Monday, 23 October 2017

Yan Yang Tian Opera Troupe | Kuala Lumpur

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I've been in Kuala Lumpur for exactly a week today, and have yet to shake off the dreadful jet lag that comes with traveling from one of the globe to the other...metaphorically-speaking. 

There's quite an activity amongst the Taoist community here on account of the Nine Emperor Gods festival; whose observance and rituals occur in KL's temples. The largest of these rituals occurs in the Kau Ong Yah Temple in Ampang...however this post is about the ancillary events of Cantonese Opera that are performed at some of these temples; essentially to entertain these gods on their arrival to earth.

The most elaborate performance is held at the Leng Eng Tian Khien Ong Tai Tay Temple (yes, it's that long of a name) in Petaling Jaya, where it's attended by a large number of temple devotees, as well as by photographers who take delight in going backstage to capture the actors' make up sessions and costumes before they come on stage.

Here, the Yan Yang Tian opera troupe comes to perform traditional Cantonese opera during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. I read that the troupe's owner is Elizabeth Choy who's over 80 years old, and who manages the 20 persons troupe with an iron fist. 

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The backstage attracts photographers (mostly local) like a magnetic field. I was backstage on two separate evenings, and while there was a few irritable photographers on the first, the second evening was characterized by extremely civil individuals...ceding space to others when necessary.

I'm not too fond of taking pictures of the performers' reflections in their mirrors whilst applying their makeup...since it's trite and repetitive. Although I have some of those for the eventual narrative gallery, I preferred to use a wide angle lens to get the whole (messy) scene. It should be said that the actors spent their sleeping hours on the floor of the backstage, so the mess is understandable. 

I was impressed by the quality of the costumes, and told that these were sourced from Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong. In fact, two of the actors flew in from Hong Kong to take part in these shows.

The atmosphere is very laid-back, with spectators grabbing plastic chairs from somewhere in the temple, and drinking sugar cane juice and other beverages that are sold outside the temple's main door. In fact, I even saw a stand selling sushi in plastic wrap like at the supermarkets.

Children play near the stage, and when they feel like it, climb over the few steps to get a better look at the performers. Nothing is too formal here.

For those interested: I used the Fuji X-Pro2 with a 16-55mm lens, a 18-135mm lens as well as a Zeiss 12mm for the back stage. I also used the Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm lens during the performance and backstage.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Qinqiang Opera | Shanghai

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
One of the most difficult subject matters I've had to photograph is Chinese Opera, not because of photographic requirements, but because of the sheer diversity of its various types and styles, as well as its thousands of different operatic tales.


Qinqiang is one of these regional types, and was performed at Shanghai's Yi Fu Theater on Fuzhou Road. The opera's tale was about two women; both brides but with different fates. The opera's title is The Qilin Purse (a red purse bearing the symbol or image of the mythical Chinese 'unicorn', meant to bring luck and good fortune to brides at their weddings).

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The performance is representative of the folk Chinese opera of the northwest province of Shaanxi, where it was called Qin thousands of years ago. Its melodies originated from rural areas of ancient Shaanxi and Gansu. The singing style is described by musicologists as resounding, powerful and intense, while the performances are full of energy.

There are generally two kinds of arias in Qinqiang Opera: Huan Yin (joyous tune) and Ku Yin (sad tune). The roles are categorized into thirteen types, four types of sheng (male roles in traditional Chinese opera), six dan (female characters), two jing (painted-face characters) and one chou (clown). 


The number of the Qinqiang works historically ranked first on the list of more than 300 local operas in China. But only about 4,700 works remain today. Fortunately, Qinqiang Opera was listed as a national Intangible World Heritage in 2006.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
All the photographs of this Qinqiang performance were made using a Fuji X-Pro2 and a Fujinon 18-135mm OIS lens. I don't use a flash, and even if I had one with me, flash photography was not allowed.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Shanghai | Incongruities In Monochrome


Shànghǎi by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

In a few days, I'll be in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur to cover the Nine Emperor Gods festival...and returning to my roots of photographing non-mainstream religious events and rituals. The festival is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of ninth lunar month, and will include trances by mediums, processions and Chinese Opera performances.

However, this post is to feature my latest street photographs made in the terrific city of Shanghai. In this incredibly modern megalopolis, buzzing with nervous creative energy, with one of most and best subways in the world...and home of more than 24 million people, I found a few incongruities.

These are some of them. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Cantonese Opera | Audio Slideshow


Cantonese Opera by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

My taking a few weeks of hiatus from posting was due to long distance travel to Hong Kong and Shanghai which consumed much of my free time, my getting busy with a couple of longer term photographic projects (such as Cantonese Opera, as per above audio slideshow), and being in need to recharge my batteries, and to regroup my long term plans for the type of photography I do.

Although I have a number of posts impatiently waiting to appear on this blog, they'll have to wait a while longer until I return from Kuala Lumpur at the end of October, and where I'll be attending and photographing the Ninth Emperor Gods Festival

The festival is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and it coincides with October 19 this year.

My interest in this festival is two-fold: the primary reason is that it involves mediums and trances, and these may have a connection to my earlier work with the spirit mediums of Vietnam, and the second reason is that the festival is host to Chinese (Cantonese) Opera troupes who perform to entertain the deities and devotees...so a double barreled objective.   

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Noah Shahar | Chinese Opera

Photo © Noah Shahar | All Rights Reserved
Chinese opera has a long history in Thailand, which is home to the largest overseas Chinese community in the world. Bangkok's Chinatown roving performances have casts consisting of a mix of Chinese and Thai performers. The purpose of these roving troupes in Bangkok is to preserve Chinese culture and tradition in a country where Thai-Chinese are often third or fourth generation. The performances are also held to please the gods.

As in New York City's Chinatown, where I frequently attend such performances, it is the middle-aged and elderly (with a handful of youngsters) of the neighborhood who go to these operas. Those held in Bangkok's Yaowarat Road, Chinatown's main thoroughfare, are probably not expensive in comparison to those in New York where the cheapest seat goes for $10 and the most expensive (depending if one of the stars is from Hong Kong or mainland China) can go for $100.

I was pleased to find Noah Shahar's Chinese Opera gallery in monochrome. Its two-dozen black and white portraits of Chinese Opera performers; some very young, others much older, are very well composed. Most of them were made in the back stage/room of the venues, where the time consuming and meticulous makeup is applied. Normally, actors-singers in Chinese Operas self apply their makeup. I believe that the Chinese Opera as performed in Bangkok is in Mandarin, and may be Shanghai Opera rather than Cantonese. However, with over 30 varieties of Chinese Opera, this is difficult to ascertain unless one is actually there.

Noah Shahar is a photographer originally from Tel Aviv, where he started his career as  fashion and then a wedding photographer. He traveled to Southeast Asia in 2014, and decided that he would remain in that part of the world and establish his career there.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Cantonese Opera With The GFX50S & X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy (Fuji GFX50S + 63mm)
It's been a while since I last posted here, but I was extraordinarily busy in researching the ancient art of Chinese opera; which I hope will become one of my long term documentary projects.

Following my earlier attendance of The Purple Hairpin performance at the Chinese Community Center's theater on NYC's Mott Street, I had the chance of befriending Ms. Yan Wu "Camille" Shuang (燕無雙) who kindly invited me to attend another Cantonese Opera show at the same venue. This time it consisted of a medley of scenes from various operas; some were performed in full costumed regalia, while others were performed in Western dress.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | GFX50S+63mm
Being invited by one of the stars of the show meant I could walk backstage while the actors were applying their makeup, and witness how the costumes are carefully prepared, ironed and worn. Although the lighting was atrocious and the space tight, I photographed two of the actors rehearsing their lines and movements within the narrow confines of a corridor leading to the stage before their being on.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | X-Pro2 +16-55mm
While in the backstage changing room, I used the X-Pro2 fitted with the 16-55mm and chose spot metering on the white undergarments worn by the actors when applying their makeup. I was told that most experienced actors apply their own makeup rather than relying on an artist. It's a time-consuming task, and it has to be just right. 

The actors liberally use tape to get facelifts, using it to pull back the skin from their faces, enlarging their eyes and smooth out wrinkles. Sideburns, wigs and beards are all made of real hair, which allows them to be straightened with a clothes iron. Actors for female roles glue sideburns to slim down their faces' shape, and for their faces to appear more oval.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | GFX50s + 63 mm (crop)
As in previous shows, the audience were mostly middle-aged and elderly Chinese (and I was told were from Manhattan's Chinatown, and not from Queens or any outer boroughs).
I estimated that the gender mix was approximately 70% women; of which a handful were well-to-do middle aged business women. Naturally, they were seated in the front rows as was I (courtesy of my host). 

Not far from where I was seated, an intriguing character of undetermined gender and dressed in a man's white cotton suit with a white baseball cap was gawking at the audience, instead of watching the show. She scowled in my direction and nodded...I took that to be a greeting and nodded back. I was subsequently told that she had been a nurse in a prestigious Hong Kong hospital before immigrating to the United States, and that she personally knew all the famous Chinese Opera and movie actors of her era. She was also an amateur photographer who occasionally would photograph the participants at the Chinese Community Center.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | X-Pro2 + 18-135mm (The Villain King)

I used my X-Pro2 and the XF 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 which, once again, did not let me down. This lens was my least favorite, and it was only added to my lenses because I needed a "long" zoom lens for a particular photo shoot during my 2014 Vietnam photo expedition. I thought I would never use it...but I did on every one of the Chinese Opera gigs, and it performed beyond my expectations. Most of my photographs were made using spot metering, and I set the exposure compensation at -2/3.

On the other side of my aisle sat a woman who frequently helped me understand what was going on the stage. During the climax of a particularly emotive moment (when the "mousang" hero is killed by the villain king), she was daubing her eyes, and said she couldn't help being emotional whenever she watched sad ending operas.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | X-Pro2 + 18-135mm (The Hero Warrior-Mousang)
Despite my efforts to get the English titles of the Cantonese Operas performed during the show, I failed to get consistent replies. However, I've saved the program and will find a reliable translator. One needs stamina to cover the shows; I had to be there at 10:30 am and it ended at 6:30 pm.


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Legend of the Purple Hairpin | Fuji X-Pro2



During my regular photo walks in New York City's Chinatown, I chanced upon another poster advertising a forthcoming Chinese (Cantonese) Opera at the Chinese Community Center's theater on Mott Street. Naturally, I booked my seat, and attended its featured show titled The Legend of the Purple Hairpin.

All the front and center seats were booked (at $100 each, I suppose that the show's sponsoring businesses and VIPs got them for free and/or at a discounted price), but I secured a front row aisle seat at the side...not ideal, but it gave me the freedom to move should I need to. I chose to use my Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fujinon XF 18-135 F3.5-5.6 OIS WR (the equivalent of a 28-200mm) to give me the reach I would need.

The Fujinon XF 18-135 F3.5-5.6 OIS WR is my least favorite (and least used) Fuji lens because of its aperture limitation. However, I found that its OIS (Optical Image Stabilizer) compensates for this limitation quite well, and from my previous experience at the same venue but for a different show, it performed to my satisfaction.

The Legend of the Purple Hairpin is a classic. It was written by Tang Xianzu (1550 –1616), a Chinese playwright and dramatist of the Ming dynasty. The dramatist’s four masterpieces – The Peony Pavilion, The Legend of the Purple Hairpin, The Story of Handan and The Dream of Nanke – are collectively known as The Four Dreams of Yuming Tang, and are still staged regularly by operatic troupes today.

The Legend of the Purple Hairpin occurs during the Tang Dynasty. A young scholar, Li Yi, is told that a pretty young woman admires his poetry. She is a courtesan named Huo Xiaoyu. On the evening of the Lantern Festival, he picks up a purple hairpin that belongs to Huo Xiaoyu, who falls in love with him at first sight, and gives him the hairpin. They hold an informal wedding on that same evening.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
However, a high court official’s daughter has a chance meeting with Li Yi on the night of the Lantern Festival and she too falls in love with him. She begs her father to arrange a marriage, so she can marry Li Yi however the latter refuses. The father, Official Lo, then sends Li Yi to the frontier as punishment.

In Li Y's absence, Xiaoyu’s livelihood becomes harder as days go by. She stops being a courtesan after the marriage, so she has to rely on pawning her jewelry to support her family, including her purple hairpin. When Li Yi returns from his frontier posting, Official Lo detains him in his house in order to force him to marry his daughter. The hairpin is bought by the Lo family for their daughter’s wedding to Li Yi.

Xiaoyu is eventually helped by the yellow-robed the Fourth Prince who is under the Emperor’s instructions to investigate Official Lo for treason, and arrests him. Li Yi’s and Xiaoyu’s mutual love for each other are rewarded, and they are able to be formally married.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved (Stylized Image)
At the end of the 5-1/2 hour show, I was invited on stage to photograph some of the actors, and had a short one-on-one portrait session with Ms Yan Wu "Camille" Shuang (燕無雙) who portrayed Official Lo's daughter. I wished I could have had much more of such sessions but understandably, the actors were exhausted after this marathon performance which not only involves the acting itself, but the preceding make-up session, changing into various costumes and wearing heavy headgears.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Daoquing Opera | Li Jianzeng

Photo © Li Jianzeng | All Rights Reserved
I'm currently immersed (well, partially) in research for what I hope may be a long term project, involving various types of Chinese Opera. It's a lot to chew on since Chinese Opera has innumerable varieties.

For instance, there's the well known Beijing Opera, known also as Peking Opera (Jing Ju), and which is regarded as the standard opera of China. There's also the Cantonese Opera, (known as Yue Ju) and that's performed in Cantonese; the Sichuan Opera which is also widely known in mainland China and is delivered in Mandarin; the Ping Opera (Ping Ju) which is easy for the audience to understand, and thus popular with rural communities and especially where people are not well educated. There's also the Henan Opera (Yu Ju), the Qinqiang Opera, the Kunqu Opera and the Huangmei Opera.

For this post, I am featuring a gallery by Chinese photographer Li Jianzeng* of the Daoqing opera popular among villagers in some of the poorest areas in northern Shaanxi province. It traces its roots to the Taoist belief system and evolved from Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) storytelling traditions. Li Jianzeng’s images take us to the countryside and behind the scenes to the lives of the performers.
These performances are the real thing...no artifical lighting, no show biz glamor, no sound effects...raw performances. It is the type of performances that I much prefer due to their unfiltered authenticity, and that I hope will be available in Ampang during the Ninth Emperor festival.

For more background, Daoqing opera originates from Taoist (or Daoist) stories in the Tang Dynasty and is a folk dramatic form which includes four kinds of stories: Daoist sanints, moralistic teachings, domestic life and historical events. It is only performed in Shanxi and Gansu provinces.

* I could not find a website for Jianzeng.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Mosuo (or Dabu) | Karolin Klüppel

Photo © Karolin Klüppel | All Rights Reserved
The definition of ethno-photography is that it consists of images of different people and aspects of their lifestyle in order to document their culture. This photography genre is widely used by ethnographers to aid them in their observation and study of the traditions, customs, daily life, ceremonies, and people of a particular culture.

And Karolin Klüppel's 'The Dabuis a classic example of ethnophotography.

The Mosuo, also known as the Dabu, are a Chinese ethnic minority of around 40,000 people that enjoyed hundreds of years of relative stability in a complex matriarchal structure that values female power and decision-making. 
Centered around Lugu Lake; high up in the Himalayas between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, the area is somewhat insular and is naturally protected from outside influences.  

The area is known for the Mosuo, the ‘Kingdom of Women’. The most striking tradition among the Mosuo traditions is the practice of the “walking marriage”, where the women may choose and change partners as they wish. Since Mosuo children stay with their mothers’ families for life, men only visit their female partners by entering their houses at nighttime.

The Mosuo are often characterized as a matriarchal society, as the household heads are always women, who are responsible for all financial decisions and for passing of the family name and property. The matriarch (Ah mi, or elder female, in Chinese) is the head of the house. The Ah mi has absolute power. Mosuo women do all the housework, including cleaning, tending the fire, cooking, gathering firewood, feeding the livestock, and spinning and weaving.

Since the Cultural Revolution, Mosuo couples have been forced to marry, so their traditional way of life and stability have been been slowly changing. Chinese communists tried to dismantle much of the Mosuo’s traditions, burning monasteries and prayer books and outlawing their traditional walking marriages.

Karolin Klüppel is a photographer based in Berlin. Her images have been exhibited in museums, galleries and at festivals. Since she received her MFA in 2012, she has exclusively worked on personal projects that deal with the last matriarchal and matrilineal societies of our time. Her most recent project “Mädchenland“ has won several awards , such as the Canon Profifoto Award 2014 and the Felix Schoeller Award 2015, and has been published in international magazines such as The National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, The Independent, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post, among others. Her work was recently shown in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Cultural History Museum Osnabrück, the Delhi Photo Festival and the Chennai Photo Biennale.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Beneath The Makeup | Abel Blanco



Here is a short documentary -part of the series Portrait of a Beijinger- produced by Abel Blanco, featuring a self-taught Peking opera performer who specializes as a nandan, or man who performs female roles on stage. 

The nandan, as the cross-gender role in Chinese Opera is one of the most interesting and most challenging. It has a long history and tradition dating to feudal China more than 1,000 years ago when women were not allowed to perform onstage, so male actors had to fill the female roles in Chinese operas. This was popularized with Farewell My Concubine, the 1993 Chinese drama movie.


The roles became well-known in Peking Opera after the emergence of the Famous Four Nandans in the early 20th century. They included Mei Lanfang (1884-1961), whose youngest son Mei Baojiu, also a famous nandan, died recently.

Through song, speech, stylized movement, makeup, and costume, the nandan artists transform themselves into maidens, dowagers, prostitutes, and women warriors. To many afficionados of the art, it is a treat to watch a nandan's performance convey a woman's unspoken feelings simply with their eyes and elegant hand movements. Their falsetto singing voice and acrobatics require years of training. 

The number of nandan artists is dwingling, as women are no longer confined to their homes, and are now even encouraged to play females roles in Peking Opera.

The 200-year-old Beijing Opera is a national treasure. It was a product of the feudal Chinese empire, where women were considered to be inferior, and were banned from doing a great number of activities, from politics to performing on the stage...however this changed in a big way since 1949 when the Communists seized power and gave women equal rights. 


In contrast, the Yue Opera, an ancient local opera popular in south China, features women playing men's roles.

Having completed my 2 year project documenting Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam which was published in a 170-page book, I'm on the lookout for a long term project to replace it...and the Chinese Opera might be the one. I've already started working at it in Kuala Lumpur and New York City...and hope to travel to Hong Kong to explore its offerings in that respect.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Some of the photographs I made during a Chinese Opera performance held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Auditorium on New York City's Mott Street can be viewed here.


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Ca Trù Musician | Fuji X-T1




In March 2015 I had just started researching and photographing the cult of Mother Goddesses in Hanoi, and was introduced once again to the ancient art of Ca Trù. I had attended one of its performances already during one of my photo expeditions in 2012. The performances were held in a small, but very atmospheric, old Vietnamese house on Hanoi's Hang Buom Street.

It is during these performances that I met Ms. Đặng Thị Hường, a Ca Trù singer and musician, who played the traditional Vietnamese three-stringed lute, amongst other instruments. She was keen to be photographed in a traditional Vietnamese dress at a different venue such, and we chose Đền Ngọc Sơn, the Temple of the Jade Mountain, on Lake Hoan Kiem.

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. 

Ca Trù 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. 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.

I used the Fuji X-T1 and the Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 for most of the photographs made in this gallery.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Nagi Yoshida | Ethiopia

Photo © Nagi Yoshida-All Rights Reserved
"Some children want to become pilots, some models, but my dream was pure and simple, to become African." -Nagi Yoshida
Looking back over my 10 years of authoring The Travel Photographer blog, I have seldom featured the work of a Japanese travel photographer. The reason is unclear since I'm always on the look out for fresh travel photographers, and particulalry those of Asian provenance. It's perhaps because the websites featuring Japanese photographers are mostly in Japanese? I don't know...all I know is they haven't crossed my radar screnn as often as I would have liked.

But this is now somewhat put right by my featuring the work of Nagi Yoshida, who set out to document African tribes in Namibia, Tanzania and Ethiopia to show to her audiences and viewers that the African continent is wonderful, and is worthy of visits. She tells us that every time she travels to Afican, the locals tell her that she's more African than they are. 

Not only content to photograph in India, Nagi has also photographed in Varanasi and Rajasthan, as well as in her native Japan.

Unfortunately, most of the websites featuring Nagi's work and achievements are in Japanese, so apart from mentioning that she had a photo exhibition of her images in Shibuya (Tokyo), all I can link to is Nagi's Facebook page.  

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Thrones of Semana Santa | Brandon Li




This is one of the best video-documentaries I've seen so far of a religious event/festival.

Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Spain is the annual tribute of the Passion of Jesus Christ celebrated by Catholic religious brotherhoods and fraternities that perform penance processions on the streets of almost every Spanish city and town during the last week of Lent, the week immediately before Easter. This annual tribute has been observed for the past 500 years.

The start of the documentary and its soundtrack reminded me of the blockbuster movies franchise; Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and Inferno. The documentary clocked over 25,000 views on Vimeo, gained its Staff Pick and deservedly so.

Brandon Li describes himself as a nomadic filmmaker on an endless world tour to document various cultures. For those interested, his film-making kit is here

Friday, 16 June 2017

Hotel Photography : Using Staff As Models

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
I had the pleasure to be asked to photograph the fabulous Mandarin Hotel Kuala Lumpur (MOKL) during the Travel Photographer Society events in Malaysia a few weeks ago, and having spent the better part of day doing so, I can vouch that hotel photography is most certainly not as easy as it may appear to be.

Having the DNA of a travel-documentary photographer meant that I sought to have people in most -if not all- of my photographs. I recalled a ad campaign by Annie Leibovitz for The Peninsula Hotel (Hong Kong and New York City) some years ago, in which she produced monochrome photographs of the hotel's staff, and it was hailed as a huge success in the hospitality industry. That was to be my inspiration, and I determined I'd produce both color and monochrome versions of my images and leave it to the hotel's managerial staff to decide which to use.

There are innumerable photographers who specialize in producing stunning work of the hotel industry, with views of gorgeous interiors and exteriors, fabulous rooms and suites and more for hotels and resorts; whether 5-star properties, boutiques, and other categories. However, my view is that hotels' staff are as important as the facilities, and having their portraits add a "human touch" to otherwise "dry" productions. 

I sought to produce images that showed the warmth and hospitality of the hotel's staff whilst performing their duties, and eschewing photographs that highlight the rooms' bed linen thread count, views of the Petronas Towers or many of MOKL's other facilities and amenities. 


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
In common with photographers who travel on assignments, on workshops and/or to give talks, I've experienced the gamut of hotel accommodations ranging from dingy hotels with dodgy bathrooms to small boutique establishments to some of the most luxurious five-star hotels in the world...such as the Mandarin Hotel and the Shangri-La. What stays with me are not necessarily the good memories of lush bathrobes and of creamy shampoos (although that helps), or the bad memories of tepid shower water....but the hospitality and the "service-with-a-smile" of the hotel staff. That was my intention in focusing my MOKL assignment mostly on its staff, and have them as 'models' to convey the welcome which is experienced by its guests.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The option to produce photographs of hotel staff is an easier one than to photographing its interior and exterior spaces. For exterior images, one requires an architectural approach, tilt-shift lenses and perfect natural light/time of day. For the images of the rooms and interior spaces, one would need wide angle lenses, tripods, soft lighting and a room stylist to ensure there were no errant electric cords, imperfectly made bed corners, slightly askew towels in the bathroom, bathroom amenities that were not perfectly aligned...or even light bulbs of different warmth...as these would be amplified in still photographs.

Having the staff re-enact their duties is much more simple, is faster, more enjoyable and (provided one chooses the right staff members) is effective when coupled with the static interior and exterior images.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
There's also an advantage when using this "photojournalism" style for hotels. Potential guests (or any consumer for that matter) can immediately recognize "authenticity" when they see it. When I first log on to a hotel's website, I check out the photographs of its rooms and bathrooms to satisfy myself that they are worth the money (or not) I am about to expend to stay there.

However, I also realize that these are produced by experienced photographers usually using room stylists, wide lenses, special lighting and other post processing tools to show these spaces in the best way possible. So the reality might not always meet my expectations.

I then check whether there are images of the staff on the hotel(s) website, and if available, these give me an idea as to the human element so critical in the hotel industry. Starched-looking staff, standing like mannequins in front of a reception desk, do not impart the warmth I would like to experience from a hotel....particularly as my hotel stays often exceed 10-15 nights. Applying this logic to my hotel photo shoots means that I must choose the staff as carefully as I possibly can, and pick those who are not only are photogenic, but who radiate a sort of inner warmth that can influence those potential guests, and tell them they'll be warmly welcomed and treated.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
As much as possible, I try to photograph the staff as they are; in their element without embellishment, ambient light and without setting up a specific location or using any props. In most of my hotel photography, I engage the staff but direct them as little as possible and let them work as they normally do...and when I see a moment or two that I like, the shutter is clicked.

I am grateful to Ms Akiko Goto of the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur for having facilitated my access to various areas of the hotel, and for her patience.

Monday, 5 June 2017

The Red Qi Pao | The Back Story...


Readers of this blog will know that I've been interested in adding another arrow to my quiver -photographically speaking- for quite a while, and I'm now earnestly starting a "chinoiserie" phase in my photographic trajectory.  As I wrote in an earlier post, "..it is not really about fashion and/or attractive models (although it's obviously nice to include them), but about a theme. The theme of "Shanghai-1940" is one that I seek to recreate through still photography and audio, and weave a narrative into stories...akin to short movies."

Whilst in Kuala Lumpur in 2016 participating in the annual Travel Photographer Society event, I was introduced to The Old China Cafe; an old café-restaurant that serves a combination of Straits Chinese and Malay dishes, and whose untouched pre-war ambiance and large traditional feng shui mirrors gave me the idea of constructing a fantasy story about a beautiful Chinese woman dressed in a clinging red qi pao or cheongsam appearing to an habitual customer and opium-addled Western photographer. This idea, refined on my return flight to the US, was conceptualized and led to producing The Old China Cafe audio-slideshow. I enjoyed this tentative experience of fantasy storytelling...quite a branching out from my previous involvement in factual "photojournalistic-travel" and "telling-it-like-it-is" documentaries.

On my return to Kuala Lumpur last month for another Travel Photographer Society event, I was eager to start some sort of sequel...a continuation of The Old China Cafe in which the woman in the red qi pao would appear to viewers and speak of her "relationship" with the drifter...the Western photographer who would be known as "gweilo" (鬼佬) in the sequel.

I enlisted the help of Stanley Hong; a resourceful talented part-time photographer in Kuala Lumpur who eventually introduced me to Tracy Yee, who was happy to take the lead role in the production of The Red Qi Pao. 

So on a rainy Saturday afternoon, off we went to The Old China Cafe near Petaling Street despite the ominous thunder. The restaurant was'nt too busy but we decided not to immediately start photographing Tracy in her red qi pao despite the inquisitive stares of the waiters and patrons, and wait until it got quieter. Unfortunately, that was not to be because of two events: the power suddenly went out, and the drainage system backed up from the incredible volume of rain and flooded the restaurant. 


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I knew of the Precious Old China in Central Market which also had a Chinese ambiance, old furniture sourced from Guangzhou, and 19th Century Chinese lattice painted panels. This place had no rain seepage and few customers...so I was able to photograph Tracy with little interference.

We decided we would return the following Monday (it being a national holiday) but that we would give up on The Old China Cafe which must have been damaged by the rain water. The Precious Old China was deserted when we did return that Monday afternoon, and we had the place to ourselves for quite a while. Sensing that we had overstayed our welcome, we then drove off to the Thean Hou Temple for more photo shoots. 

Incidentally, all the photographs during the shoots were made with the Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fuji GFX50s medium format camera.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
The work was not finished. I still needed Tracy's narration. A few days later, we all spent time recording the narrative late into the night until we all felt it was a wrap. The drfiter-photographer's narration was recorded on my return to New York City.

Finally...I reflect on how I got into this "chinoiserie" phase, and realize its seeds were probably sown during my many trips to Vietnam, and while I believe that my two years work on my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam influenced my aesthetic appreciation for Sino-Vietnamese ethnic fashion (whether ao dai, cheongsam and the resplendent tunics worn by the spirit mediums during the ceremonies, I also dabbled in photographing friends willing to pose for my camera, such as Trần Hiền Trang standing in the courtyard of a Chinese Assembly Hall in Hoi An (below).


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

Monday, 29 May 2017

Ofir Barak | Mea Sharim

Photo © Ofir Barak - All Rights Reserved
You'd be forgiven if you thought that the above photograph was taken in Saudi Arabia or Iran, but it's not. It's a street scene in the Mea Shearim settlement outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem in Israel, and part of the photographic project of the same name by Ofir Barak.

We are told that the settlement was established in 1874 and its name is derived from a verse in Genesis 26:12. To this day, it remains an insular neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem with an overwhelmingly Hasidic population,  and its the streets reminiscent of an Eastern European shtetl. Life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts. It is populated mainly by Haredi Jews and was built by the Old Yishuv (the Jewish communities of the southern Syrian provinces during the Ottoman period).

Interestingly, the numerical value of the words Meah Shearim equals 666, which allegedly has esoteric and kabbalistic meaning in Judaism.

When photographing the settlement and its streets, Ofir Barak felt he had to blend in, and altered his appearance and dress to do so. He grew a long beard, and dressed only in black. A short video of his photographs has been produced to publicize his effort to raise funds to publish a photo book. 



Ofir Barak was born in Jerusalem, Israel, and completed his B.A. in humanities ­(majoring in arts, and history). In 2014, he returned to Jerusalem, in order to photograph a multi layered project that would display the city and its people through his eyes.

A number of interviews with Leica Camera, Lens Culture, and FStop Magazine are available on his website.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Sam Sanzetti | Old Shanghai

Photo © Sam Sanzetti - All Rights Reserved
Working on my forthcoming multimedia project "The Red Qi Pao" has whetted my interest in Shanghai of the 1930s or so, and I stumbled on the work of a photographer born at the start of the 1900 in Russia, and who -for survival reasons - settled for a while in that city 20 years later.

The story is fascinating. Sam Sanzetti (born Sioma Lifshitz), a young Jewish Eastern-European made his way to China with his parents, and worked at menial jobs until having to flee to Shanghai during the Japanese occupation.

He was able to build up the most successful photography studio of the day in Shanghai, eventually opening up four branches throughout the city. When he left China for Israel after 30 years, in the late 1950's, he did so with 20,000 photographs in his bags.

In Shanghai, Sanzetti  started working at the studio of a local photographer, and after a few months became so interested in studio work that when an American business man offered to establish a studio for him in Shanghai he was quite willing to accept the offer. 

Sanzetti was said to be one of the best photographers in China at the time, and had managed to open four studios in 1922, including a flagship studio on old Nanjing Road dedicated to portraits of local residents. He took photographs of people from all walks of life celebrities, film stars, young couples, families and children.

He had married a Chinese and acquired a stepdaughter, but they did not follow him to Israel. He married again in Israel, and his stepson there inherited his pictures and his passion for photography.

A number of links provide more information of Sam Sanzetti's life and work, such as American Photo's The Unlikely Shanghai Portrait Studio of Sam Sanzetti, Shanghailander, and Photography of China.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Hiroshi Watanabe | Kabuki Players

Photo © Hiroshi Watanabe - All Rights Reserved
Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese drama with highly stylized song, mime, and dance, now performed only by male actors, using exaggerated gestures and body movements to express emotions, and including historical plays, domestic dramas, and dance pieces.

This art form was created by a woman named Okuni, a shrine attendant, in the 17th century. Although greatly influenced by the aristocratic noh, kabuki was devised as a popular entertainment for the masses. A large part of the popularity of the early, all-female performances was due to their sensual nature. These performers were also prostitutes and male audiences often got out of control. As a result, women were banned from performing by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and only older males were allowed to take part in kabuki.

Hiroshi Watanabe, a Japanese photographer, features a wonderful gallery of square format portraits of non-professional kabuki performers in the small town of Nakatsugawa; located midway between Tokyo and Kyoto. He tells us that these perfromers do not get paid for their acting in the kabuki plays and have to dig deep into their pockets to pay for the intricate makeup, costumes and stage backdrops.

We also learn that the small town wasn't large enough to attract the itinerant kabuki troupes, so the town elders decided to have its own kabuki theater, hire the actors, make up artists and stage people. It became the town's tradition since the Edo period.

Hiroshi Watanabe was born in Sapporo, Japan and graduated from the Department of Photography of Nihon University in 1975. He moved to Los Angeles working in Japanese television commercials and later obtained an MBA from the UCLA Anderson Business School in 1993. Subsequently, he started to travel worldwide, extensively photographing and since 2000, has worked full-time at photography.

He produced five self-published books, then published I See Angels Every Day, monochrome portraits of patients and scenes from San Lázaro psychiatric hospital in Quito, Ecuador. This work won Japan’s 2007 Photo City Sagamihara Award for professional photographers. He won many awards for his monographs and books, and was invited to join a group of artists to photograph Venice for a project raising funds for that city.

Monday, 22 May 2017

An Afternoon With The Chinese Opera | Fuji X-Pro 2

Laosheng (老生, old man)
As another string to my 'Chinoiserie' phase, I've been very attracted (visually and culturally) for quite some time to the art of what is generally known as Chinese Opera. I speak no Chinese, but it (in its many different ethnic varieties) being centuries old and performed in colorful costumes make for an visually appeal that's hard to resist capturing with my cameras.



Following my 5-6 hour photo shoot of performers at the Yuet Wan Cantonese Opera Association in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago, I resolved to continue on the path that I hope might lead me to another long term project similar to my two year long Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam, and discovered from an ad plastered all over NYC's Chinatown featuring a Chinese Opera to be held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Auditorium on Mott Street.

I booked my seat for May 21 and with my Fuji X-Pro2 and a a panoply of lenses, was at the door half an hour before the opening time of 12:25 pm. I showed my credentials at the door, and asked for Gigi (who was in charge of the show) for her permission to photograph the performers in their full regalia at the end of the show.

Clearly not in the mood of being helpful of allowing anything of the sort, she swatted my credentials and request aside as a bothersome fly, and told me to return at 6:00 pm. Knowing a brush-off when I saw one, I sat in my assigned seat resolving to make the best of the situation, and eyed various other possibilities where i could stand unimpeded. I was the only non-Chinese to attend the show.


I also realized as the performance started that I had a rather good view of the stage and performers, especially as no one was seated in front of me. A stroke of luck to make up for Gigi's ill temper.

One of the first characters to appear on stage was the clown and the old man (the latter possibly the character in the top image). Clowns can be male or female and are sly or stupid, sometimes mean, but invariably ridiculous and laughter-provoking. This one had the audience cackling at some of his repartees.

At various stages of the skits, the Dan (female) performers appeared, and sang and acted quite well. The Dan mainly depict middle-aged or young female roles, who usually wear heavy makeup. Their cheeks are mostly painted red to set off the powdery white of the forehead, nose and jaw. Heavy black greasepaint is used to highlight the eyes and brows, and red color is applied to the lips to demonstrate the classical beauty of Chinese women.


I found that using the X-Pro2 fitted with the 18-135mm Fujinon lens was just perfect to capture the action from my seat, and I had no need to stand or move to another location within the room. Most of my images were shot at an ISO of 1000-1200, higher than what I am accustomed to, but the noise on the images is hardly noticeable.

The Beijing Opera of China is inscribed on UNESCO's World Intangible Cultural Heritages List in 2001 (as is Dao Mau, Vietnam's Mother Goddess religion), and is a national treasure with a history of more than 200 years. It is the most influential sort of traditional operas in China. The performers' make up takes hours to apply, using the color red, purple, black, white, blue, green, yellow, dark red, gray, golden and silver, with each color representing a unique stereotype character.

I intend to pursue this project as far as it will take me. It might come to an abrupt stop should I be unable to find a "connection" to it, but all signs so far are that it may work out.