Sunday, 2 August 2015

Nguyễn Vi | The Fortune Teller

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Ms. Nguyễn Vi is a Cô Đồng, a fortune teller....a medium and a Hầu Đồng practitioner.

Followers of this blog know of my ongoing project in Hanoi, which aims at documenting practitioners of the Đạo Mẫu religion, also known as the worship of Mother Goddesses in Vietnam. This project has also opened doors to various ancillary documentary possibilities that I could not have envisaged when I first got started.

One of these 'sub-projects' is the documenting the life story of Ms. Nguyễn Vi, who is not only an active Hầu Đồng practitioner and a medium, but also is a psychic, a clairvoyant and a fortune teller. She tells me that her innate insight into people's futures helps them in their lives. As with many Vietnamese Buddhists, Vi embraces its teachings on compassion and altruism.

I already started documenting Vi's life story last month when she graciously invited me to her family home in Hanoi. It is there that she worships, actively follows her belief system, and deploys her fortune telling skills. In our conversations, it was evident she hasn't had an easy life, and had suffered a number of personal setbacks over the past years until finding her calling in the Đạo Mẫu religion.

A stylish young woman with a sense of dramatic flair, she has worked as a photographer and a graphic artist...but discarded her career to obey a spiritual calling. Her favorite incarnation during her Hầu Đồng performances is Chúa Cà Phê (Princess Coffee) of Lang Son province, and one of the many ladies-in-waiting of the Mother Goddesses.

It is in this incarnation of Chúa Cà Phê that she agreed to pose for me in a photographic studio near her home.

Photo ©Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I am hoping to complete the production of a multimedia photo essay on Ms Nguyễn Vi in the coming few months.

The above photographs were made using a Fujinon XF16-55mm F2.8 on a Fuji X-T1.

Friday, 31 July 2015

A Fuji X-T1 In Bali | Kuningan Ceremonies & More

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
A lighter load than usual in the number of students in my class during the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Bali gave me the opportunity to photograph the various religious festivities on the island which took place at the same time.

The timing of the workshop was perfect as it coincided with Kuningan; an important religious annual event held in every temple, as the Balinese believe it's the day on which their ancestors return to heaven after visiting the earth during the preceding Galungan celebrations.

While I had also carried a Fuji X Pro-1 and a Leica M9, I used the Fuji X-T1 almost exclusively during the week-long stay in Bali. Having updated it with the new firmware v4.0, I used it with a Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 and my newly acquired Fuji XF 16-55mm f/2.8. I noticed a slight improvement in the X-T1's auto-focus speed and accuracy during my time in Bali, but I didn't purposefully test it...I just went with the flow, so to speak.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
With my friend Komang, we drove around the area of Ubud, and stopped at various temple celebrations as well as to a rather disturbing cockfight. I have photographed Balinese cockfights before, but this one was "gambling-heavy"...more than those I had witnessed before, so we didn't stay for long.

I used the Zeiss Touit 12mm quite a lot, especially amongst the crowds in the temples. Mostly shooting from the hip, I managed to capture a number of impromptu and candid scenes such as the one above of the group shooting a 'selfie', with the fellow behind them trying to avoid photo-bombing it. These are the kind of behind the scenes that I search for in such settings and events; avoiding the traditional shots of people praying and priests blessing them.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I was also fortunate to have witnessed for the first time a number of meajar-ajar ceremonies (above) on Kusamba beach. These ceremonies are one of the many that follow cremations, during which families of the deceased will perform pilgrimages to Goa Lawah temple and Besakih mother temple to announce to the gods that the deceased souls are ready to be enshrined at their respective family temples.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
High priests (known as 'pedanda') generally officiate during temple and other religious ceremonies, and are usually assisted by a number of lay-priests known as pemangku; those are not of a Brahmin caste, but are chosen by their villages due to their piety, religious knowledge and ability to go into trance.

This female pemangku  (above) lighting incense sticks was striking because of her style and demeanor. She was clearly in her element, bossing other priests around, and laughing out aloud whenever I approached to take her photograph. While not blessing the devotees by sprinkling water with a small bamboo brush, she was busy filling small plastic bags with water and petals of flowers, presumably for offerings. I used the Fuji XF 16-55mm f/2.8 during many of these ceremonies.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Another first for me was the ceremony during which a temple's sacred objects were transported to a nearby river for purification, and although I had photographed 'odalan' ceremonies on the beaches, I had never seen one inland. The temple is question this time was Pura Desa Lan Puseh in Silungan, and had I not run out of battery power for my X-T1, I would have missed it. Returning from my hotel with my spares, we stopped at the temple which was being prepared for this ceremony.

The ritualistic purification of the temple's sacred objects was solemn and joyous at the same time. The site for the purification was about a mile from the temple itself, and a long procession formed of women carrying the various offerings, while men carried the sacred objects, carefully and lovingly wrapped in yellow cloth. 

The main characters in this procession were two Barongs; the lion-like creature in the mythology of Bali, who is the king of the spirits, leader of the hosts of good, and fighter of all evils.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Agung Parameswara | Devotion

Photo © Agung Parameswara-All Rights Reserved
Although having been both at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Bali, Agung and I haven't met...whether at the Betelnut Cafe for the events, or at the Pelangi School.

I chanced on his work during a Betelnut Cafe event where I noticed his small prints on a table. I took one, and viewed his website. It's a shame he didn't show his work of Bali and elsewhere, and nor had I had the opportunity to review his portfolio. Luckier instructors must have, and I would have loved to sit in on the review and see his new work.

One of his many compelling photo galleries is Devotion; an on-going project in monochrome which Agung describes as a personal one, and that delves in the spiritual relationship between the Balinese and their deities and ancestors. It is the element of bhakti, the devotion that Hindus have for their deities, for their way of life and their religion.

Agung Parameswara is a Bali-based freelance photographer specializing in documenting social cultural issues, delving in travel, and documentary photography. His focus is on Bali and his native Indonesia with a passion in capturing culture, folklore, lanscape, and human events in conjunction with their surroundings.

Monday, 27 July 2015

My Presentation | Foundry Photojournalism Workshop: Bali 2015

I have just returned from a wonderful two weeks in Hanoi and Bali (the latter as an instructor at the incomparable Foundry Photojournalism Workshop 2015).

Whilst I will soon write a post about my experience during the week-long workshop, I thought I'd upload the presentation I gave during one of the evening sessions at the Betelnut Cafe in Ubud. Most instructors were asked to present their work, and I chose Pulau Dewata: The Island of Gods...a collection of images made during my trips to the island.

Some students made the point to me that this presentation ought to have been shown on the first night of the workshop, as it would have helped them to choose their self-assigned photo essays. I was the only instructor to show work directly relating to Bali.

A very sensible observation, but the timing choice of the presentation was not mine to make.

Photo © Komang Windu Gunawan

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Vlad Sokhin | Mozambican Witchdoctors

"Insolite" is a French word which may not have a direct equivalent in English...but it means 'unusual' or 'weird' or even 'eerie'. Photographic essays that are worthy of being 'insolite' are pure catnip for this blog.

Vlad Sokhin's Mozambican Witchdoctors is one of those.  It is said that the 70,000 traditional healers in Mozambique outnumber their 1,500 professional doctor counterparts, and are often the only ones serving its remote populations. You can also view the photo essay in a superb layout on the always interesting Maptia.

Witchdoctors are not exclusive to the African continent, but can be found all over the world. In fact, in a few days I'll be traveling to Bali and I've photographed its own brand of witchdoctors (balian) who are frequently the first to be visited by the Balinese rural population, despite the proximity of medical doctors, clinics and hospitals.

A witch doctor is a type of healer who treats ailments believed to be caused by witchcraft, and is commonly used to refer to healers, particularly in third world regions, who use traditional healing rather than contemporary medicine. 

Some are so popular and media-savvy that they use the internet, and have attractive websites, such as this one.

Vlad Sokhin is a documentary photographer, videographer and multimedia producer. He covers social, cultural, environmental, health and human rights issues around the world, including post-conflict and natural disaster zones. He worked on photo, video and radio projects, collaborating with various international media and with the United Nations and international NGOs. Vlad’s work has been exhibited and published internationally, including at Visa Pour L’Image and Head On photo festivals and in the International Herald Tribune, BBC World Service, the Guardian, National Geographic Traveler, GEO, ABC, NPR, The Atlantic, Stern, Le Monde, Paris Match, Esquire, Das Magazin, WIRE Amnesty International, Sydney Morning Herald, Marie Claire, The Global Mail, Russian Reporter and others.

He is fluent in English, Russian and Portuguese and also speaks Spanish and Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea). He is currently also learning French and Arabic.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Hanoi & Bali | The 'What Do I Take' Phase?

In a week's time, I'll be flying to Hanoi and Bali via Hong Kong; combined flights of unfathomable duration.

The Hanoi trip is to increase my inventory of Hau Dong ceremony photographs, conduct a bunch of interviews, hold portraiture sessions with a number of Hau Dong practitioners as well as some street photography...while my trip to Bali is to join the rest of the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop faculty and give a class called The Travel Documentary; Sound & Images. It seems there will be a number of temple anniversaries in Bali during the time of the workshop, so I might -time permitting- photograph during these odalans.

As I always do before such trips, I lay down the gear I envisage using during these two weeks for a few days, and reflect on what I really need to take with me and use.

So here we go:

Bottom row (left to right):

*Tascam DR-40 Recorder
Marantz PMD620 Recorder
*Elmarit 28mm f2.8
Leica M9

Middle Row (left to right)

Fujifilm X-T1 Camera/Vertical Battery Grip
Fujifilm X-Pro1
Nokton Voigtlander 40mm f1.4
Photoflex reflector

Upper Row (left to right)

*Fujinon 18-135mm f3.5-5.6
Fujinon 16-55mm f2.8
Fujinon 56mm f1.2
Zeiss 12mm f2.8
Fujinon 18mm f2.0

The gear I've marked * will probably stay behind...but I might change my mind as far as the Fujinon 18-135mm is concerned.  I recall using my Canon 70-200 lens quite often at the Balinese festivals.

Time will tell.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Cristina Venedict | The Monk

Photo © Cristina Venedict-All Rights Reserved
I know. It's been quite a while I haven't posted on this blog. This was due to unplanned personal (aka non-photo related) travel...but let me immediately jump in the fray and feature the wonderful work of Cristina Venedict, a photographer from Romania. It is not very often when a photograph makes me stop what I'm doing, and prompts me to immediately look up the rest of the photographer's work.

I chanced on Cristina's 'The Monk" which was recently recognized by ePHOTOzine as Photo of the Week. It was described by the magazine's photo editor as "this image almost looks like a painting you’d find in a gallery. It’s like stepping back in time into a long forgotten era."

And that is exactly what this photograph is all about.

I was excited at the prospect of viewing more of Cristina's similar work; perhaps made during her travels in her native Romania or nearby (these two monks are wearing the garb of Orthodox priests), and admiring her color treatment  of her photographs.

However, there were no more photographs of Orthodox priests on Cristina's website, but galleries of her lovely and stylish -but different- fashion and portrait work. Many of these are processed in muted colors to give the impression and the atmosphere that they were made eons ago.

Cristina is a self-taught photographer from Romania, and who entered the world of photography after being a psychologist.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

POV | Mediocrity And Cronyism

Photo © This Cannot Be Mine. Take It...Steal It!
A reasonably well known travel magazine branding itself as "the multi-platform travel media brand that inspires and guides those who travel the world to connect with its people, experience their cultures, and understand their perspectives', and  published in San Francisco, recently featured on its website a bunch of photographs made of India by the creative director of a fashion-lifestyle website.

It is virtually impossible to make a bad photograph in India, but these were really bad. They were more aptly described as 'snaps' by photographers who know their craft. And their captions were even worse....but these might have been the work of clueless copy writers.

Here's the thing: many talented upcoming and young travel photographers would love to be featured in this magazine...but may have an uphill struggle to get their work considered by the magazine's photo editors.

But the 'creative director' of a fashion-lifestyle website had not trouble in getting her ridiculously mediocre photographs seen and featured.

So why feature mediocre photographs on the website of a seemingly professional travel multi-platorm?

One of the answers probably lies in old fashioned parasitical cronyism.

The fashion-lifestyle website appears to have over 500,000 Instagram followers, while the creative director's Instagram is followed by over 100,000...the later being almost double that of the travel magazine's followers.

So in a possible bid to enhance its audience, the decision-maker(s) at the magazine may have gritted their teeth, and featured these talentless photographs. 

Of course, there may be different reasons...such as friendship, or whatever. It could have been as simple a reason as the creative director returning from a shopping trip or honeymoon or holiday to India, and asking her travel magazine friends if they'd publish her stuff.

It happens all the time, and I understand how such things work in the real world, but I also know that in this particular case, the photographs really suck and reduce the value and respectability that this travel platform tries to achieve. And the way to enhance a travel magazine's value is to publish thoughtful, compelling, beautiful photographs by talented photographers who take pride in their craft.

And pay them.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Jacob Maentz | The Mansaka

Photo © Jacob Maentz -All Rights Reserved
The Mansaka live in the provinces of Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley in the region of Mindanao in the Philippines. Essentially farming people, they are choosy as to there they cultivate their lands, and seldom encroach on other lands.  Their name means “the first people upstream,” derived from man (“first”) and daya (“upstream or upper portion of a river”).

The Mansaka are known for their distinctive costumes and ornamentation, involving tie-dyed textiles and embroidery. Their farming practices slash and burn cultivation. They live mainly on rice, various tubers, and bananas. Houses, which may contain up to three family units, are organized into kinship-based neighborhoods and always placed within eyesight of each other.

Jacob Maentz documents the lives of the Mansaka in his 'The Mansaka of Compostela Valley' photo story, in which he tells us that the Mansaka; although many are Christians, still embrace many of the traditions and beliefs passed down to them over time.

His lovely portrait of Datu Sucnaan (above) is of one of the last few Balyans or priests of the Mansaka Tribe. I encountered a number of Balians (or Balyans) on the island of Bali, and these, like Datu Sucnaan, are faith healers who are extremely well regarded by the Bali islanders, and who are often the primary go-to for medical treatments instead of hospitals and clinics.

You shouldn't miss Jacob's essay with much larger photographs on Maptia, one of my favorite storytelling platforms. You can find it here.

Jacob Maentz is a documentary and travel photographer based in Cebu, Philippines. He's keenly interested in documenting issues related to the human condition, culture, and humanity’s interactions with the natural world. He has worked with corporations, humanitarian organizations, publishers and advertising agencies and his work appeared on television commercials and billboards to magazine and book covers. Much of his documentary work is represented by Corbis Images.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Tu Tran Thanh | Lên Đồng

Photo © 2015 Tu Tran Thanh-All Rights Reserved
Some of my readers will recall my March personal project in Ha Noi which centered on documenting the rituals of Hầu đồng -also known as Lên đồng-, when I was provided invaluable assistance by Tu Tran Thanh; a photographer who also discovered and eventually shared my interest in these traditional Vietnamese rituals.

For decades, Lên đồng was restricted by French colonial and Vietnamese leaders, but the tradition is currently enjoying a strong resurgence in popularity since restrictions were relaxed a decade or so ago. It takes some effort to find and attend the authentic Lên đồng ceremonies. since these are not widely publicized, are often performed at the virtual drop of a hat and are dependent of availability of the pagodas allowed to hold such ceremonies.

I think it is about time I feature Tu Tran Thanh's photographic work "Lên đồng: Spirits' Journeys of Vietnam" which was published on the visual storytelling platform Exposure. There is quite a number of her fabulous photographs of the various ceremonies which she attended before, while and after I was in Ha Noi. It is not an exaggeration that Tu Tran Thanh is now seen by many Hầu đồng mediums as a trusted photographer for their ceremonies.

I am glad Tu Tran Thanh's role is assisting me is far from over. She's also helping me to complete my own ongoing Hầu đồng book project.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Kares Le Roy | Buzkashi

Photo © Kares Le Roy -All Rights Reserved
Buzkashi! The word just fills the mouth with an exotic flavor, doesn't it?

It literally means "goat dragging" in Persian, and is is a Central Asian sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to drag a goat or calf carcass toward a goal. Originally, free-for-all games could last for several days, but in more regulated tournaments, the games are time limited.

It is popular in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Some mistakenly attribute the game of polo as having its origins in buzkashi, but the two are two separate types of horse riding contests. The goat (ideally, a calf) in a buzkashi game is normally beheaded and disemboweled and has its limbs cut off at the knees. It is then soaked in cold water for 24 hours before play to toughen it. Occasionally sand is packed into the carcass to give it extra weight.

Kares Le Roy was in Tajikistan, and features his Buzkashi gallery on his website.

Kares travelled for 2 years through a dozen countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia and Middle East.  The countries he photographed in range from Tibet, Nepal, India, Bali, Cuba, Cambodia to Morocco. He traveled through 56 000 km of land and humans: faces, smiles, eyes, monuments, cultures, and events. He has recently started his travels again, and we look forward to see more of his extraordinary work.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Fabien Astre | The Goroka Festival

Photo © Fabien Astre-All Rights Reserved
The Goroka festival is probably the best known tribal gathering and cultural event in Papua New Guinea. It's held every year close to the country's Independence Day on 16 September in the town of Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands Province. About 100 tribes arrive to show their music, dance and culture. This traditional festival is called a sing-sing, and is the biggest of its kind in the world. 

The feathers of birds of paradise are heavily featured in the festival, either used for decorative head gear or ceremonial dress, and it is often noted how extraordinary that so many feathers can be squeezed on a traditional headdress. The dances and songs during the festival reflect the behavior of the birds of paradise in the wild, which represent beauty and seduction to the tribes.

Fabien Astre documented the Goroka festival, and his colorful photographs appeared in a number of publications such as The Daily Mail, Rough Guides, and Bored Panda amongst others.

Fabien is a French photographer who started traveling in earnest about 10 years ago. He worked in
New Caledonia and backpacked his way in both Australia and India. Returning to Australia, he became interested in travel photography, and currently spends most of his time in Asia and in the Pacific. Currently living in the Solomon Islands, he's combining travel, diving and photography.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Nigel Morris | Tribes of South Ethiopia

Photo © Nigel Morris-All Rights Reserved
I've criticized, on a number of occasions, a handful of photographers who feature images of tribes in south Ethiopia and the Omo Valley, depicting them in elaborate (and contrived) headdress, and setting them up to freeze in front of their cameras in awkward poses, and in so doing rewarding them with lavish gifts of money for every photograph made. I traveled to the Omo Valley in 2004 at a time when this was the exception rather than the norm, and when the tribes were willing to have their photographs taken against a modest donation being made to the heads of their villages.

With a very few exceptions, the recent photographic work I've seen has been of overworked imagery, with the Omo Valley tribespeople overly made-up and fetishized by making them wear incongruous head gear and unnatural accessories. So it's with pleasure that I stumbled on Nigel Morris' Tribes of South Ethiopia on PDN (which led me to his website) since his portraits are free of these artificial accoutrements which, in my view, are demeaning. 

According to the PDN interview,  Nigel Morris's gear during his two week long trip to Ethiopia was a Phase One 645DF with my P40+ digital back and 80mm LS lens; two small cameras, a Fuji X100s and Fuji XT1; one flash unit, a Profoto B1; three light modifiers, an Elinchrom Rotalux 69-inch OctaBox, a Paul C Buff Soft Silver Para, and a Westcott Apollo; and two light stands. 

He tells us that he mainly photographed four tribes—the Daasanach, Mursi, Hamer and Bodi. He employed a fixer and a driver, and just rolled in the Omo Valley. He is a portrait and editorial photographer from Brooklyn, New York.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Hanoi | Bali (Foundry Photojournalism Workshop)

Well, it's the time of year again when I finalise travel plans to join the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop's faculty, as I have done since its inception in 2008 in Mexico City (with one exception, Sarajevo which I had to miss to other commitments). This time it will be held in Bali from July 19-25 and it promises to be another roaring success.

I shall teach "The Travel Documentary: Sound & Image"; a multimedia class that allows its participants to concentrate on the story, rather than on the application. The purpose and aim of the class is to show photographers how to make quick work of slide show production (rivaling in content and quality the more complicated processes), using their own images and audio generated in the field, to produce a cogent travel documentary under the simulation of publishing deadlines.

I plan to drop by Hanoi for a few days to do some further research into the practices of Hầu Đồng, and to add to my already existing inventory of images of these unusual ceremonies.

As my readers know, I am also working on what I hope will be an interesting photo book on Hầu Đồng and its mediums, whose cover will resemble the above tentative mock-up. It potentially could be printed in Hanoi, but it is still premature to determine the location of its production at this stage.

All this makes for an exciting summer 2015!

Friday, 5 June 2015

Jean-Christian Cottu | The Holy Men

Photo © Jean-Christian Cottu-All Rights Reserved
"The Holy Men" is a collection of arranged and posed portraits made by photographer Jean-Christian Cottu in the ancient city of Varanasi. Although these photographs have yet to be uploaded to the photographer's website, he asked me to feature them on this blog on an individual basis, so I chose a few that I liked.

Photo © Jean-Christian Cottu-All Rights Reserved
On Cottu's website, there's a section featuring videos showing the photographer and his assistants during photo shoots, which is quite interesting as it shows the degree of preparation and gear he has to schlep during such shoots.

Photo © Jean-Christian Cottu-All Rights Reserved
As readers of this blog know, I am always highly skeptical of the "holiness" of the photogenic individuals who roam the ghats of Varanasi and elsewhere. I photographed some of them myself, and know full well they are about as holy as I am. That said, they are extremely photogenic, look authentic and play the part marvelously well, provided the monetary reward is in line with current market rates. Now, there may be exceptions to this, and I'd be happy to stand corrected it indeed there was. The fellow in the above photograph holding a stick with a skull is probably taking the role of an ascetic Shaiva sadhu known as Aghori.

Nonetheless, and authenticity cast aside, the portraits of these photogenic characters are lovely and atmospheric. I have previously featured Cottu's work in the Nagaland here.

Between Bordeaux, France, where he lives and the other side of the world, Jean-Christian COTTU defines himself as a wandering photographer. When travelling, he carries his equipment in a sealed trunk containing a portable photo studio and a light box connected to a generator.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Asher Svidensky | The Yin-Bou Fishermen Of China

©Asher Svidensky-All Rights Reserved
I recently took part in judging Travel Photographer Asia photography contest, and one of the winning images was that of an elderly fisherman using the cormorant fishing technique, photographed by Magnus Brynestam.  While the cormorant fishermen with lanterns at dusk is a consistent favorite in such photographic contests, and has been photographed countless times, the judges saw it fit to award this photograph a place in the top five submissions.

Coincidentally, I chanced on Asher Svidensky's The Yin-Bou Fishermen which features gorgeous photographs of these fishermen, along with interesting information of this technique. It seems that during the 16th century, the unique technique of “Yin-Bou” fishing to the Li river of Xing-Ping village in South China.

Wikipedia tells us that the technique is prevalent in Guilin, where cormorant birds are famous for fishing on the shallow Lijiang River. To control these birds, fishermen tie a snare near the base of the bird's throat. This prevents the birds from swallowing larger fish, which are held in their throat and brought back to the fishermen.Though cormorant fishing once was a successful industry, its primary use today is to serve the tourism industry.

Asher Svidensky is a freelance photographer with a strong passion for documentary and storytelling.
Conscripted into the Israeli military in 2009, he served as a photographer. His photographs have been published in magazines and newspapers around the world, including the BBC, National Geographic, The Times Newspaper, Metro Newspaper, GEO, AD (Netherlands) and more. In 2014 he also had the privilege of giving a TEDx talk.

Monday, 1 June 2015

POV | Jimmy Nelson | A TED Talk

Many of us travel and ethno-photographic and documentary photographers have heard of Jimmy Nelson and of his photographic work.

His photographs, the publicity buzz surrounding the publication of his book and his self-promotion (albeit helped by a veritable array of PR professionals) have engendered a strong backlash from a variety of sources, whether these are from other photographers, from NGOs and the like, and environmentalists who saw it as an affront to the way of living of his subjects. Others have even gone so far as accusing Nelson of being exploitative, and have expressed strong reservations and an unease (to put it mildly) at the over-the-top PR promotions, and the self-aggrandizement tactics adopted by Jimmy Nelson and his entourage.

Another part of the equation is that it seems Jimmy Nelson managed to convince an wealthy investor to fund this project to the tune of $500,000 and his books are selling for $150 whilst the special limited editions sell for $8750.

I liked a number of his photographs that were featured on the internet, and whilst most of them are posed and pre-arranged, they do depict life ways that are disappearing quite quickly. I also admire Nelson's energy, perseverance and courage in pursuing this project. He ventured in places that are really tough to get to and to live in for the duration of his shoots. He must've endured quite a lot of difficult for that, he ought to get respect.

That said, I watched the TED talk he gave. And I must say, Nelson is no Salgado. The gist of his talk was superficial, and he worked way too hard at being sensationalistic and enthuse the audience. I also thought the choice of his group photograph (Omo Valley) and its backstory to be mundane and uninteresting. He tried hard, but he's not a charismatic raconteur and although he must have incredibly interesting stories to share, he came through as unconvincing to me.

It's a shame because it's a perceptual kind of thing. None of his critics, nor I, know whether Nelson -apart from his over-the-top PR campaigns to sell his books- has exploited his endangered photographic subjects. Knowing whether  a portion of his royalties were (and will be) used to support the very tribes he photographed, would be interesting... and would go a long way to convince his critics that he's a 'good guy'.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Chầu Bà | Exposure

Featured on Exposure, here is the Chầu Bà gallery.

The ‘Ladies’ (chầu bà) are the most photogenic divinities of the Mother Goddesses Religion of Vietnam. There are twelve ‘ladies’ in the Mother Goddesses pantheon who are reincarnations of the mothers. The first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and the youngest of the ‘ladies’ are the most frequently incarnated by the spirit mediums. While experienced mediums can incarnate up to 36 spirits over the course of a single Hầu Đồng ceremony, it is the incarnations of the ‘ladies’ that are the most atmospheric.

Mediums enjoy incarnating the ‘Ladies’ because the audiences’ participation is much more vocal when they make their appearance, and the ceremonies become more relaxed, playful and even raucous at times.

To illustrate this Chầu Bà gallery, I chose photographs of a Hầu Đồng ceremony performed by Ms Le Trang ; an attractive and experienced bà đồng (female medium) whose ceremony was held at Đền Tam Phủ, a temple near Hanoi.

Another gallery featuring the Mother Goddesses ceremonies is also on Exposure: Hầu Đồng

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Tú Trần Thanh | Ca trù

I am very pleased to feature the work of Hanoi-based photographer Tú Trần Thanh who recently published her Ca Tru: Vietnamese Traditional Music photo gallery on Exposure.

Followers of my own photography and this blog will know that Ca Tru 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 singing was added in 2009 on UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Although Ca trù artists have made great efforts to transmit the old repertoire to younger generations, it is still under threat of being lost due to the diminishing number and age of practitioners. It is  photographers like Tú Trần Thanh who recognize the value of such cultural patrimony, and who document the photographers' performances in an effort to enhance the art's popularity amongst Vietnamese and non Vietnamese alike.

I was very fortunate to have met Tú Trần Thanh, who shares my interest in the Lên đồng and Hầu đồng rituals and who, in spite of having a demanding non-photographic full time job, assisted and facilitated my self-assignment of documenting these rituals during my trip to Hanoi in March 2015.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Vlad Sokhin | The Nyau Brotherhood

Photo © Vlad Sokhin - All Rights Reserved- Courtesy CNN
CNN occasionally features interesting photo essays and photojournalistic works on its website, and has introduced me to the initiation rituals and practices of the Nyau brotherhood, which is a secret society of the Chewa, an ethnic group of the Bantu peoples from Central and Southern Africa.

The Nyau secret society includes coded language, riddles, metaphor, and satire.

Primarily the Nyau perform their masked dances at funerals, memorial services and initiations, but prior to the dances,  the dancers observe a series of secret rituals which are associated with their a secret brotherhood. Each dancer represents a special character relating to the mask or animal constructions worn. The animals are large constructions that cover the entire body while the masks worn over the face are primarily ancestral spirits. 

Nyau masks are constructed of wood and straw. and are divided into three styles; a feathered net mask, a wooden mask and  a large basketry structure that envelops the entire body of the dancer.

CNN's Behind The Scenes of an African Society includes over a dozen photographs by Vlad Sokhin; who actually had to join the Nyau secret society, by going through the initiation rituals and thus infiltrating it.

Vlad lived in Mozambique from 2010-2011, and although the ritualistic dance in recognized by the UNESCO since 2005, it's a largely hidden and feared activity. To gain access and be allowed to photograph it, he had to befriend one of its members and go through a rough initiation ceremony.

Vlad Sokhin is a documentary photographer, videographer and multimedia producer. He covers social, cultural, environmental, health and human rights issues around the world, including post-conflict and natural disaster zones. He worked on photo, video and radio projects, collaborating with various international media and with the United Nations and international NGOs. Vlad’s work has been exhibited and published internationally, including at Visa Pour L’Image and Head On photo festivals and in the International Herald Tribune, BBC World Service, the Guardian, National Geographic Traveler, GEO, ABC, NPR, The Atlantic, Stern, Le Monde, Paris Match, Esquire, Das Magazin, WIRE Amnesty International, Sydney Morning Herald, Marie Claire, The Global Mail, Russian Reporter and others.

He is fluent in English, Russian and Portuguese and also speaks Spanish and Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea). He is currently also learning French and Arabic.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Matjaz Krivic | Earth Temples | Maptia

Photo © Matjaz Krivic
"On my quest to find the world's silent spaces, I was drawn to places of worship and to vast natural spaces..." and so starts Matjaz Krivic's Earth Temples, a gallery of stunning panoramic photographs made almost all over the world, from the Hari Mandir in Amritsar to Christ in Corcovado, Brazil.

It is in these places or spaces that one can sometimes experience absolute and utter silence; a rare commodity in our modern world that is besieged by constant cacophony, noise 'pollution' and the like.

Matjaz's panoramas are rendered justice on MAPTIA; a wonderful storytelling platform for photographers.

Matjaz Krivic is a globe-trotting photographer from Slovenia specializing in capturing the personality of indigenous people and places. He has covered the face of the earth in his intense, personal and aesthetically moving style that has won him several awards. For 20 years, he has made the road his home and most of the time you can find him traveling with his camera somewhere between the Sahara and the Himalayan region.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

POV: A Synthesis of Ethno & Fashion Photography?

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
A recent off-the-cuff tongue-in-cheek post on my Facebook page set off quite a large number of "Like" as well as supportive commentary from other photographers, friends and followers. I was surprised that there was so many reactions to such a light-hearted post, and it made me reflect as to the reason behind the reactions.

First off, to paraphrase the well-known figure of speech referring to Helen of Troy, below is the face that launched a "thousand" reactions. It's a photograph of the South Korean model Kim Sung Heewhich I found on a random Tumblr blog. No photographer's name was given so I wasn't able to credit it properly as I always do to any photograph appearing on this blog.

Model: Kim Sung Hee-Source:
On the Facebook post, I said this: "When I Grow Up, I'm Going To Photograph Like This"...a self-deprecating comment that -in combination with the absolutely gorgeous portrait- garnered sympathetic attention.

Yes, I wouldn't mind having the opportunity of photographing models (after all, who wouldn't?) and I suppose I could if I were really serious and determined about it. There are many studios in New York City where I could get involved with in some capacity, and do some similar work.

But that's not really what I see myself doing. A controlled work environment, a studio, strobes, box diffusers, capricious models, make up artists... no, that's not my thing at all.

No, one of my visual interests is in ethno-photography, perhaps melded with a little ethnic-traditional fashion. 

I suppose the best way of defining this particular visual interest of mine is through the portrait I made of Ms Hường Đặng (top photograph) at Hanoi's Ngoc Son Temple. A Ca Tru musician, she wears the dress and headband in the style of the royals courts of Vietnam. To me, this photograph (and others of Ms Hường at the same location and elsewhere) exemplifies what I'm also interested in photographing while I travel. It's distinct from the environmental portraiture I normally do, because it relies on subjects wearing traditional and fashionable attire as fashion models do... in photogenic settings (such as temples, old houses, etc) but not at the locations where they normally live or work... or in the streets.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Having recently witnessed a number of hầu đồng ceremonies performed by attractive practitioners last month, I (unsuccessfully so far) tried to persuade some to be photographed in their costumes fashion model style. However, as these costumes are considered religious attire, and can only to be worn during ceremonies by the mediums when they are "visited' by the spirits, this will be probably impossible.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Here's another example of what I mean by ethno-photography I'm interested in. The photograph was made in the ancient Chinese Assembly Hall which was transformed into a temple dedicated to the Fujian deity named Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea, with the assistance of Ms Hiền Trang.

Is this fashion? Is it travel photography or is it ethno-photography in the classical sense? Is a synthesis of ethno and fashion photography? Perhaps. I don't know for sure, but it's a style that I certainly like doing.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Travel Photographer Asia Contest | Top Five

Photo © Sugiarto Sugiarto- Courtesy Travel Photographer Asia

Photo © Chee Keong Lim-Courtesy Travel Photographer Asia
Photo © Achmad zet Zaeni-Courtesy Travel Photographer Asia
Photo © Deba Prasad Roy-Courtesy Travel Photographer Asia
Photo © Magnus Brynestam-Courtesy of Travel Photographer Asia
Eric Beecroft, Rahman Roslan, Khaula Jamil and myself juried the Travel Photographer Asia* contest which has just announced its top five winners.

The top winner of the contest is Sugiarto Sugiarto with his monochrome image of a Pacu Jawi racer with his buffalos during a traditional bull race in Sumatra. However, the remaining 4 photographs are equally impressive, and all five are well deserved wins for their photographers.

I was glad to have been chosen to the panel of judges, and view the over 2000 submissions of travel photographs from both professional and amateur photographers who travelled in Asia. Many of the submissions were enormously inspiring and will certainly inspire many photographers to expand their geographical explorations within that unique continent, with its myriad of cultures and traditions.

My thanks to Ahsan Qureshi in Kuala Lumpur for having invited me to join the jury panel, and for his continuing involvement in enhancing photography in Asia.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Aaron Joel Santos | Christs of Cutud

Photo © Aaron Joel Santos-All Rights Reserved
Catholics around the Philippines re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus during Holy Week, and these events draw thousands of people annually who attend them to witness actual crucifixions. The Catholic Church does not approve the crucifixions, and does not endorse them. The media in the Philippines has also turned against the rites, calling them "pagan and barbaric" but still cover them to satisfy the public's interest.

One of the most graphic is the Holy Week re-enactment of Christ’s passion and death in San Pedro Cutud which includes a Passion Play culminating with the actual nailing of at least three penitents to a wooden cross. The Passion Play is a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death, and is a traditional part of Lent in the Catholic tradition.
Christs of Cutud is a photo gallery by Aaron Joel Santos, which depicts one of these gory events. Many of the photographs also show penitents self-flagellating; as a re-enactment of the Flagellation of Christ, an episode in the Passion of Christ prior to Jesus' crucifixion.

I was struck by the similarities with the Day of Ashura that is observed by Shi'a communities worldwide to commemorate the Battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and who self-mortify by flogging themselves on the chest.

Aaron Joel Santos is a  documentary and travel photographer working on assignments across Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and all of Southeast Asia. He is represented by Novus Select in the United States and Noi Pictures in Vietnam. He is also part of the Wonderful Machine roster, and sells his stock photography through Aurora Photos and Glasshouse Images.

His clients include The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe & Mail, The Boston Globe, The Telegraph, Ink Publishing, the International Labor Organization, and numerous others. He also works for commercial and corporate clients such as Vespa, Apple, M Gallery Hotels, Six Senses Resorts, Hyatt, and Indochina Capital.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

POV: The Women Mediums of Hầu Đồng

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
During the past few months reading up on Đạo Mẫu (Mother Goddess worship), the syncretic religious tradition that mixes elements of traditional goddess worship of Vietnam, along with Hầu Đồng as one of its one of the main rituals, I realized that it's not only one of the oldest religions in Vietnamese history, but that its mediums and spiritual shamans -irrespective of their gender- were the linchpins of this divine feminine worship.

Surprisingly, the more well-known mediums are not women but males, who impersonate (or are reincarnated in) female goddesses during these lengthy rituals. These men "cross-dress" as divine female deities within the Vietnamese Buddhist pantheon of goddesses.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
For centuries, Đạo Mẫu temples have been the one place where gays and bisexual men were able to practice their religiosity, artistry and spirituality as mediums in this predominantly conservative country. In such traditional temples, they were able to express their sexuality and femininity, blurring the distinctions between genders. Consequently, male mediums (known as ông đồng) have attained a well earned reputation to be some of the best in their community.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
That said, I have witnessed many Hầu Đồng ceremonies during the weeks of my stay in Hanoi that were entirely conducted by women (female mediums are known as bà đồng). Although I expected their ceremonies would be more authentic than those by their male counterparts since they incarnated female spirits, both were equally captivating; at least to my uncritical eyes.

Setting the ceremonial and 'technical' aspects aside, I thought that the female mediums were much more photogenic than the men. However, it seemed to me the male mediums had more of a following, had more "stage" presence...and were quicker in getting the audience in the right state of mind.

I was struck at how young and attractive these bà đồng were. Very well groomed, professionally manicured, with fingers frequently covered in jewelry, these women were answering a calling to become mediums. Some were full time professionals, and earned a living from it, while others were part-timers. Most were also fortune-tellers (cô đồng) and had other careers.

For instance, Ms. Dương Trà My (middle photograph) is a 22 years old who started a career in cosmetics, but exhibited a spirituality conducive to become a medium and answered the call. Training under other male mediums, she recently conducted a ceremony and was profiled on a Vietnamese newspaper.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Chai Wallahs of India | Zach Marks & Resham Gellatly

Photo © Chai Wallahs of India-All Rights Reserved
"In Hindi, a wallah is someone makes or sells a certain good. Chai means tea. A chai wallah is person who makes or sells tea—or both! But in India, chai isn’t simply tea, a hot drink made with water and leaves."
Chai is the word for tea in many countries of the world, and is an ancient beverage which has played an important role in many cultures. The chai from India is a spiced milk tea that is increasingly popular throughout the world, and is made of black tea, milk, various spices and a sweetener. The most common spices added to it are cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and pepper. 

I recall the first time I drank masala chai was while I was photographing the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Fourteen years ago, and I still remember the taste of my first cup. It was on the grounds of the Kumbh Mela encampments, and was served in a small clay cup which one threw away to break it when done. Nowadays, chai is usually served in small plastic cup...another sign of "modernity".

Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly are collecting stories of chai wallahs from India’s many distinct regions, highlighting the variations in chai culture and the role chai wallahs play in different communities. By documenting how chai is woven into the daily fabric of India, they seek to depict a culture that epitomizes India’s diversity and unity.

Their stories can be found on Chai Wallahs of India

Friday, 1 May 2015

Ashok Sinha | The Last Jews of Calcutta

Photo © Ashok Sinha-All Rights Reserved
Some years ago I had an interest in documenting the very few Jews still living in Egypt at that time, after many thousands of them left the country in 1956 and in subsequent years. I researched its feasibility, and determined that there were so few of them left that the project would fail. I also expected that they, mostly elderly and poor, would be hardly inclined to be photographed and talk about their lives, fearing the Egyptian government would take umbrage. So I let the project go.

While on my 2011 photo expedition-workshop The Cult of Durga in Kolkata, my group and I dropped by the Magen David Synagogue to see if there was anything worthwhile to photograph. It was coincidentally Yom Kippur (which we didn't know), but the synagogue was almost empty. The Muslim guard, who stood watch at its gate, called one of the congregants, and she agreed to let us in and photograph. With an estimated 25 Jews remaining in this city of 14 million people, the synagogue is now rarely used.

Ashok has featured 28 photographs in a photo essay titled The Last Jews of Calcutta, which showcases the synagogue and the remnants of the congregation that remain. The Jews in Kolkata were Baghdadi (Iraqi) Jews who had emigrated from Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq to large commercial Indian cities, including Mumbai and Madras as well.

Ashok Sinha was born in Kolkata, and has been living and working in New York City for the past two decades. He's been a professional photographer since 2008, shooting portraits, travel, and architecture, and traveled  to over 40 countries, photographing remote tribes, vast landscapes, local culture, food, and faces. He was educated at Columbia, NYU, and the International Center of Photography, and garnered acknowledgments from American Society of Media Photographers, Lucie Foundation, Photo District News, Association of Photographers UK, World Photographic Arts, and the BBC.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

POV: The Agony (or Ecstasy) of Choice

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
The agony (or ecstasy) of choice between color or monochrome usually hits me when I start editing my images on returning from one of my photo expeditions/workshops or from a personal project/assignment. It's a feeling probably shared by a multitude of photographers at some point...but with me, it has recently become quite acute.

Not too long ago, images generally screamed 'color' at me whilst making them or when I edited them, but that's not the case any longer.

While photographing the Mother Goddess ceremonies in Vietnam last month, I was ambivalent about making that choice during my photo shoots. Despite the flamboyance of the mediums' costumes and the brilliant color of the altars, shrines and religious displays, the jury was still out as far as I was concerned.

I decided that I'd work first on squarish and simpler portraits of the mediums (see The Spirit Mediums) keeping them in vivid colors as I originally shot them...but left open the choice of monochrome vs color for another photographic series which will be more documentary in style, and have less portraiture. I am currently leaning towards monochrome, giving it a more photojournalistic style, and this means I have to process two versions of each image for the time being.

In this particular instance, it's not only an aesthetic case, or a choice of travel vs documentary... but is also one that has to take into consideration the quality of the images. The ceremonies are usually held in temples (pagodas) where the harsh sunlight (if held during the day), where the hideous tungsten lights dangling from the ceilings or walls are difficult to avoid; where votive material and gifts to the deities are stacked on one or more side, providing a busy background, and where assistants who, while doing their job, often intrude in the scenes.

Processing the images to monochrome diminishes the messy impact of these visual issues, and makes them less distracting. That said, does it reduce the 'authenticity' of the a way, seeing them not as they happened?

I haven't resolved this question yet.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Hầu Đồng | Exposure | The Power of 'So Mang'

As readers and followers of this blog probably know, I've spent about two weeks in Hà Nội on a personal assignment to document The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam, who perform the rituals of Hầu Đồng; one of the main elements of Đạo Mẫu, the Mother Goddess religion of the indigenous Vietnamese people.

My passion for photographing esoteric religious and spiritual traditions, coupled with a thrilling sense of discovering a new one in Đạo Mẫu, made these two weeks one of the most rewarding periods of my photographic career. Overall, it exceeded my results expectation.

For the genesis of this project, let me briefly backtrack. 

Leading my September 2014 photo expedition-workshop to Vietnam, I accidentally stumbled on a Đạo Mẫu rehearsal ceremony in Sapa, and an actual Hầu Đồng ritual the following evening in the northern town of Bac Ha. Serendipity (or perhaps it was what the Vietnamese call số mạng) was certainly on my side on these two days, because I was completely in the dark about this religion and its rituals. 

Returning to New York, I started to research the subject, garnered as much information as I could, established the ground contacts through social media and resolved to return to Hà Nội to document as much as I could over a period of about 2 weeks; hardly enough to do a exhaustive job of it but sufficient to give me a solid head start.

I was extremely fortunate to have Ms Trần Thị Thanh Tú, a talented Ha Noi-based photographer herself, helping me every inch of the way. She generously took time off from her regular job and was instrumental in introducing me as a trusted friend to the Hầu Đồng community. Without her, this project wouldn't have taken off an inch off the ground. Her introduction and their acceptance were key to the success of the assignment.

Treated with nothing but over-the-top hospitality by the Hầu Đồng community, I made friends with Trịnh Ngọc Minh, Ms Lê Ánh Tuyết, and Ung Anh Tuan, to name but a few. News of my interest spread amongst other contacts, to the point where I was invited to a ceremony by the gracious Ms. Nguyễn Thanh Mai; owner of the Golden Silk Boutique Hotel in Hà Nội, where I stayed for these two weeks. Even the hotel's receptionists were intrigued by my progress and would ask how it was going on my return at the end of each day. Some of them were unfamiliar with Đạo Mẫu, so I was pleased to share my knowledge of this Vietnamese ancient religious ritual.

As I put together this gallery of the mediums, I realized I had barely scratched the surface of the Hầu Đồng ritual so, for example, I confused many of the names of spirits until Ms Tu corrected them. The difference between a Chầu đệ nhị thượng ngàn (the Second Lady) and a Cô Chín Sòng Sơn (the Ninth Princess), obviously significant, didn't come easily to me, no matter how much I relied on the material I had downloaded from the internet.

Despite the best efforts of my hosts and friends, my inability to speak Vietnamese, or even understand a few words of it, did reduce my understanding of the intricacies of the rituals. For this, I naturally blame my own shortcomings.

I've added some background information on Đạo Mẫu and Hầu Đồng on The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam for those who are interested. It's a fascinating syncretic religious practice mixing a number of artistic elements, such as music, singing, dance and the use of costumes. It also happens to be a joyous religious ceremony, without the dour, morose, guilt-ridden and fearsome ambiances of some other established religions we all know about.

What next? Well, I plan to return to Vietnam in the coming months to work on another phase of this project, and I'm also toying with the idea of eventually publishing a book of these photographs.

Let's see what số mạng has in store for me.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Supranav Dash | Varanasi

Photo © Supranav Dash-All Rights Reserved
It's a little over a year that I was last photographing in Varanasi; in my view, certainly one of the most photogenic cities on earth, and I thought I'd "reconnect" visually with it through the work of Supranav Dash's Varanasi.

I miss India and its infinite layers of culture, traditions and religiosity... and photographic work such as this one rekindles the attachment.

The above photograph is of a pehlwan training area overlooking the city's ghats, where presumably a practitioner of this ancient wrestling sport is seen making puja before his training.

I posted Supranash's work Trades Portraits earlier on this blog, which I thought were lovely monochromatic images of fast disappearing occupations in India.

Supranash Dash was brought up in Kolkata, India. He started his a career in Fashion/ Advertising/ Editorial Photography in that city, and later went on to work for a magazine in Mumbai. He has a BFA in Photography (Honors) from the School of Visual Arts, NYC. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, and has a long list of awards. His areas of interest are Fine Art and Social Documentary.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Diego Ibarra Sánchez | Children of Shah Daulah

Photo © Diego Ibarra Sanchez - All Rights Reserved
Followers of this blog and of my photography work will know of my visual and cultural affinity to South Asian Sufi shrines, and my interest in this particular branch of Islam from a historic standpoint. I have photographed at quite a number of Sufi shrines in India, but never in Pakistan, and documented a variety of its festivals, rituals and cultural phenomena.

Whether it was in Ajmer during the death anniversary of the Sufi saint Chisti or at the shrine of Mira Datar, I witnessed manifestations of mental illness by pilgrims who went into trances when nearing the tombs of the saints, and I saw first hand the venality of the shrines' keepers who exploited the visiting pilgrims, and conned them out of their meagre savings.

But I never imagined what seems to occur at the shrine of Shah Daula Shrine located in Gujrat in northern Pakistan. It is here that women wanting to bear children come - as others have done for more than 400 years- and pray at the saint's shrine. If their prayers are fulfilled, they have to donate their first-born to the caretakers of the shrine. Thousands of such children have been left here, and forced by the caretakers to wear iron caps on their skulls for the first 12 years of their lives in order to look like rats. They are called the rat children or chuhas.

Shah Daula, a beloved Sufi Muslim mystic, was said to be a kind man who surrounded himself with children born with microcephaly, and the caretakers seek to populate the shrine with such disfigured individuals since pilgrims believe that being touched by these unfortunate individuals will bless them and have them bear children.

Diego Ibarra Sánchez's gallery Children of Shah Daula features photographs made at this shrine.

Diego is a documentary photographer currently based in Lebanon. Graduating with a degree in Journalism in 2005, he has published many of his stories in numerous newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times and Der Spiegel among others.

In 2006 several grants made it possible for Diego to spend a year in South America to improve his storytelling process. Upon returning to Spain he worked for two years for the Catalan newspaper Avui, while still continuing his own photography projects. In 2009 Diego moved to Pakistan where he developed a strong visual body of work. He also continued travelling to several other countries including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Libya, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

He left Pakistan in 2014 and he is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon.