow project. She accepted and we agreed as to the type of qi pao I thought would be best suited for what I had in mind. Since hers would be the narrating voice in the "photo film" project, she viewed the 1988 movie to get an accurate feel for what she would be asked to do when we started.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
A couple of days into my arrival in Shanghai, I scheduled a photo shoot couple of hours at the well-known IG gallery-museum which has an expansive studio complete with lights, reflectors and especially a Chinese screen which I liked a lot as a backdrop...as well as a Ming dynasty styled chair.

Helped by IG's Wang Hua with the studio's lights and reflectors, I used my Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm 2.8 lens to capture "Betty" in various poses until I was satisfied. We also were able to record the audio narration for the "photo film" in the back room until we were both happy with its pace and intonation.

Being an "on-the-fly" travel photographer (with an affinity for a photojournalistic style), I am always uneasy photographing in a static and controlled studio environment...as I'm not used to it. Directing the model to adjust her face or posture a hundred times doesn't come naturally to me. At IG, I had a mood board with me, and showed a few poses for "Betty" to adopt during the shoot to make it simple.

Having broken the ice with the studio photo shoot, we met a few days later at the Shanghai Hanxiang Water Garden (see above photograph). I was much more in my element in such an environment, but not a single teahouse was open in this 800+ acres park; probably since we chose one the three days of the Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping) holidays. In any event, I had scouted some of the buildings and chose a few that were appropriate...especially one having images of 1930s Shanghai beauties. More comfortable in such places, I know how to make use of the ambient light, where to place my subject and of the surrounding wooden railings, benches, etc.  


Naturally in such public places, there are always people milling around and I expected that some would gawk at the photo shoot. However, most of the Chinese visitors hardly took notice of us...others waited until I finished shooting a pose to walk across the scene. I don't know whether it was politeness or whether they were jaded...having seen photo shoots of women in qi paos before, but it was unexpected.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
On the weekend before my departure from Shanghai, we ventured south of the city to the idyllic setting of Xitang water town where -along with another photographer, a make up artist, and translator/fixer, I photographed Betty in various locations, including in the ancient teahouse where parts of the famed movie "Lust, Caution" was filmed (see above photograph).

The setting of Xitang was perfect for my purpose; it's one of the six most famous water towns in South China, with nine rivers converging in it, with many bridges linking its various parts together. The town has buildings dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.

All photographs were made with the Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm 2.8 lens. Except for the studio photo shoot, I relied on ambient light, eschewing reflectors and artificial lighting. For post-processing, I used Silver Efex for the monochrome image, and Color Efex for the rest (and Iridient Developer to process the RAW files).

Friday, 4 May 2018

Poy Sang Long | Reuters' Wider Image | Jorge Silva

Photo © Reuters/Jorge Silva - Al Rights Reserved
I was planning to attend the Poy Sang Long celebration in Chiang Mai in early April, but the opportunity of my Shanghai lecture and workshop intervened, and so I had to postpone traveling to northern Thailand till next year.

However, I viewed the recent wonderful photo essay and reportage titled Beloved Princes Become Buddhist Novices by Jorge Silva of the annual event which was featured in Reuters' Wider Image blog, and it definitely reaffirmed my intention to attend the celebration in April 2019.

The essay/reportage is quite thorough in explaining what Poy Sang Long is all about, but here's more information:

The days of April 4-6 are usually the time for the three-day festival of Poy Sang Long when, in the city of Chiang Mai, pre-teen boys are inducted as Buddhist novices. On the first day of the 3-day festival, the youngsters are in the midst of family feasting and gift giving before they are escorted to the temple to have their eyebrows and heads shaved. They are then ritually cleansed and anointed by bathing in sacred water. The parade to the temple is accompanied by the flute music, the beat of drums and the clash of cymbals by local musicians.

On the second day, the boys will parade to the temple to offer gifts to Buddha and the resident monks. The parade will move slowly from Thapae Gate through the road up to Chiang Mai Gate and eventually arrive at Wat Pa Pao.

Early morning on the third day (ordination day), the boys will be transformed into "Princes". Their faces will be covered with powder, rouge and lipstick and they'll be dressed in resplendent costumes, with white turbans on their heads. 

Friday, 27 April 2018

The Girl of Nanjing Road : Part II


N anjing Road by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

I completed another personal project whilst in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago. It's a sequel to The Girl of Nanjing Road (Part 1) which featured Yi Yi as the main (and only visible protagonist).

Both involve Yi Yi as a girl from Shanghai who's in a relationship with a foreign resident of that city during its glorious heydays of the 1930s, and into the start of the battle of Shanghai in 1937.

For historical buffs; the Battle of Shanghai was the first of the twenty-two major engagements fought between the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China (ROC) and the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

During the fierce three-month battle, Chinese and Japanese troops fought in downtown Shanghai. In the end, the city fell, and China lost a significant portion of its best troops, while also failing to elicit any international intervention.

Against this warring background, the Shanghai French Concession was a foreign concession in Shanghai, China from 1849 until 1943, and was a safe haven for a multitude of refugees, including Europeans and Chinese...and notably Jews fleeing the horrors of war in Europe.

The Girl of Nanjing Road Part I And II brings the viewers into that era, are narrated in Mandarin by Yi Yi herself, and accompanied by Chinese songs by Zhou Xuan (China's 'Golden Voice' and one of the most popular and important actress/singers of the 1930s and 40s) and Wu Ying Yin (who was one of the seven great singing stars of the era) to impart an accurate ambiance of Shanghai in the 1930s.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Shanghai was where the best art, the greatest architecture, and the strongest business was in Asia. It rivaled many cosmopolitan European cities, earned the sobriquet of "The Paris of the East" and became known as a place of vice and indulgence. With its dance halls, brothels, glitzy restaurants, international clubs, Shanghai was a city that catered to every whim of the rich. 

The 3 minutes script was revised, edited and re-written countless times...until the narration was felt to sound "right".



For the technophiles: I recorded the narrations using an iPhone fitted with a "dead cat" and a specialized audio recorder, then edited the audio tracks using Audacity, merging Yi Yi's narrations with the songs and various sound effects. The still images and audio tracks were converted to an mp4 using iMovie.

For Part II, the still photographs were all made using the medium format Fuji GFX50s and the 63mm 2.8 lens. 

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Longtangs of Shànghǎi | Street Photography


scroll image down

Taking advantage of being in Shanghai to give a 3-hour photo talk on travel photography at the well-known IG (Imaging Group) Photography Gallery, followed by a day long street photography workshop for 10 local photographers (and a subsequent photo critique), I was able to indulge in some street photography of my own...either alone or with a Chinese friend.

I naturally gravitated to the neighborhoods that still had the traditional narrow alleys where the less fortunate Shanghainese families still lived...a world apart from the shiny new areas where the 小资 (xiǎozī – 'little capitalists') lived, worked and shopped. By the way, modern Shanghai is lightyears ahead of New York City in terms of infrastructure, cleanliness, transportation and overall efficiency...and its subway system is as good as Tokyo's.


The narrow and tightly-packed alleys that escaped demolition in some Shanghai neighborhoods are called longtangs (弄堂, lòngtáng). The homes/structures lining these narrow alleys are usually two or three stories high, almost cutting off the sunlight from the lower mazes.

Most of the photographs in the gallery were shot from the hip as I wanted to capture candid expressions of people who populate these alleys. While they're not hostile by any means, those who live in well-known alleys have had their fill of tourists who brandish cameras or cellphones to take pictures of them; hence my decision of being circumspect in my photography.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Beyond The Frame | Mr. Wu of Shi Hu Dang | Fuji X-Pro 2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
On an overcast day during my two weeks stay in Shanghai, I traveled to the ancient water town of Jinxi with a Chinese photographer, his wife and a translator. The town is about an hour's drive, and is known for being -as yet- untarnished by commercialism.

Jinxi is also known as Chenmu, or the tomb of Chen. She was a beautiful royal concubine of Emperor Xiaozong(1127-1194)of the Song Dynasty. The legend is that during their stay in Jinxi, she decided to stay a little longer, and died there because of a sudden illness.


However, this is not about Jinxi, but about a small nondescript small town a few miles away called Shi Hu Dang, where I was introduced to a delightful octogenarian by Mei Qi; a businesswoman and his student at the school where he had worked for decades. 

I was welcomed by Mr. Wu into his small house; neat but cluttered at the same time. Unfortunately, his wife was absent doing errands so I could not meet her, although Mr Wu was very proud to share their wedding photograph in which she was wearing a qi pao.

Mei Qi explained Mr. Wu's kinetic and exuberant welcome by saying that this was the first time he had met and shaken hands with a laowai (foreigner) in all his long years. She also told me that Mr. Wu had been a long-standing chairman of the Communist Party in his small town (which was probably a village earlier). He had lost one of his sons last year....but hoped for a few pictures to send to his other son and daughter.

He was very agreeable in showing me the 2-3 rooms of his house; one of which was the kitchen...also very neat. His living room-bedroom had an old radio (visible in the above photograph) sitting side by side a small television.

It was getting late, and we had to return to Shanghai by subway; a trip that would take more than an hour...so I skipped interviewing Mr Wu and taping it. Had I had more time, I would've gladly spent a couple of hours in his company, and wait for Mrs. Wu to return from her errands. It would've been another Cafe Dao audio slideshow....however I promised him that I would return.

The technical details for the photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + Zeiss Touit 12mm. 1/15th Hand Held. f4.0. iso 800. Aperture Priority. Date: 2018.04.4 at 17:42:40 (Shanghai time). Post Processed Using Silver Efex and Iridient Developer 3.




Thursday, 19 April 2018

Isabel Corthier | Believers : Myanmar

Photo © Isabel Corthier | All Rights Reserved
It's not often that I stumble over a truly wonderful photographic website, and when it happens, I pore over its images very carefully...as long as it takes and relish the opportunity to share it on this blog.

The work of Isabel Corthier is worth poring over; especially that one its themes "Believers" happens to be one that has attracted me for quite a while during my own photographic journey.

For "Believers", Ms Corthier focuses her lens on Ecuador, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nepal and Myanmar. In the latter, her protagonist is a Buddhist nun called
Ayethikar, who at 21 years was sent to the Agayar Tawya nunnery in Yangon because she was sickly.

A few years later, she contracted Hepatitis C after being treated for dental issues. However, Ayethikar accepts her disease with Buddhist acceptance and equanimity.

The nunnery houses 30 nuns; one of which is 7 years old. The nuns arise from sleep at 4:00 am to start their meditation and for their housework.


Temples and monasteries are an integral part of life in Myanmar. It is estimated that they accommodate about half a million males, who are either vocational monks or novices, and around 50,000 nuns. Roughly-speaking, one percent of the population lives in one of the country's monastery or nunnery, completely dependent on the laity for all their material needs.

Ms Corthier's humanitarian work is prolific; her websites galleries include Refugees, Ex-Child Soldiers, Patients, Workers, Daily Life, Survivors and Believers.

Isabel Corthier is a freelance documentary photographer who works internationally for humanitarian organizations. Her work has been used for fundraising campaigns and communications for NGO’s such as Caritas, Trias, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders), Vredeseilanden (VECO), Louvain Coopération, Ondernemers voor Ondernemers, Solid International and more…

Ms Corthier's work has been exhibited in China (Lishui, Pingyao), India (Calcutta), France (Barrobjectif), and Belgium, and some of her pictures have won awards. In 2014 she received the EP European Photographer certificate.
Since 2015 she has worked as a Fujifilm X-Ambassador for Fujifilm Belgium.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

An Rong Xu | New Romantics: China

Photo © An Rong Xu | All Rights Reserved
Having just returned from Shanghai where I was giving a photo talk on travel photography following a street photography walk-about workshop, I was struck by the depth and breadth of talent found in young emerging Chinese photographers, who are passionate about their craft and eager to break boundaries. They are like "sponges" for ideas; new and old...and are quick learners when they need to be.

Working on some of my personal projects took me to a couple of old water towns near Shanghai, such as Qi Bao (commercialized), Jinxi (untouched) and Xinchang (preserved), along with Shanghainese photographers. 

The above photograph by An Rong Xu is of such a water town, and exemplifies the scenery that most of these relics have and provide to its visitors...whether local or foreign. It's part of his portfolio listed as New Romantics: China in which he provides us with his view of his native country.

He chose the title New Romantics to explain his feelings and categories which describe his photographic style; finding himself interested in the moody, the potential of moments, and colors.

An Rong Xu is a New York City based photographer and director. He describes his work as being rooted in the beauty of the ordinary, capturing a rich cinematic stillness in his photography and a passionate ethereal journey in his films. Xu has photographed and directed for publications and companies such as, The New York Times, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, GQ Taiwan, The History Channel, Instagram, airbnb, Underarmour, and Google.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Travel Photographer Society Awards 2018 Announced

Photo © Raed Ammari - Courtesy Travel Photographer Society - All Rights Reserved
The TPS Photo Awards 2018 were recently announced by its founder, Ahsan Qureshi, and the overall winning image is a macro photograph (above) by Raed Ammari. The winning submissions for all the categories were exceedingly difficult to judge due to their quality, as well as for their stylistic diversity. In 2018, there were participants from 92 countries with 2560 entries. 

I was one of the 15 judges; chosen amongst well established photographers in different fields of specialization. This attribute led to there being no ties in any single category; an unusual result for any imaging competition.

It was a singularly tough competition to judge; not only for the sheer number and quality of the submissions, but also because of the number of categories: Street, People, Landscape, Wildlife, Black & White, Architecture, Sports, Fashion, Weddings and Stories.

My favorite category is People, and while I relished scrutinizing each and every submission in that particular category, I was quite partial to the submission by photographer David Nam Lip Lee that earned it a berth amongst its winners.


Photo © David Nam Lip Lee - Courtesy Travel Photographer Society - All Rights Reserved
The Travel Photographer Society has uploaded the Best 60 Entries here.

It also announced, that on April 26th 2018, an award ceremony for winners of the international photo contest will be held to present the winners their awards. 

There will be an exhibition to showcase the Best 60 travel photographs. The event on April 26 will by invitation only, and will be followed by an open to the public event from April 27-29, 2018 at White Box, Publika (Kuala Lumpur).

The full address is: A A4-2-7, Solaris Dutamas, PUBLIKA, No.1, Jalan Dutamas 1, 50480 Kuala lumpur, Malaysia.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Beyond The Frame | "Lust Caution" | Fuji GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It's been a hyperkinetic two weeks in Shanghai! I had a two hour (it ended by being twice as long) photo talk scheduled at the Imaging Group's IG Photography Art Gallery, a large building that includes IG Studio and the very impressive Shanghai Museum of Antique Cameras, a large darkroom for analog enthusiasts, and even a photo-themed cafe adjacent to a large conference room. It was in the latter two spaces that the photo talk was held, where over 85-90 people were in attendance. 

A day later, I led a photo-walk (street photography) near Fangbang Road amongst the narrow alleys which teem with residents...it was a black & white photography workshop, and was followed by critique of the 10 photographers' work during the walk-about. This too was held in the conference room space, and was attended (to my surprise) by around 30 photographers.

However, I digress...Through the WeChat app (no one planning to visit China should be without it), I established a decent amount of contacts amongst the photographic community in Shanghai and elsewhere. Through various chat groups, I befriended a handful of local photographers who were eager to help me in setting up some photo shoots in the vicinity.

On a sunny afternoon, a bunch of new friends and I drove to the ancient watertown of Xinchang, approximately 35 miles south of Shanghai. Being out of the clutches of Shanghai's municipality's influence, Xinchang is not as commercial as Qi Bao (for example), and one can still stroll the interlacing lanes, carved stone-arch bridges and old wooden architecture of around 100 conserved courtyard-style houses from the Ming and Qing dynasties that provide glimpses of a time when Pudong was merely a string of individual villages.

One of the better-known locations in Xinchang is the ancient teahouse where Ang Lee’s movie Lust, Caution was filmed, and where one can have tea and nibble on sunflower seeds for about ¥37 per person. It was across from where this teahouse is located that I spied the old house with red lanterns...and it was the location of the above photograph. 

Reng Li Feng (aka Betty) is the model for a forthcoming fashion-themed audio slideshow that I will start woking on in a few days. We had chosen and bought her sober qi pao for this particular project, and I thought it was well suited for this background. I photographer her in various locations all over this lovely ancient watertown, including in the teahouse itself.

The technical details for the photograph are: Fuji GFX50s + 63mm. 1/1000th Hand Held. f2.8. iso 800. Aperture Metering. Date: 2018.04.8 at 17:30:00 (Shanghai time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.




Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Passion For Travel Photography | Shanghai



Well, my Shanghai Photo Talk is prepared and ready to go. It will include 137 photo slides, which will be accompanied by 25 pages of talking points and explanations. I timed the photo talk to take about 98 minutes excluding the live translation.

Hence my absence from updating my blog for over a week. I suspect I will be unable to connect to the blog when I'm in Shanghai from March 26 to April 10.

It will be held on March 31, a few days after my arrival in Shanghai.

It 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.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Rickshaw Wallah's Bell | Canon 5D Mark II

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
This Beyond The Frame backstory is about a bell. Not about any bell, but about the type of bell that is a constant fixture for rickshaw wallahs in Kolkata. What a horn is to a motorized vehicle driver, the bell is to the rickshaw.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves...first, what do we know about the rickshaw?

The rickshaw is thought to first have appeared in India, not in Kolkata but in the hill town of Shimla in 1880. However, it was made of iron not of wood as those that had appeared in Japan. It is said that it was an American who landed in Yokohama who introduced the rickshaw to the Japanese in 1869 to accommodate his wife who had difficulty walking.

The rickshaw eventually made its way south and west to Korea, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong through southeast Asia and into the Indian subcontinent, down to Sri Lanka, then found its way into Africa.

The image of men (some of them emaciated) pulling wooden rickshaws in the streets of Kolkata frequently causes knee-jerk proposals from its city government authorities to ban them, but 
the realization that the rains during monsoon seasons flood the streets Kolkata are flooded making them impassable by car makes it impossible for such a ban to pass. It is the only reason why the hand pulled rickshaw survives in Kolkata.

Now for my story. 

In October 2011, I had organized a photo-expedition-workshop during Kolkata's Durga Puja and naturally the rickshaw wallahs was one of the side stories that I proposed ought to be worked on.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
So I, as the other workshop participants did, walked the streets surrounding Sudder Street to document the pullers of these venerable vehicles. While photographing many of them at work or at rest, I came to like the tinkling of their hand bells which they shook to warn pedestrians to move out of the way, or to alert customers who were looking for rides.

While photographing a group of rickshaw pullers not far from my hotel, I asked a few who had them if I could buy one off them or where I could buy one. Getting vigorous head wags and vague hand gestures, I gave up, resumed my shooting and eventually walked back to the charming Lytton Hotel where I was staying.

Three hours later, I get a call from the Lytton Hotel's reception telling me that a rickshaw puller was outside, and had a bell for me. How did he know where I was staying is beyond comprehension...and how did the reception know that I wanted one? I call it the Kolkata "telegram"...or in more modern terms, the Kolkata SMS.


The rickshaw wallah was generously recompensed for the bell and his ingenuity, and I still have the bell in my home which I should use it to tell out-of-towners to make way on the narrow sidewalks of NYC's West Village.

For a full screen gallery of Kolkata's rickshaw pullers, drop by my color photographs at Rickshaw Wallahs.

And here's a monochrome slideshow on the rickshaw wallahs with the sound of the famous bell and street sounds recorded live in Kolkata.





Friday, 2 March 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Black H'mong With Birdcage | 5D Mark II

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The H'mong, estimated at about 1 million people, constitute one of the largest ethnic group in Vietnam and one of its tribal group, known as the Black Hmong, are reputed for their handicraft and indigo blue clothes made of hemp. The women wear long blouses over short trousers, and wrap long scarves around their legs. They wrap their long hair around their head covered by a turban.

The H'mong came to Vietnam from South China some 300 years ago, during the Ming and Qing dynasties.  The majority live in northern Vietnam's Lao Cai province. Their spoken language belongs to the H’mong–Dao language family, and although their writing was Romanized in 1961, it is not widely used.

The back story on the top photograph: I was walking in a Black H'mong village (I don't recall  its name, but it was at a short drive from Sapa), and chanced upon a woman sweeping her porch. She was used to tourists, and didn't seem perturbed when I asked to take photographs of her. 

At one point, she unhooked a birdcage to clean it and started whistling to get the bird's attention. Naturally, the bird was more alarmed by my clicking camera shutter, and started to furiously chirp at me...it was at that moment* that I captured the woman's incredulous expression at the bird's "lack of manners". 

You'll note the circular discoloration on her forehead. This is the result of medicinal cupping. According to traditional Asian medicine, cupping creates a vacuum on the skin to improve qi (life energy) flow...in this case, the woman probably suffered from headaches.

* I will be using this photograph -among others- to illustrate "The Moment" in photography during my forthcoming photo talk on The Passion For Travel Photography in Shanghai.


© Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
At another village, I met a H'mong mother and her young daughter who gladly posed for photographs in front of their home. If they can afford it, H'mong women wear silver jewelry in the form of heavy necklaces and earrings.

The woman seems to be well-off (note the two gold teeth), and is wearing lock shaped pendants on her necklace. These ‘soul lock pendants' are presented during ‘curing ceremonies' to lock the restless soul to the body until the appropriate time to die arrives.

She also bears pinching abrasions on her neck. Pinching the skin is also an ancient Asian treatment to increase blood flow, and by extension to increase life energy.

For more of my photography on the tribes of North West Vietnam, don't miss my Hill Tribes In The Mist gallery of monochrome photographs.

The technical details for the top photograph are: Canon 5D MKII+ 17-40mm. 1/25th sec Hand Held. f6.0. iso400. Pattern Metering. Date: 2012-09-21 at 09:56:39 (Hanoi time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Canon 5DMKII +17-40mm. 1/400th sec Hand Held. f6.0. iso 400. Pattern Metering. Date: 2012-09-21 at 11:36:39 (Hanoi time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.




Thursday, 1 March 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Ca Trù Singer | Fuji X-T1

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Ca Trù (pronounced “ka tchoo”) is a complex form of sung poetry found in the north of Viet Nam using lyrics written in traditional Vietnamese poetic forms. It flourished in the 15th century when it was popular with the royal palace, and was a favorite activity of aristocrats and scholars. It was later performed in communal houses, inns and private homes. In 2009 Ca trù singing was inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage “Urgent Safeguarding List.”

Its performances involve at least three people: a female singer (đào nương) who both sings and plays the clappers (known as the phách), an instrumentalist (kép) who plays the đàn đáy (three-stringed lute), and a “praise drummer“ known as quan viên who beats the trống chầu.


Historically, when spectators (usually male) entered a Ca Trù performance, they purchased bamboo tally cards. In Chinese, Trù means card, while Ca means song in Vietnamese, and thus Ca Trù means tally card songs. The tallies were given to the singers in appreciation for their performance. After the performance, each singer received payment in proportion to the number of cards received.

This ancient art was frowned upon during the Ho Chi Minh era and beyond, but was reinstated as a national treasure since then. In fact, as a result of the UNESCO inscription, some Hanoi venues have booked Ca Trù performances (thought mostly for tourists) in the city’s historic quarter.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The venue for the three performances I attended were held at an ancient venue on 28 Hang Buom Street, whose atmospheric ambiance was just perfect for this art form. It was a sort of reenactment of what would be experienced in the 15th century, with the musicians and singers wearing silk salmon-pink ao dais and headbands. The performances usually last for 45 minutes.

I chose to use my brace of Fuji X-T1 cameras; one fitted with a 18mm and the other with the absolutely delightful 56mm. Since the venue was so dark, the lenses were wide open.

The singer-musician seen in my photographs is Ms. Đặng Thị Hường who plays the traditional Vietnamese three-stringed lute, amongst other instruments. She (wearing the dress and headband typical to the royal Vietnamese court) is also featured in my photo essay The Ca Tru Musician; the result of a photo shoot at Hanoi's Ngoc Son Temple.

The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji XT-1+ 56mm. 1/200th sec Hand Held. f2.0. iso 1600. Spot Metering. Date: 2014-04-02 at 20:16:00 (Hanoi time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Fuji XT-1+ 18mm. 1/350th sec Hand Held. f2.0. iso 1600. Spot Metering. Date: 2014-04-02 at 20:36:00 (Hanoi time). Post Processed Using Color Efex and Iridient Developer 3.


Here's a short clip of one of the songs I recorded during one of the performances.




Monday, 26 February 2018

Beyond The Frame | The Shinto Bride | Meiji Shrine | X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It's a real shame that the traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies in Japan have dropped in popularity in the recent years, and that these only represent 20% of all weddings in the country, dropping from 70%. The drop may have to do with Japan's modernization, but it may also have to do with the high costs to set up Shinto weddings.

These photographs of a Shinto wedding ceremony were made at the famous Meiji Shrine, located in Shibuya, Tokyo; the Shinto shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. There were a number of photographers surrounding the couple, including the wedding photographer who seemed resigned that 'poachers' were on his turf.

I don't remember what I did to earn the couple's unbridled laughter, but it might have been my atrocious Japanese pronunciation in wishing them well...or my elbowing my way through the cluster of people with mobile phones trying to take pictures. 

Shinto wedding rituals are comparatively recent, being based on the ceremony used for the wedding of Crown Prince Yoshihito and Princess Sado in 1900. The ceremonies predating this royal wedding varied a great deal.

The weddings are usually small-scale affair involving the couple, their families and close friends. The bride normally wears a white kimono with a white scarf to indicate purity.

The ceremonies begin with a ritual purification; followed by prayers that are offered for the couple to have good luck, happiness and the protection of the kami 
(spirits or phenomena that are worshipped in the Shinto religion). Then the couple drinks sake - taking three sips each from three cups poured by the miko (shrine maiden) - and the groom reads words of commitment.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Once the wedding is about to commence, the couple walks into the shrine, a process traditionally called sanshin. The processions into the Meiji shrine involve the couple to be wedded walking in line with the Shinto priests.

The above photograph was made as the couple, followed by their respective fathers, made their way to the shrine to complete their vows. Attendants were very strict in preventing people from approaching too closely, but I chose a good spot and waited for the couple's exit. 

While I have a number of such frames, my positioning and that "click moment" makes it it look as if the bride is on her own..but the grey bottom fringes of the groom's kimono are visible.

The Shinto weddings at the shrine are very staid and solemn with the bride and groom wearing serious expressions (except for the frivolous moment I captured), and the processions are -to my eyes- almost funerary-like. 

The Meiji Shrine (明治神宮 Meiji Jingū) is located in Shibuya, Tokyo, and is the shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.

For a gallery of my monochrome photographs: Tokyo Noir

The technical details for the top photograph are: Fuji XT-1+ 16-55mm. 1/3600th sec Hand Held. f4.0. iso 400. Pattern Metering. Date: 2017-03-18 at 10:40:02 (Tokyo time). Post Processed Using Color Efex.

The technical details for the lower photograph are: Fuji X-Pro2 + 
16-55mm. 1/750 sec Hand Held. f4.0. iso 640. Pattern Metering. Date: 2017-03-18 at 11:29:00 (Tokyo time). Post Processed Using Color Efex.



Friday, 23 February 2018

Xiaoxiao Xu | Shehuo

Photo © Xiaoxiao Xu | All Rights Reserved
I am always on the lookout for ethnic cultural traditions that are off the radar for most of us, and with my forthcoming photo talk in Shanghai and working on a forthcoming photo book on Chinese Opera of the Diaspora, I am naturally focused on China and its wealth of obscure (and rural) rituals, performances and festivals.

One of these performances is Shehuo, which originated in ancient religious rituals performed by ancestors of the Chinese to worship the earth. In common with every other ancient people, they believed that the worship would bring plentiful harvests and fortunes in return. 

The etymology of the word comes from She, the god of land and Huo the god of fire.

In time, these primitive worshipping rituals evolved into the Shehuo festivity; a tribute to the Tudi Gong, a deity who holds sway over fortune and wealth. Most Shehuo performances take place around traditional Chinese festivals, especially at temple fairs of the Spring Festival and the Lantern Festival. The performances in most regions last until the 16th day of the first lunar month, the conclusion of which also signals the end of Spring Festival celebrations.

The Chinese-Dutch photographer Xiaoxiao Xu (徐晓晓) provides us with her vision of a rural Shehuo festivity using a square format camera (probably a Hasselblad) which was her 2014 project. Her work is more fine art than travel photography.

Xiaoxiao Xu is originally from Qingtian, China, and moved to The Netherlands in 1999 when a teenager. In 2009 she cum laude graduated from the Photo Academy of Amsterdam. After graduation, she won The Photo Award and held her first solo show in FotoMuseum Antwerpen. She was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass for several times and she participated in exhibitions all over the world. She has published a number of photo books to reconcile with her nostalgia for a now unfamiliar China.

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 Bao (七寶鎮) 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.