Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Diana Mayfield | Hà Nội Noir

During the just completed The People of Tay Bac Photo Expedition-WorkshopI gave its participants
the assignment of photographing the bustling street life of old Ha Noi, shooting from the hip, or on the fly, as much as possible to capture fleeting expressions, and the ever changing scenes of this exciting city.

The assignment also included of converting the resulting photographs to monochromes (hence the name Ha Noi Noir), and to produce a short photo-film with ambient sound recorded during their many walks in the streets and alleys.

This is Diana Mayfield's project, which mixes interesting snippets of street life...some humorous and some realistic. Ha Noi's street life centers on eating, busy traffic and small shops. One finds all of these in this short movie.

Diana Mayfield has a pedigree in travel photography that spans more than 20 years, and is one of the  original photographers contracted to Lonely Planet Images in 1998. Her photographs are widely published in books, magazines, brochures, advertisements, newspapers, web, etc. Her buyers include Qantas, Air France, Thomas Cook, National Geographic, Diners Club, Sunday Times, The New York Times, Le Monde, Rand McNally, Macmillan Educational and others.

She's represented by Getty Images, and has led photo tours to Italy, Greece and Spain for 8 years. She's now concentrating her cameras on S.E. Asia and India, with a particular interest in remote tribes and marginalised societies.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Dan Eckstein | Horn Please

Photo © Dan Eckstein-All Rights Reserved
The first time I traveled in India I had the rather unnerving experience of riding in a bus from Jaipur to Jodhpur in pitch darkness. I shall never forget my growing terror in watching an incoming truck blinking its signal light which I thought meant it intended to turn right into the path of my bus.

It was an enormous relief to realize the truckers were doing so to indicate their presence (and the limits of their carriages) to other incoming vehicles.

The Indian truckers usually belong to a certain caste, and are generally treated with contempt by their employers. Their trucks are often decorated with beautiful artwork, colorful gewgaws, religious icons and slogans, making a convoy of such vehicles look like a circus is moving to town. These long-distance lorry drivers transport cargos of freight across the whole of India; tea from Assam, computer parts from Bangalore and exotic flowers and vegetables from the southern states of the country.

Dan Eckstein's project Horn Please documents the trucks, drivers and roadside culture of India.  Having driven 10,000 kilometers over two years to document these truckers, Dan produced "Horn Please: The Decorated Trucks of India"; a book that is to be published by powerHouse Books on December 2nd, 2014.

Dan is is a photographer based in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, who spent four years studying photography at Skidmore College. He assisted Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey in Paris. His work has been widely published and exhibited and he was included in The Collector's Guide to Emerging Art Photography. He was awarded Best Photo Essay in PDN's World In Focus photo contest and included in American Photography 30.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Music Man of Tho Ha

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
As all photographers know full well, serendipity plays an important role in offering photographic opportunities that are rarely repeated. I'm not talking of serendipitous events that happen in a flash, and that lucky photographers manage to capture in a blink of the eye by just happening to be there when it happens, but rather of unexpected opportunities that can arise from asking the right questions, sometimes from taking the wrong turn, and sometimes just a few seconds before giving up and returning home.

During The People of Tây Bắc Photo Expedition-Workshop, I decided to break off from Ha Noi's street photography schedule, and drive to the village of Tho Ha, about 45 kilometers from the capital city.  The village specializes in producing rice paper, used for spring rolls and other Vietnamese culinary dishes.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
While the village is known for its photogenic setting, we didn't find it that interesting, and were on the verge of leaving it when our interpreter Huyen stopped at an old house to ask for directions, and we were introduced to Việt.

We were welcomed in his house, and were offered brain-numbing rice wine, thankfully in small goblets. It didn't take too long for Việt to grab his many traditional Vietnamese stringed instruments, and start playing melancholic tunes. An accomplished musician, and to a certain extent, a passable good singer, Việt was very proud of his musical heritage. and we were made to understand that he served with the Viet Cong during the American (Vietnam) War, and he played music for his fellow soldiers.

Việt owns a small enterprise producing rice paper in the village, and he 's extremely proud of his son who works for a Ford assembly factory  in Hai Duong, as he is of his grandson who may have his musical talents.

The đàn nguyệt ("moon lute") being played is a two-stringed Vietnamese traditional musical instrument, is used in both folk and classical music, and remains popular throughout Vietnam. It's related to the yueqin, also known as the moon guitar, a traditional Chinese string instrument.

According to Xuan Tran (friend and travel agent supremo), the song is titled "Người ơi, Người ở đừng về", and it's a type of Quan Họ traditional music.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Christian Bobst | Meskel in Lalibela

Photo © Christian Bobst-All Rights Reserved

Meskel is an annual religious holiday in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena (Saint Helena) in the fourth century. It  is celebrated for two days beginning September 26th, and commemorates the legend that in the year 326, Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the cross upon which Christ was crucified.

It is in Lalibela, one of Ethiopia's most religious towns, that Christian Bobst photographed the ceremonies and rituals observing this fascinating religious festival. During the ceremony, a priest rubs the pilgrims with the holy Lalibela Cross to heal diseases or drive out devils of the bodies of the believers. The Lalibela Cross is thought to date to the 12th century and is considered one of Ethiopia's most precious religious and historical heirlooms.

Christian tells me he used two Fuji X-T1 camera bodies and prime lenses between 14mm to 35mm, as well as using the cameras' wi-fi capabilities to capture high angle shots. He also appreciated the lightness in weight,  smaller size and the retro look of the Fujis.

He also tells me that during the ceremony, one of the pilgrims saw the pictures on the screen of Christian's iPhone while taking the high angle shots on the X-T1 he had perched on a monopod. The pilgrim liked the photographs so much that he persuaded the presiding priest to allow Christian to photograph right in the center of the crowd.

Christian Bobst is a Swiss documentary photographer who originally studied graphic design. For almost 15 years, he worked for advertising agencies like Young & Rubicam/Switzerland and Jung von Matt/Germany as an Art- and Creative Director, before deciding to move on into documentary photography in 2010.  He now works as a freelance photographer, and is a member of 13 Photo in Zürich.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Three Finalists In The Travel Photographer's Street Photography Contest

Photograph A. Photo © Peter Ansara-All Rights Reserved

Photograph B. Photo © Jeff Oftedahl-All Rights Reserved
Photograph C. Photo © Anthony Pond-All Rights Reserved

Which Photograph Wins The Travel Photographer's Street Photography Contest?
Photograph A
Photograph B
Photograph C
Poll Maker

It was a tough job to choose three finalists from the numerous entries I've received over the past weeks...but here they are, and it's now up to the readers of The Travel Photographer's blog to choose the winner of the Street Photography Contest, who will receive the WotanCraft Ryker Urban Classic 001 camera bag.

The voting will come to an end on October 24th...when the winner will be announced.

The rules for the contest were simple and easy to follow, and were listed in this post.

WotanCraft Atelier's website has full information and details on the WotanCraft Ryker Urban Classic 001 bag.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

POV: Fuji X-T1 Goes To Vietnam

Fuji X-T1/Zeiss 12mm f2.8-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

"It is the photographer, not the camera, 

that is the instrument."- Eve Arnold

Well, this is the first time I travel on a photographic expedition without a DSLR (or two or three) since I started them in 2000 (or even earlier).

Yes, I traveled for almost 3 weeks to Viet Nam with two Fuji cameras and a Leica M9...and a bunch of lenses. I wrote about that in fuller details in a post titled The "Unbearable" Lightness of Fuji X Series. On my return, I tallied an estimate of my usage statistics, which are as follows:

Fuji X-T1 + Zeiss Touit 12mm f2.8: 75%
Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon 18mm f2.8 : 10%
Leica M9 + Voigtlander 40mm f1.4: 15%

And asked myself if I missed my Canon 5D Mark II and my panoply of primes and zooms?

Not once was the answer.

I've been a loyal Canon user since I've started photography, and I have nothing but praise for its cameras. I shall still retain my Canon 5DII and a bunch of lenses for as long as I can. However, I realized that my style of photography has evolved during the past few years...prompting me to splurge big time on a Leica M9, and not too long ago on a Fuji X-Pro1.

The evolution of my way of seeing, the lightness of these two cameras and the quality of their images laid the foundation for my being ready and very receptive for a DSLR replacement. Traveling to photograph Holi in India earlier this year, and having to hold the 5DII at shoulder-length to photograph inside temples and avoid color powder/water bequeathed me a short-lived tennis-elbow like pain, but it made me realize that DSLRs are really heavy computers with lenses attached to them.

And I only used a fraction of its menu settings. 

The arrival of the Fuji X-T1 on my radar screen was timely. As I said, I was ready, willing and able to replace the DSLR with a smaller tool...and there's no question in my mind, especially after my using it in Viet Nam, that it is a DSLR-killer for me. 

I am not a fan boy of anything. Cameras are nothing but sophisticated tools. I used Canon cameras, I use a Leica M9, a X-Pro1 and now a X-T1. They're all good cameras...there are no bad cameras in this day and age. They're all technologically very advanced, and it's largely a matter of choice, familiarity, and ergonomics what works for you and what doesn't.

Fuji X-T1/Zeiss 12mm f2.8-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I won't get technical in this POV. There are tons of bloggers more qualified than I am who have dissected the pros and cons of the Fuji X-T1, and from what I read, the large majority agree that the X-T1 is a game changer.

During my Viet Nam photography expedition, I've worked with the X-T1 on a daily basis. Shooting normally or shooting from the hip in the streets, it performed extremely well. The quality of its built is excellent, and it feels just right...its weight, its controls and its ergonomics are right.

I always say that the Leica M9's overall feel is just right. It's a thoughtful camera. So is the X T-1. Totally different cameras of course...but both are well built and well thought out.

It feels like cheating to be able to frame a scene, twiddle the exposure compensation knob (placed on top of the camera), and see what happens to it in the utterly brilliant LCD. Everything I need is on top of the camera. Yes, there are small annoying quirks...some are due to operator error, and some are of  the "it is what it is, so work with it" kind.

I sort of rolled my eyes when I learned that the X-T1 had a tilt-screen. Trust me, I don't do that anymore. It's quite useful for low shots and for shooting in the streets. The shutter is quiet. I was shooting with people who had Nikons...and they sounded like Big Berthas.

The CH is about 8 frames per second, and while there seems to (occasionally?) be a sort of grey-out between shots at that speed, it didn't bother me. I doubt if it's really 8 frames per second, but it's fast enough for me.

Fuji X-T1/Zeiss 12mm f2.8-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

The auto focus needs to get used to. The AF-S is pretty good. Maybe not as good as the Canon 5DII, but I learned to live with an occasional lapse. I have not used the AF-C yet, but my understanding is that it needs to be fiddled with in the camera's settings. 

What else? Ah yes. The battery life sucks. The LCD just sucks the juice out of these small batteries. So I was quiet happy to invest in a battery grip, and work in the field with two batteries in the camera. I had to rely on the "back-up" battery when I was out all day shooting...and I had an extra battery stashed away just in case. I also saved juice by turning off the display, and keeping my chimping to the absolute minium.

The X-T1 is weather-sealed. I photographed in the rain (steady rain-drizzle...not a monsoon downpour) and it was fine. I just wiped off the drops with my scarf and that was it.

The humidity was intense all through the trip, and I lost tons of water...but despite it all, the X-T1 didn't feel slippery. Really good grip...and good solid knobs (except for the four-way pad on the back).

I found that I had to really make sure that battery compartment in the grip was locked properly. It sometimes didn't...but it might also have been my error.

I'm not going to get sucked in a debate about the merits of full frame versus cropped sensors. Would I prefer that the X-T1 be full frame? Perhaps, provided the lenses still remained light and compact....and I don't think that's going to happen any time soon. And from what I've seen, the IQ of the X-T1 is really formidable, and its high ISO capabilities are impressive. So that debate is not for me.

I used the Zeiss Touit 12mm f2.8 lens on the X-T1 most of the time. Occasionally, I used the Fuji 18mm for street work, and the 18-135mm was only used during the fishermen photo shoot, and one time around Hoan Kiem Lake.

I very much like both the prime lenses I own. They're sturdy...workhorse kind of lenses, and they reflect my shooting and framing preferences. The 18-135mm zoom lens -while quite good and responsive- is nowhere close to the prime lenses as far as I'm concerned. Perhaps I've moved away from zooms. It's a very useful lens to have, and some may consider it the only lens they need for travel. I don't disagree that it is all that...but personally, I'm into prime lenses.

So far, much of my post-processed work from the Viet Nam photo expedition was in monochrome. I shot in B&W with the M9, and color with the X-T1 (and then both processed/converted to B&W using Silver Efex).

These photographs are featured on Hanoi Noir. Try guessing which are Leica and X-T1.

And the audio slideshow below is of the same photographs.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Verdict | The People of Tây Bắc Photo Expedition

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Having had more than a week to mull over what worked and what didn't on The People of Tay Bac Photo Expedition-Workshop, I come to the conclusion that it earns a B....not a B+, not a B-...just a plain B.

However, the trip's logistics and accommodations were faultless, and all the credit goes to the travel agent I work with in Hà Nội. They were responsive and on the ball at all times.

I think the prevailing extraordinary high humidity levels we faced all through the trip played a significant role in dampening our energy levels (certainly mine were), especially in the streets of Hà Nội. That said, and set's what I thought were home runs (or third base hits).

1. Hà Nội Street Photography:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
A definite home run.

Hà Nội's streets are just ripe for the taking of photographs...whether monochrome or color. The scenes are there and are sometimes too numerous to choose from. Visual (and aural) overload besieged my senses for the first one or two days, but then it passed and I immersed myself neck deep in the flow of life.

The Hà Nội Noir assignment to the group participants was especially well received, since it introduced them to the street photography's 'on the fly' element that they were not entirely familiar with. The shooting from the hip technique was experimented with, and provided an inventory of interesting images to each participant.

2. Hội An Fishermen:
Traditional Fisherman. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Another home run.

I had pre-arranged through Eviva, my local travel agents, a dawn-time trip on a local boat to photograph the fishermen using traditional netting systems. We boated to the mouth of the Thu Bon River to photograph these large fishing nets (see top photograph and the one above). These large contraptions are lowered into the water to catch fish during the night. They are slowly raised and lowered by the fishermen using foot-powered winches.

These must have been the most photogenic 4 hours of the entire photo expedition. The weather was just perfect, with the sun rising on cue and the whole experience was phenomenal. The subsequent hour-long visit to Hội An's main fishing harbor/market was also interesting, and offered many photographic opportunities.

3. Hầu đồng Ceremony:

Medium in a trance. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Home run, because it's a ceremony I've never witnessed (nor heard of) before.

Hầu đồng is also known as lên đồng, and is a ritual of spirit mediumship practiced in Vietnamese indigenous religion and Đạo Mẫu, a Vietnamese mother goddess religion, in which followers become mediums for various deities.

It was by pure serendipity that we witnessed and photographed such a hầu đồng full ceremony in Bac Ha, and a rehearsal in Sa Pa. The full ceremony may last up to seven hours, and it begins with petitions to Buddha and to the deities for permission to carry out the ritual, after which the medium sits in the middle of four assistants, whose job it is to facilitate the medium's incarnation of different deities and spirits. It's a fascinating spectacle during which the medium (dressed in pink in the above photograph) chants, dances and changes in no less than 6 or 7 costumes of different colors during the ceremony.

Due to a misunderstanding, a member of our group committed a grave offense during the ceremony in Bac Ha, but a sincere apology to the temple's authorities (after which I was offered glasses of rice wine to drink to help the reconciliation along) allowed us to continue photographing. It's a testament to the generosity of the Vietnamese temple's congregation that the incident was so promptly forgiven.

4. Hội An Streets:

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Yes, Hội An is a tourist town. What can we expect from a small town recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO? But setting that aside, it's a wonderfully atmospheric place with an incredible wealth of stunning backdrops for street photography, for travel photography and for fashion/model photography.

I would definitely consider staying in Hội An for a week or so. Rather than stay in the lovely and posh (but sort of generic) Hoi An Hotel, I'd stay at the Vinh Hung Hotel, an upscale but tiny heritage hotel located in the heart of town. And have Cao Lau, the local signature noodle dish  at Miss Ly every day!

It'd be wonderful to take my time...and indulge in slow street photography. In other words, pick a spot (preferably with a cup of coffee or a La Rue beer), wait and cherry-pick whatever happens in the street. As I wrote in a different post, I'd also enjoy fusing travel photography to ethnic/modern fashion photography. The style can be posed...with static portraits, or can be pseudo environmental-street portraits.
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
There's no limit to the willingness of eye-catching persons, whether locals or tourists (such as the lovely Vi in the above photograph) to pose for photographers. Hội An is a magnet for newly-weds (or about to be married) who come here with their make-up artists and photographers.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The pretty and lively bride in pink loved my suggestion that she pose under the bird cages...I told her that it'd be an appropriate setting since they were lovebirds. She left her photographer, and ran to the spot I indicated. Nothing is set up in this photograph...the brooms, the bird cages, the bicycle...all was left as is. That's Hội An.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
A bride-to-be is being dolled-up by her make-up artist, just around from the famous Japanese Bridge. It's these quotidian scenes that attract me visually to places like these. Yes, here the bride saw the photographer...but I'd wait for as long as it took to become just part of the background, and for a scene (a story) to develop.

Have I said that Hội An was a home run? If I haven't yet, then is.

5. The Tây Bắc Region:

Flower Hmong in Bac Ha. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I need to be quite emphatic about this: I resent blue tarpaulins, motorbike helmets, motorbikes and baseball caps photo-bombing my photographs.  

So no home run for the northern region of Tây Bắc, which for us mostly meant the markets of Bac Ha, Can Cau, and Coc Ly. We had to pass on Xin Cheng market due to Typhoon Kalmaegi. The exception was Sa Pa, which is a nice little town with some opportunities for street photography and ethnic photography of the H'mong.

Bac Ha market is the largest of the region, and perhaps because I had been before, it didn't have the visual umph it had when I was there in 2012. One thing for sure has changed...the area where the Flower Hmong, Dzao and others ate their breakfasts and lunches was moved by Bac Ha municipality (or whatever it's called) from the center of the market to the right of its entrance. It's now more orderly, but it removed the ad hoc feel that the market had before the move.

And because of the threatening rain, blue tarpaulins were stretched all over the out a rather nasty light to faces and clothes. 

That said, Bac Ha is still the granddaddy market of the region. As we had spent the night at the nearby Sao Mai hotel, we had the market almost to ourselves until 10:00 am. When the tourists arrived with their GoPro and heavy cameras, we left for breakfast.

Flower Hmong Matriarch in Can Cau. © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Can Cau Market is held on Saturdays, and is predominantly frequented by the Flower H’mong. While not far from Bac Ha, it took us about 3 hours to drive from Sa Pa. Much smaller than the Bac Ha market, it doesn't have its 'charisma'. It'd be easy to blame the humidity, but it was quite high...and it drained us of energy quite rapidly. The locals seemed to take the humidity in stride, carrying umbrellas and sometimes fans.

Flower Hmong family in Can Cau-© Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Coc Ly market is held weekly on Tuesdays, and is also crowded with Flower H’mong. Only 35 kilometers from Bac Ha, the roads are quite nasty and bumpy...and were probably made worse during the rainy season. It's perched on a hillock, and it struck me as one of the least interesting. I was amused when a meddlesome American woman kept watching me photographing a very amenable Flower Hmong for a while, and then told me to stop because I was "harassing" her.

In short, there indisputably were some interesting photographs to make in these markets, but group tourism's tentacles have reached these markets, and they've lost some of their authenticity. I suspect many of the implements and products sold to to the locals are made in China...while the handicrafts presumably made by the local minorities seems to be shoddier than usual.

In a future iteration, a People of Tây Bắc Photo Expedition will continue to be based in Sa Pa but will venture to markets and villages further far as possible from tour buses, it that's possible.

6. Sa Pa:

Hmong in Sa Pa market. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I like Sa Pa. The Victoria Hotel is great...although their staff can be somewhat impersonal. But that's what happens when your guests are mostly tour groups. The restaurants are welcoming, all have free wi-fi and the food is quite good. Not as good as Hoi An...but good.

Yes, I like Sa wasn't misty nor cool as it was in 2012, and the main square is now empty of the Hmong vendors that had taken it over in the late afternoons. They've been chased away, and given a dreary space above the market to sell their goods. Presumably to have them pay a permit fee or something like that.

Along with the group, I enjoyed doing some monochrome work in the tiny market; exploiting the chiaroscuro of its alleys, and the black dress of the Hmong as best I could. It was in Sa Pa that I also stumbled on a Hầu đồng rehearsal ceremony, which in a way prepared us for the real thing in Bac Ha.

Hoi An Lanterns. © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
So what would I do differently?

If I was omnipotent, I'd change the weather. It affected the attendance of the Tet Trung Thu street festival; it prevented us from attending the least touristy market in the northern region and it exhausted us.

But within my direct control, I'd reduce the number of days in Hà Nội and increase the stay in Hội An. I'd still stay in Sa Pa, spend a day in Bac Ha, but travel much further in search of traditional small villages that are not on the tourist trail.

Red Dzao in Ta Phin. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Tights Reserved
Now, the finale for the those who like statistics. My estimated usage of my cameras was as follows:
Fuji X-T1 + Zeiss Touit 12mm f2.8: 75%
Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon 18mm f2.8 : 10%
Leica M9 + Voigtlander 40mm f1.4: 15%

(I used the Fuji Zoom XF18-135mm f3.5-5.6 for the fishermen photo shoot, and another time in Hà Nội 
around Hoàn Kiếm lake.)

Did I miss my Canon 5D Mark II and my panoply of primes and zooms? 

No. Not once.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Cedric Arnold | Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Photo © Cedric Arnold-All Rights Reserved
Here's a festival with religious connotations that I ought to add to my list of to do events.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an annual event held in Thailand during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and was held  from 24 September - 02 October 2014. It celebrated the Chinese community's belief that abstinence from meat and various stimulants during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar will help them obtain good health, peace of mind, and will also offer spiritual cleansing. Its accompanying sacred rituals grant good fortune on those who observe this rite.

It is thought that the festival was introduced to Phuket by a wandering Chinese opera group who fell ill with malaria while performing on the island.

One of the most exciting aspects of the festival are the ceremonies held to invoke the gods. Firewalking, body piercing and other acts of self mortification undertaken by participants acting as mediums of the gods, have become more spectacular and daring as each year goes by. Men and women puncture their cheeks with various items including knives, skewers and other household items. It is believed that the Chinese gods will protect such persons from harm, and little blood or scarring results from such mutilation acts.

Cedric Arnold's Phuket Vegetarian Festival brings us spectacular monochromatic photographs of this event. Very reminiscent of Thaipusam, the festival includes acts of self mortification that are shocking and gruesome.

Cedric Arnold is a photographer specializing in portraiture, travel, documentary & corporate photography, as well as movie stills. In his personal work, he is often drawn towards exploring the markings of time, this can be in the subject matter itself or expressed with the medium he uses: out of date film, old instant film, or even through chemically altering prints and emulsion.

This is the fourth time that I feature Cedric Arnold's work on this blog. Previous posts can be found here.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Hà Nội Noir | Audio Slideshow

Street photography has almost become an obsession. Arriving Hà Nội with my body clock completely out of whack didn't stop me from taking a quick walk about the streets of its Old Quarter.

As the oldest continuously developed area of Vietnam, Hà Nội's Old Quarter has a history that spans 2,000 years and represents the eternal soul of the city, and walking along some of its more than 36 streets, I remembered their names: Hang Gai, Hang Quat, Hang Bac and Hang Ma.

A majority of the street names in the Old Quarter start with the word hang, which means merchandise or shop. Hang Gai, where my hotel The Golden Silk Boutique is, offers silk clothing ready-made and tailored, embroidery, and silver products.

One of the assignments given to the group participants was Hà Nội Noir; a series of monochrome street photographs depicting the teeming life found in the small streets of this capital city. Over the course of the few days I spent in Hà Nội, I walked its 36 streets (well, almost all of them) and shot mostly from the hip as is my custom to capture impromptu scenes and candid expressions.

Most of the photographs were made with my new favorite combo: Fuji X-T1/Zeiss 12mm f2.8. Others were made with a Leica M9 and the Voigtlander 40mm f1.4.

Monday, 29 September 2014

A Life With Leica | Thorsten von Overgaard

ZITE has introduced me to a multitude of interesting articles on photography and otherwise, including this short documentary featuring a Danish photographer named Thorsten von Overgaard.

As a preamble, let me say that although I own a Leica M9 and have the utmost regard for its capabilities as a tool, I'm far from being a Leica fanboy, realizing (and grudgingly accepting) its shortcomings, and periodically ranting at Leica's blatant ostentatious marketing and pricing.

Nonetheless, I have just returned from leading a photographic expedition-workshop to Viet Nam where I used the M9 (with a Voigtlander 40mm) on a number of occasions during street photography jaunts in Ha Noi and Hoi An, and readily confirm that (1) its images (whether monochrome or color) have a distinct 'feel' to them, and (2) its ergonomics are just right.

This is a lovely documentary filmed in Rome with Thorsten who shares his photographic 'philosphy' with us. I found myself in full agreement with him on most of his points of view...which ranged from "there's always stuff happening" in the streets, that each one of us has a unique visual viewpoint, that cameras (whether Leica or otherwise) are just tools and that he never photographs people unless to show them off in the best of lights. The latter also echos Sebastião Salgado's philosophy.

A minor point: I was surprised to see Thorsten resting his Leicas on their lenses instead of on their bottom plates. I do that as well. Weird.

Friday, 26 September 2014

30,000 Feet In The Air | Thoughts

Ms Hiền Trang in Hoi An street. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
At just over 8000 miles, the Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to New York is one of the longest direct flights, and it gave me ample opportunity to use my jet-lag addled brain to toss over ideas about The People of Tay Bac Photo Expedition-Workshop.

In between in-flight movies and meals...and possibly over the polar cap, I concluded that one of the most enjoyable segments of the photo expedition (for me) was the so-called "fashion" photo shoots that either happened serendipitously or by design in Hoi An and in Ha Noi.

I enjoyed these so much that I am seriously giving thought to dedicate a few days during in a forthcoming trip to Vietnam to such "fashion" shoots....fusing travel photography to ethnic fashion photography. The style can be posed...with static portraits, or can be pseudo environmental-street portraits such as the one above.

Ms Hiền Trang in Hoi An doorway. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
It's a totally different change of pace. It takes a combination of various skills...some of which I have, and others that I still don't...but that are more or less easy to acquire. To really do a professional job, I'd need the support of models, local photographers (many such photographers are available in Da Nang, Hoi An and Ha Noi), as well as make-up artists....and finding a handful of attractive local dresses.

In Hoi An, I was fortunate to have had the generous support of the adorable Hiền Trang, and of professional photographer Minh Nhat Nguyen. I also stumbled on Mai Đoàn, who could provide the make-up support if required.

Scouting for attractive backdrops is not difficult in Hoi An. The little town is replete with those, including the interiors of the Chinese Assembly halls. Many stores have ancient fronts that offer superb backgrounds, along with mustard yellow textured walls for which the town is famous for.

Ms Hiền Trang in Fujian Assembly Hall. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
If these thoughts come to fruition, I'd have to acquire the proper accessories such as reflectors and strobes, which I haven't used much before. However, these accessories would have to be minimal so as not to require photography permits, and to avoid red tape.

We scheduled a photo shoot with Hiền Trang at the Fujian Assembly Hall. This landmark was built around 1690 for the Chinese ethnic group from Fujian to socialise, but later it was transformed into a temple dedicated to the Fujian deity named Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea.

Source: Heritage (Vietnam Airlines Flight Magazine) 

The inspiration for Hiền Trang's photograph at the Fujian Assembly Hall was from images featured in Vietnam Airlines Flight Magazine. One of our group members, Maria Dikeos, spotted the resemblance in the setting, and suggested we held a photo shoot in that particular corner.

Another project to plan for, and to look forward to during 2015.

And yes. All these photographs were made with the new Fuji X-T1, and a Zeiss 12mm f2.8

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Ha Noi | Report 11 | The People of Tay Bac

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
All good things come to an end. Sort of.

The People of Tay Bac Photo Expedition ended at breakfast this morning (Ha Noi time), where it has become noticeably cooler and less humid.

Seizing on the opportunity to shoot in the streets without exuding a ton of sweat, I worked the small streets of Hanoi and its tiny alleys, where impromptu small pho establishments suddenly appear out of nowhere. I've been encouraging the group to look for layers in their street photographs, and I practiced what I taught.

Ha Noi's Old Quarter is rife with such opportunities, but one has to pick an interesting spot and wait...or lucky enough to stumble on one or more of such scenes. I normally shoot from the hip in such instances; not because I don't want to appear sneaky but because I don't want the subjects to freeze, or wave, or proffer the V sign that's very popular in Asia.

Mostly working with my new Fuji X-T1, (and occasionally with a Leica M9), during the past couple of weeks convinced me that the era of DSLRs for me is over. The X-T1's capabilities, performance, ergonomics as well as image quality, are very impressive. It has a few quirks and irritants, but these are easily either ignored or worked around.

In a few days, I'll write up a review about the Fuji X-T1, and feature it here on this blog.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Hội An | Report 10 | The People of Tay Bac

Ms Hiền TrangPhoto © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Undoubtedly, Hội An is now a tourist haven but it still is a wonderful little town, with a myriad of photo opportunities whether candid, serendipitous, posed or set up. Its ancient town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its yellow textured mustard walls are an ideal backdrop for photographs, and some of us took advantage of that feature. Even its plentiful restaurants seem to have an interesting ancient history to them.

The group's assignment in the streets of Hội An was to try to emulate the chiaroscuro style of Alex Webb...but unfortunately, while it was sunny (and humid), the sun's angle didn't cooperate. There was however, alternatives that occupied us the too few days here.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Our day started at 4:00 am, when we boated to the mouth of the Thu Bon River to photograph the large fishing nets (reminiscent of the Chinese nets in Cochin). These large contraptions are lowered into the water to catch fish during the night. They are slowly raised and lowered by the fishermen using foot-powered winches.

I had booked a morning boat through Dang Ke Cuong, a talented local photographer who I had met on my previous stay in Hội An two years ago, and whose images of similar fishermen are wonderful.  The setting was just splendid, and the sunrise happened on cue and cooperated fully. Most of us either ran out of batteries or storage space in their cameras during this outing, which included time at the fishing wharf a few miles from Hội An itself. There the activity was frenetic, and the buyers of fish (that ended on the restaurants tables) were relentless arguers and hagglers.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
As I wrote above, the streets of Hội An are rife with photo opportunities; some contrived and others not. Elderly ladies are largely ambivalent about being photographed, and some require some coaxing to allow it. This elderly lady was quite happy to be photographed in front of what I thought was her restaurant. She must've been quite a beauty in her days, and I could easily imagine her in an ao dai, being courted by eager young men.

Speaking of which, I am extremely fortunate to have finally met with the adorable Ms Hiền Trang (top photograph), who was willing to pose for our group in various interesting places in Hội An. Accompanied by her friend, photographer Minh Nhat Nguyen, who acted as photo shoot director, we spent two hours emulating fashion photographers in the field. Not perhaps the purview of travel photographers per se, but a worthwhile exercise fusing exotic location photography, fashion photography with travel photography.

The day ended with dinner at a local restaurant (not a tourist trap by any means) where cau lay and squid dishes...and La Rue beer, of course.

Photo © Minh Nhat Nguyen-All Rights Reserved

Friday, 19 September 2014

Ha Noi | Report 9 | The People of Tay Bac

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The group's morning assignment was ostensibly a simple one; during a single photo shoot, and in 15-20 photographs, show Hanoi's teeming life in its streets.

However, the assignment was to be in monochrome. Not as simple as initially thought, eh? Especially with Ha Noi's Old Quarter vivid colors and textures, and particularly galling because of the wondrous light that appeared after every thundershower.

The other objective of the assignment was to encourage the participants to see and capture  "layers"...the fundamental attribute to successful street photography...and to record ambient street noise/sound to accompany the photographs. It was up to them whether to shoot from the hip or otherwise.

I chose to feature the above photograph in monochrome and provide a contrasting view of the same image, and leave it to the viewers as to which they prefer. Both have different aesthetic merits, and both are faithful in their depiction to what I saw. The photograph was made by shooting from the hip so as not to disturb the woman.

By the way, she is playing Candy Crush on her Apple iPad.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Lào Cai-Ha Noi | Report 8 | The People of Tay Bac

On The Lao Cai-Hanoi Road. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The itinerary has us today returning from Lào Cai city, the capital of Lào Cai Province. It borders the city of Hekou Yao Autonomous County, in the Yunnan province of Southwest China, and the Chinese influence is quite pervasive. The beautifully appointed Swiss-Bel hotel was virtually empty of guests, except for a handful of local Vietnamese, and us being the only non-Asians. Our Ha Noi minder Huyen rode an overnight train to take us back, and to solve any issues if we had any during our return trip.

The journey back to Ha Noi took us from 09:30 am to about 5 pm, door to door. A middle section of the highway is still blocked off due to last minute repairs, but the toll gates are open and we drove on this new highway for quite a while. The back roads were in bad condition due to the rain caused by the typhoon, but I've seen much worse.

On the way, we stopped to photograph the rice harvest in the gorgeous paddies, and chanced on a small house where these elders were tending to their grandchild. There was some reticense after this photograph was made because traditional Vietnamese normally do not like to be photographed in threes (and/or other odd numbers).

Ha Noi felt like home. The chaos, the commotion, the noise...and naturally the lip-licking Pho Bo at  Pho 10 on Lý Quốc Su street. A bowl of pho bo and a bottle of Hanoi beer set each one of us 60,000 dongs or just under $3.00. It really can't be beat.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Coc Ly | Report Seven | The People of Tay Bac

Coc Ly Market. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I had not been to Coc Ly market before, so yesterday's morning's excursion was somewhat of a novelty. Coc Ly Market is held weekly on Tuesdays, and is predominantly frequented by the Flower H’mong. While only 35 kilometers from Bac Ha, it took us about 3 hours to drive from Sa Pa. It's smaller than the Bac Ha market that's held on Sundays, and doesn't have its 'charisma'.

Sa Pa Market. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Returning to Sa Pa, after a quick lunch of Pho Ga and Bun Cha in Lao Cai, we were out for an afternoon of street photography. A drizzle was starting to develop; auguring heavier downpour in the evening. Unknown to me at the time, but Typhoon Kalmaegi would soon arrive to the north of Viet Nam, drenching the north.

In contrast to the ambulatory photography style I adopt while at the markets, I spent the afternoon in the Sa Pa market in one or two locations.  I chose a spot where I thought there'd be interesting foot traffic...adjust my settings,  pre-focus my camera (I used the Leica M9) and wait patiently for some interesting scene to develop.

Note: Typhoon Kalmaegi did indeed hit the region and I had to cancel our trip to Xin Cheng market due to reported landslides, heavy downpours and muddy terrain which could have made the trip unfeasible for our van.  Currently in Lao Cai at the Swiss Bel hotel...a new, modern and posh hotel, where we probably are the only residents.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Sa Pa & Ta Phin | Report Six | The People of Tay Bac

H'mong in Sa Pa. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Yesterday included a morning of street photography in the small town of Sa Pa. Being such a small place, it was not too difficult to grab an interesting street scene, provided the Black Hmong vendors left us in peace.

Since much of the pedestrian action really occurs on a couple of small streets, as well as on the steps leading to and from the central market, it was easier to station myself at a specific point on these steps, and wait for something or someone interesting and exotic to happen by. Using the Leica M9, I pre-focused and chose the most appropriate settings...and just waited.

A word about the Hmong vendors. They have (for the most part) a sense of humor, and very willing to exchange banter with tourists. They are rather persistent in trying to buy some of their handicraft, but once they realize there's no way, they either walk away to look for another prey...or exchange pleasantries with anyone who'll give them the time of day.

Ms Thuy Linh, Sa Pa store owner. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy- All Rights Reserved
Whilst waiting for interesting scenes to develop, I noticed an attractive store vendor watching me, and who seemed to understand the purpose of my being there. Expecting nothing much of importance to develop over the next few minutes, I asked if I could photograph her. Thuy Linh (her name) readily accepted, and naturally asked me to send her images when I was done.

The reason I mention this is that this exchange between two people who don't speak each others' language couldn't have occurred a few years ago.

Using Google Translate app on my iPhone, I asked her if I could photograph her, and if she had an email. She asked me to send the images to her Facebook account, and became my Facebook friend on the spot (using an iPhone no less)...enabling me to accept her invitation and eventually send her the images.

Red D'Zao. Ta Phin. Photo © Tewfic EL-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

In the afternoon, we drove to the village of Ta Phin, a picturesque thirty minute drive north of Sapa. It's about 17 kilometers to the west of Sapa, and is principally a Red Dao village, where these can be seen embroidering their wares for sale to tourist groups.

On the way to Ta Phin, we stopped at the abandoned French nunnery/monastery. It was built in 1942, but was promptly evacuated and deserted by 1947. Its walls are in ruins but are covered by mustard-color moss (or lichen), giving it a wonderful textured look.

Photographing a bunch of Red Dao women in the village itself was not too difficult...despite their relentless efforts to make us buy anything from their inventory. It would not have been possible to persuade a couple of them to accompany us back to the French monastery where they could've been photographed against the interesting walls.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Bac Ha | Report Five | The People of Tay Bac

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Rather than rising pre-dawn to drive from Sapa to Bac Ha in order to reach its famous Sunday market early, I structured the itinerary in such a way that we spent the night at the Sao Mai Hotel. Naturally, Bac Ha being a weekend destination for most tourists, the Sao Mai Hotel is the best there is in the small town...which doesn't mean much. That's said, its location is extremely convenient as it's only a couple of hundred meters from the Bac Ha market.

Once again, I took a walk along the streets of Bac Ha late afternoon Saturday, and wafts of religious chants emanated from a small temple. Asking around, I was told it was a hầu đồng ceremony, but I couldn't get firm information as to when it'd be over or how long it was to be performed.

Rushing back to the Sao Mai, I gathered the rest of the group and we photographed the ceremony  until late at night. Before describing what hầu đồng is, I must express my utter amazement and gratitude to the local Vietnamese congregants at this temple who welcomed us with open arms, and showered us with their tolerance.

Hầu đồng, also known as lên đồng, is a ritual of spirit mediumship practiced in Vietnamese indigenous religion and Đạo Mẫu, a Vietnamese mother goddess religion, in which followers become mediums for various deities. The main ritual, which may last from two to seven hours, begins with petitions to Buddha and to the deities for permission to carry out the ritual, after which the medium seats him or herself (both men and women may act as mediums) in the middle of four assistants, whose job it is to facilitate the medium's incarnation of different deities and spirits. (Wikipedia).

Although we were restricted by the temple's small space, I managed to photograph at will until I ran out of SD card space. I also recorded the live performance by the musicians; music that accompanied the medium as she went through the various incarnations. The live recording was badly affected by the small space of the temple and the resultant reverberation of the percussion and the gong.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy- All Rights Reserved
It was a pre-breakfast short walk to the Bac Ha market early morning Sunday, where the villagers had already arrived and spread their products to sell. It looked somewhat different than how I remembered it, and May Lan (our H'mong minder) agreed. The local authority had moved the eateries down to the entrance of the market.

That early, we were the only non-local people around....but I knew it wouldn't last long when tourist buses would arrive. There were mostly Flower H'mong, and a few Black Dzao, and Tay. The animal market was especially busy, with buffalos being bought and sold (one sells for about 30 million dongs or $1500...not much). A few local tribespeople were selling puppies and small dogs....whether for pets or otherwise.

Engaging the women vendors without buying any of their wares is not too difficult. Many of them have a very keen sense of humor, and are willing to have fun and be teased. A few are dour, and don't respond to bantering, and a few genuinely don't like to be photographed. Older women cover their faces, not because they don't want to be photographed for cultural reasons, but because -as they told May Lan- they were too old and had lost their beauty.

Just at the entrance to the market, there's a small restaurant where we had breakfast. It seemed its Pho Ga was the best some of my group had ever had.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Sa Pa | Report Four | The People of Tay Bac

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
It took us far longer than expected to drive from Hanoi to Sa Pa, the famous hill station in the north of Viet Nam. The brand new highway is supposed to cut the journey time from approximately 10-12 hours to a mere 4 or so, but because a section was closed for repairs, we had to take the back roads, and reconnect into it not too far from Lao we did it in about 8 hours.

Sa Pa is still humid (in comparison to two years ago, when it was really cool at the same time of the year), but it's tolerable. Accompanied by our Hanoi minder Huyen, and now Lan...our new Hmong guide in Sa Pa (and beyond), we explored the market area. The vendors have quieted down from what I recall, and there are less of them hassling the newcomers.

At one point, I heard unmistakable religious music emanating from a nondescript building, and asking around, I was told it was a temple. I walked in and encountered a handful of women dressed in red traditional clothes who, through sign language, told me that a ceremony would start at 9:00 am.

Religious music and ceremonies are like catnip to me...and I decided to forgo the street photography morning in its favor.

Rustling up the rest of the group wasn't an easy matter as they had dispersed around the area, but we finally found ourselves welcomed to the temple by around 15-18 women wearing these red outfits.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

It appeared that it was a rehearsal for a much larger ceremony which was to occur tomorrow. Naturally, we will be on our way to Bac Ha by that time, so we thanked our stars to be able to catch it.

Despite our being occasionally in the way,  the congregants were extremely gracious and didn't seem to mind us at all...quite the opposite. In short, this photo shoot (once again, serendipitous) was an enormous success for all of us.

Technical porn snippet: The Fuji X-T1 performed flawlessly. The X Pro-1 showed its age.

In contrast, our afternoon photo shoot to the village of Cat Cat, described as an age-old village of H’Mong ethnic group, was an immense flop of monumental proportions. If you fancy walking (actually quite an arduous trek) in the company of busloads of tourists, then go....but this was an epic fail. I'm not going to waste one sentence on it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Hanoi | Report Three | The People of Tay Bac

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The current high humidity prompted me to set aside our Hanoi street photography program, and flee with the group to the equally humid (but less crowded) village of Tho Ha village, about 45 kilometers from the capital city. Tha Ho village's claim to relative fame is in it's specialization of producing rice paper, used for spring rolls and other Vietnamese culinary dishes.

Serendipity played its role in us passing by a row of old houses, and meeting Việt. Our minder, Huyen, asked permission to enter his house where he welcomed us with remarkable hospitality, offering us rice wine in small goblets... quite potent at this time of the day.

Seeing a collection of traditional instruments on his living room's walls, I asked if he played them...and he said yes. Being encouraged to play, he grabbed one these stringed instruments and started singing a number of traditional Vietnamese songs, and entertained us for over an hour. Naturally, we whipped out our cameras and audio recorders.

As soon as I realized Việt's talents, I thought I'd suggest him as being the subject of the group's first multimedia assignment. Ten photographs and a snippet of his music playing in a short multimedia project would be the group's initial homework.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
What other news? Well, I was asked by the owner of the Golden Silk Boutique Hotel (a lovely hotel perfectly located in Hang Gai) to make some photographs of her at the hotel...a request that I jumped at. I didn't expect any, but she gifted me a lovely scarf in return. She probably realized my affinity to scarves, and chose one that is really luxurious. It'll certainly not be used during my photographic travels.

Oh, and by the way...the best Pho Bo I've ever had (and this is shared by the rest of my group) is at a modern restaurant on Ly Quoc Su...a short walk from the hotel.

Tomorrow, we travel to Sa Pa and it was with considerable relief that we received confirmation that there's a newly constructed road linking Hanoi to Sa Pa. No trucks are allowed so the travel time has been cut from 10-12 hours to a mere 5.