Sunday, 21 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 January 2018

POV: Staging Scenes To Win Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 January 2018

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

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

It's common knowledge that people spend an average of 8 seconds looking at a book's front cover and 15 seconds studying the back cover before making a decision whether to buy it or the choice of both front and back covers is obviously critical to the success of Chinese Opera In The Diaspora.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 January 2018

Antoine Schneck | Mali

Photo © Antoine Schneck | All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 January 2018

Alina Fedorenko | City of The Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Beyond The Frame | Lee Lee The Traveler | GFX50s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Christian Berg | The Old Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 January 2018

Beyond The Frame | Qinqiang Opera | X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I've immersed myself (not totally...but let's say, up to my waist) in documenting Chinese Opera in its various forms since mid 2017, but have found the project to be daunting because of the complexity of that ancient art form, its diverse types/styles, because of its thousands of tales and because I don't speak or understand Mandarin and/or Cantonese.

Notwithstanding these challenges, I started to read on the various types of Chinese opera, and during 2017 attended and photographed various performances in New York City's Chinatown (Cantonese), in Kuala Lumpur (Hokkien) and in Shanghai (Qinqiang).

It is a Qinqiang performance in Shanghai that's the subject of this Beyond The Frame blog post.

The premier venue for Chinese opera in Shanghai is the Yi Fu Theater on Fu Zhou Lu Road near People's Park. It was known as the largest theater in the Far East, and no opera actor or actress could achieve fame until they performed at the Yi Fu Theater.

The opera for September evening was 'The Unicorn Purse" (锁麟囊/Suo Lin Nang) which was written in 1940 by Weng Ouhong (翁偶虹). It can also be translated as 'The Qilin Purse'....Qilin being a mythical creature of good omen, and purses embroidered with its likeness was meant to bring luck and good fortune to brides at their weddings).

The opera is one of the most popular. It tells the story of two brides who cross paths on the day of their wedding, but have very different fates.

The 1000 seat theater was almost full, but being in the front row (albeit to the side) meant that I could photograph at will without any issues. I saw that a handful of photographers had already set up their cameras on tripods in the aisles, but as I didn't have one I'd have to do all my shooting from my seat.

The stage was very well lit, changing with the mood and plot of the performance. The actors seemed to be very popular with the audience, and even to my untrained eye, seemed to be extremely professional and well trained. The costumes were gorgeous, and no expense seemed to have been spared.

Technical details: X-Pro2 + 18-135mm F3.5-5.6R OIS. f5.6. iso 1000. Spot Metering. Date: 2017-09-06 at 5:00 PM (Shanghai time). Post Processing using Color Efex Pro 4 (Darken/Lighten Center Filter).

Despite its OIS, the Fujinon 18-135mm (27-200mm 35mm equivalent) is my least favorite and least used lens, but for performances such as this, it's very useful because of its range and truth be told, it sort of delivered. Perhaps if it was faster, I would have had a higher success rate. 

I shot almost 800 frames (RAW) during the performance, and captured around 30-35 images that I believe make the final a success rate of just over 4%.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Beyond The Frame | Yi Yi At A Tea House | X-Pro2

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Having recently visited this blog's archives, I remembered it had a periodic feature called "Beyond The Frame" in which I chose a single image and wrote about its back story. As it was quite popular with readers, I decided to re-introduce Beyond The Frame as an irregular feature on The Travel Photographer blog.

Readers will recall from my many posts on The Red Qi Pao that I've produced two multimedia essays about an imaginary love story involving  a Shanghainese young woman and a foreigner in the 1930s at a time when Shanghai was a "wicked" city.

Taking the opportunity of being in Shanghai in September, I was fortunate to be introduced to Yi Yi (a pseudonym); a professional model and a budding photographer herself, and featured her as the red qi pao-clad girl of Nanjing Road; a famous road in the city.

Along with Eric, a photographer friend, we went to Guilin Park for a 3 hours photo shoot. The park's tea house provided an perfectly suitable backdrop for the photographs. I used my GFX50s along with its 63mm lens, as well as the X-Pro2 and a 16-55mm lens. 
I shoot in ambient light, and eschew strobes and reflectors.

The tea house was empty at this time of day...perhaps because it was drizzling for most of the time, the park was not at all crowded, and the light was gorgeous. 

Yi Yi was very quick to understand what I was after, and had all the accessories needed to play her part; the opium pipe, the white fur stole, the yellow fan and the high heels. I found it extremely easy to direct her as she intuitively knew what to do.

This particular photograph was unplanned. The tea house waiter just walked up to Yi Yi's table to pour her some tea during a lull in the shooting. I immediately sensed it would introduce an interesting element in the eventual story, so I snapped a couple of frames using my X-Pro2/16-55mm lens to capture a natural moment.

Technical details: X-Pro2 + 16-55mm. f4.5. iso 800. Spot Metering. Date: 2017-09-07 at 15:39:51 (Shanghai time). Post Processing using Luminar ("Center of Attention" Preset + Adjusting RGB Curves).

Guilin Park is a traditional Chinese garden, complete with rockeries, pavilions as well as stone bridges. It was once the residence of 1930s gangster-detective Huang Jingrong, who found his way into the Former French Concession gendarmerie in 1892 when he turned 24, and rose through the ranks to become the highest ranking Chinese officer in the French force in the 1930s. 

When the Communists came to power in 1949, he was stripped of his wealth and humiliated. Despite opportunities to flee to Taiwan or Hong Kong, Huang decided to remain in Shanghai, dying at home in 1953 at the age of 85. He was known to have provided support to Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975).

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Sebastião Salgado | Amazônia

Photo © Sebastião Salgado | Courtesy Folha de S.Paulo
I'm very glad to have stumbled on the latest work by the legendary Sebastião Salgado. It's published as a reportage in the magazine (or blog?) of the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, and while its descriptive text is in Portuguese, I used an online translator tool to feature it here.

The remote tribe known as the Korubos received Sebastião Salgado, in September 2017. He was welcomed with guttural sounds such as "hey hey hey", and stayed in their village in the Javari valley for 20 days to produce his new project, "Amazônia".

The Korubos number about 80, and maintain regular contact with officials of the Brazilian State... but have had little contact with the "white" culture. They are divided into two villages on the banks of the Ituí River, in the Indigenous Land Vale do Javari, in western Amazonas, along the border with Peru, 3,500 km from São Paulo and 1,200 km from Manaus.

This tribe was known in the 20th century for the violence with which it attacked invaders of its territories. Their defensive attacks were followed by reprisals from non-Indians. Nowadays, the Korubos want to talk.

Sebastião Salgado produced a series of photographic reports about the Amazon, with an emphasis on indigenous groups that have had little contact with the "white" culture. "Amazônia" is a continuation of his earlier work, "Genesis". It seeks to portray the autochthonous peoples of Brazil, inhabitants of the world's largest forest, threatened by the destruction caused by an unsustainable exploitation.

For this long term project, Salgado visited several tribes and will conduct other expeditions in 2019, which he hopes will see publications and exhibitions that will form part of the project.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

C. Glendening & S. Leahovcenko | Mongolian Eagle Hunters

This is a double feature on the eagle hunters of the Altai mountains of Mongolia; one is the cinematic work of Cale Glendening, and the other is a photographic essay by Sasha Leahovcenco.

The golden eagles live in the high Altai mountains, in far-western Mongolia, and build their nests in the crags of the area’s rugged peaks. The hunters, a Khazak minority, are traditional nomadic clans who learn to climb up to these crevices to capture and domesticate the young eagles. The birds are hand fed, and live with the hunters’ families for years.

The hunters take their eagles high into the mountains, so they can fly down and catch foxes and other small mammals. It's a dying tradition, with an estimated number of only fifty or sixty authentic eagle hunters left.
Photo © Sasha Leahovcenco | All Rights Reserved
Although eagles can live for thirty years, the hunters keep each one for only about ten years, then release it to live out its last years in the wild.

The hunters are called burkitshi, and try to pass their long standing tradition to their sons. The tradition of hunting with golden eagles is said to have been started by the nomadic tribes of Manchuria in northern China around 940 AD.

Sasha Leahovcenco's Mongolian Eagle Hunters photo essay is here

His biography reveals that is a humanitarian, entrepreneur and photographer. He was born in Moldova, an Eastern European country and former Soviet republic. A martial art champion, he eventually took up photography as a career, and traveled to Chukotka (the northern most part of Russia), Haiti, Central America, the Middle East and several countries in Africa. He covered stories of the earthquake in Haiti, the aftermath of typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, the ongoing war conflict in Ukraine and the Syrian and Lebanese refugee crisis.

Cale Glendening is a director and cinematographer who has spent the last eight years traveling the world filming on five continents in over 35 countries. His clients include Google, Red Bull, Cholula, Valvoline, Dollar General, BBC, ESPN, and Animal Planet.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Omo Valley's 'Circus'

I was in Ethiopia's Omo Valley in 2004, and photographed many of the tribes in that area such as the Hamer, Mursi, and the their villages and at their markets. At that time, the local guides negotiated with the tribes and their village leaders a modest monetary compensation so we could photograph them in their environment as they went about their daily lives.

However, I was already sensing that this would soon explode into a veritable industry, which would progressively evolve into a 'circus' of sorts, altering the authenticity of the tribes' lifestyle, traditions and relationship with the tourists and photographers.

I was right. Over the course of the intervening 10-12 years I viewed that very circus through images made by travel photographers who had gone to the Omo Valley. These images proved how the tribes authentic adornments had morphed into becoming accessories for fashion shoots that would satisfy the most inventive fashionistas. 

Since early morning, the women and children of the Omo Valley villages begin their make-up sessions, and prepare wild accessories...often with the help and direction of photographers, and the villages are transformed into fashion studios.

The short trailer is produced by Jean Queyrat; a French videographer...and featured by the French Natural History Museum.

The question is: who is being duped? The photographers, the tribes or the viewers?

Monday, 11 December 2017

Remembering Shanghai...And How To Publicize A Book

Remembering Shanghai: Trailer

This post has nothing to do with travel photography, but has a lot to do with 1930's Shanghai; an era and a city that has kindled my imagination for quite some time, and recently influenced me to produce a couple of my 'fashion' themes stories such as The Red Qi Pao and The Girl of Nanjing Road.

However, this post is more about how to publicize a this case, a memoir not a photo book, albeit with illustrations and photographs. 

The joint memoirs are by Isabel Sun Chao and her daughter Claire, and tell of their recollections. As Claire says:  "My ancestors were a cast of eccentrics who lived in tumultuous times, and thankfully my mother did not resist writing an insider tell-all. There’s a bank heist, a kidnapping, a feud with Shanghai’s top gangster, a trek across China and a date on a Harley-Davidson. In between the adventures, we learn about mahjong, calligraphy, silkworms, Beijing opera and Shanghai dumplings."

I was very impressed by the extremely well thought out Remembering Shanghai website which is publicizing the memoir. It's well designed, includes tantalizing tidbits and lovely well as old photographs. This is how to do it!

I wish I had seen this website ahead of my own Hau Dong: The Spirits of Viet Nam, since it would have inspired me to up my game.

In any event, I will keep it mind for my future book production.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Travel Photographer's 5 Favorite 2017 Photographers

Photo © Nagi Yoshida-All Rights Reserved
I now feature my favorite 5 photographer for 2017. I do so in no particular order, either alphabetically, nor chronologically nor by preference...just randomly.

Nagi Yoshida

My first favorite photographer of 2017 is Nagi Yoshida which was featured on this blog on June 26 with her work on Ethiopia. I liked her imagery of the various tribes in the Omo Valley such as the Mursi, Bume, Hamer and the Afari people. 

The Japanese photographer's love affair with Africa started when as a child, she was fascinated by being African. Some children want to become pilots, some models, but her dream was just to become African. 

Photo © Corentin Fohlen | All Rights Reserved

Corentin Fohlen:

Another favorite is French photographer/photojournalist Corentin Fohlen featured in my post of March 3, with his incredibly colorful and fantastical portraits of Haiti's KarnavalThis festival has been held for over 100 years in different towns of Haiti.

Fohlen began to photograph Haitians by creating a makeshift studio on a city sidewalk near the Karnaval celebrations, where he could create portraits of each unique costume. Since 2012, he has been involved in long term projects in Haïti, and has published two books on this country and its culture.

Photo © Hiroshi Watanabe - All Rights Reserved

As for the next favorite photographer, it's Hirshoshi Watanbe.

He was featured in my post of May 23 for his lovely work on Kabuki performers. This gallery is of square format monochromatic portraits of non-professional kabuki performers in the small town of Nakatsugawa; located midway between Tokyo and Kyoto.

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

Photo © Robert van der Hilst | All Rights Reserved
Robert van der Hilst:

I was happy receiving Robert van der Hilst's lovely 'Chinese Interiors' voluminous coffee-table photo book as a gift in Shanghai, and discovered the talents of this Dutch master photographer who was influenced and inspired by Dutch mid-17th century genre painting. Naturally, I wrote of him in my post of November 8.

Robert van der Hilst is certainly an inspiring photographer, and his website's galleries feature his lovely work from Mexico, Fukuoka (Japan), Shanghai and his Cuban Interiors is particularly worth viewing. 

Photo © Leonid Plotkin | All Rights Reserved
Leonid Plotkin:

Closing the list is a long time favorite photographer; Leonid Plotkin whose Men of Heart work was featured on my blog on March 5

Men of Heart is about the Bauls who are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal (Indian State and Bangladesh). The Bauls are members of a syncretic religious sect, and a follow a distinct musical tradition. A very heterogeneous group, with many sects, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims.

Leonid Plotikin is a freelance documentary photographer and writer. His work has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The Economist, Penthouse Magazine, Student Traveler, Budget Travel, Discovery Magazine, and others.

The 5 Top Posts On The Travel Photographer In 2017

It's the time of year. Time flies. The most viewed posts of 2017 on The Travel Photographer blog are:

1. POV : Can The X-Pro2 Do The Job Of The GFX 50S? of January 8 in which I share my ambivalence about acquiring this -at the time- new camera, while owning the X-Pro2 and a bevy of lenses...and questioning whether the return on investing in a GFX 50S would be worth it. Would the quality of the GFX 50S surpass that of the X-Pro2 by such a factor that it justifies its $8000 expenditure? It seems many of my blog's followers and other readers were interested in the same question, and that boosted this post to very top of the popularity totem pole....and by a substantial margin.

As readers of this blog know, I did get the Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm lens a few months later, and haven't regretted it in the least. Quite to the contrary, I have fallen for it (as I have for the X-Pro2 before it) especially doing the "fashion-lifestyle-travel" type of photograph that I'm interested in.

2. The Legend of The Purple Hairpin | X-Pro2 of July 26 was the surprising second most viewed post. I call it surprising because I never expected Chinese opera would have much traction among readers of this blog. However, I am guessing that the post went sort of "viral" among the NYC Cantonese community involved in these shows.

The post links to a gallery of images I made at the Chinese Community Center's theater on Mott Street (NYC) of a famous Cantonese opera about a love story that occurs during the Tang Dynasty. To photograph the performance, I used my Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fujinon XF 18-135 F3.5-5.6 OIS WR (the equivalent of a 28-200mm) that gave me the reach I needed.

3. Mercer Street With the X-Pro2 of February 4 was the third most viewed, and the reason why is a little unclear. However, in the post I write of my style of street photography, roaming the cobblestoned streets of SoHo in NYC with my Fuji X-Pro2 and its 18mm f2.0 dangling from my neck and shooting from the hip... so perhaps that is what attracted the eyeballs. It could've also been linked to by one or more of the Fuji aggregators that have a fervent readership base.

4. An Afternoon With The Chinese Opera of May 22 comes in fourth place on the popularity totem pole. This again is very surprising for the reason I mention earlier. 

The post describes my difficulties in getting access to the back stage of the auditorium/theater in NYC's Mott Street. It was my first time there, and had no contacts to help me had to photograph the perfromers from my seat. The X-Pro2 fitted with the 18-135mm Fujinon lens was just perfect to capture the action, and I had no need to stand or move to another location within the room. 

Ania Błażejewska | Balinese Idyll of January 12 rounds up the list as the fifth most popular post....and deservedly makes it on this list. 

As I wrote on the post, Ania Błażejewska's Balinese Idyll is of scenes with models to represent life on the island as it was many years ago, before becoming a tourist destination. Her photographs are tasteful and luminescent, and the models chosen for this particular photo shoot are just gorgeous.

I must reiterate my surprise that four of the five most popular posts are of my work. It has been the norm in recent years that the most popular were of other photographers...and deservedly so, as I feature many excellent galleries to The Travel Photographer blog. 

Perhaps a let's wait for next year's most popular!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Patrick Aventurier | The Ma Song

Photo © Patrick Aventurier | All Rights Reserved
Having attended the Nine Emperor Gods festival's celebrations in Kuala Lumpur last month, I was interested to discover a gallery of 50 portraits of The Ma Song by French photographer Patrick Aventurier (which were in all probability taken during the festival in Phuket, and known there as the Vegetarian festival. 

My own experience at the Nine Emperor Gods festival in Ampang was very much milder than what these portraits depict....but let's start with what the festival is all about. 

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and celebrates this 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, as well as spiritual cleansing. Its sacred rituals grant good fortune on those who observe this rite.

In accordance with the traditions, many religious devotees will perform ritualized mutilation upon themselves and one another (always consensual). 

The Ma Song are the people (usually men) who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become Ma Song. At the temples, they must first undergo a series of rituals to protect them for the duration of the festival, during which flagellation and self-mutilation is practiced. This ritualistic tradition doesn't exist in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.

Notwithstanding, it's said that the Ma Song follow a Chinese logic of fair trade: they volunteer their bodies to be used by the gods in exchange for being kept alive through the gods’ use of their bodies in the future.

Patrick Aventurier is a French photographer/photojournalist with Gamma. He covered conflicts in Lebanon, Israel, Cambodia, Myanmar, North Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. He is the recipient of a number of awards and recognitions ranging from World Press 1988, a UNESCO award, War Correspondents Prize in Bayeux, and many others.

Note: I seldom -if ever- post commentary from readers, however I make an exception for photographer Cheryl Hoffman, a friend, a long time resident of Kuala Lumpur and an expert in the local cultures of Malaysia, including Taoist rituals and their significance.

Edited for space reason, here's what Cheryl wrote on my Facebook page about The Ma Song blog post:

"The sensationalism of the Vegetarian Festival has removed it almost entirely from the intent of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The festival is intended to bring the forces of yin and yang into balance in order to provide for the health of the people. Yes, within Taoism there is a purpose for spirit mediums to show the power of their connection to the gods and sometimes that involves some kind of self-mutilation (or something that looks like self-mutilation but isn't). The antics played out by the Thai spirit mediums are unnecessary to achieve that. It's a circus really. And I don't know why the connection to Thaipusam keeps coming up. I think that increasing extremism amongst Chinese spirit mediums is based in Thailand and trickling into Malaysia. What's happening in Thailand is off the charts compared to the Hindu/Thaipusam version. Piercings for the puja of Thaipusam are undertaken as vows of silence mostly, even in their extremes. There has been increasing sensationalism around Thaipusam at Batu Caves and other places in the past decade. 

(Although) Patrick's portraits are good and they make me sad to think about the young people who are under pressure to do this kind of thing to make an impression and a living."

Friday, 1 December 2017

My Best Images Of 2017...And Why | X-Pro 2 & GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/12mm Zeiss/f2.8
With the end of year closing in, I thought I'd post 10 photographs that I made during 2017 which I deem to be the "best" (always a subjective thing) for a variety of reasons. 

By "best", I mean that these images combine the visual (composition et al), the ambiance and its connection to me as photographer.

The first (not in any particular order) is one of many I took of "Wang"; an aging Hokkien opera performer in Ampang (Kuala Lumpur) during the Nine Emperor Gods festival in October. In fact, I have a complete blog post on Wang, and how I formed a bond of sorts when I dropped on a couple of nights by the stage where he and his troupe would perform. For me, "Wang" epitomizes the gradual decline in popularity of the Chinese Opera. 

In this particular photograph, "Wang" wears heavy-handed make up on his face, with painted eyebrows. I can't decide whether his facial expression is sad, tired or is he being slightly sardonic. His face was very expressive, and I saw him use it during the shows. I deliberately used a wide angle (Zeiss Touit 12mm) to include the messy background, the drying clothes and the open trunk to show the "out-of-a-suitcase" lives of these itinerant opera troupes.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/Fujinon 16-55mm/f3.2

Another favorite image is of four men in the small town of Qi Bao. It was taken in an ancient tea house where storytellers accompanied by Chinese pipas, perform their art.  Qi Bao, a water town 18 kilometers from downtown Shanghai, was built in the Five Dynasties Period (907-979 AD), and it's in such tea houses that one can enjoy a traditional Suzhou pingtan performance of storytelling to music.

Shanghai in September was hot and sultry, and I thought these men were either retired or unemployed. They were totally unconcerned with the storytelling show a few yards away, and were doing their own thing. I thought it was a timeless image, despite the two men fiddling with their mobile phones...with the crooked handwritten posters on the walls, the rickety furniture, the tea cups and the ancient music, I recall feeling as if I had gone back in least 40-50 years.

For more of my Shanghai street photography, see Incongruities in Monochrome gallery.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/Fujinon 18mm/f2.0
This photograph was made in Kyoto, and was shot from the is my usual way of  shooting when I'm in my street photography mode. I didn't want to disturb the scene so I was very quick. Compositionally, it could have been much improved had I been able to move two steps to the left, but I had no time as I wanted to capture the gestures of the little girl imitating the posture of the kimono-clad woman (who was being photographed by a friend with an iPhone).

Examining it later, I was about the chuck it out from my file of "possibles", but I liked the kimono's (and the bag's) design which contrasts with the plain gray/brown of the wall-fence...and the the striped t-shirts of the two little girls.

Many women of various nationalities (but mostly from East Asian countries) rent kimonos in Kyoto...and are appreciative when photographs are taken of them. The city officials developed programs to retain the traditional industries and artistry in making such garments, and to encourage people to wear them more often, so temples, museums, and restaurants in Kyoto offer discounts to women wearing kimonos. 

For more of my Kyoto's kimonos gallery, see The Kimonos of Kyoto.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/Fujinon 16-55mm/f2.8

Whilst in Kuala Lumpur in 2016 participating in the annual Travel Photographer Society event, I was introduced to The Old China Cafe; an old café-restaurant that serves a combination of Straits Chinese and Malay dishes, and whose untouched pre-war ambiance and large traditional feng shui mirrors gave me the idea of constructing a fantasy story about a beautiful Chinese woman dressed in a clinging red qi pao or cheongsam appearing to an habitual customer and opium-addled Western photographer.

Fast forward to early May 2017, and I found myself once again at the Old China Cafe with Tracy Yee and Stanley Hong shooting for The Red Qi Pao, my fashion-themed story.

I had briefed Tracy as to the general idea of my imaginary story which was supposedly based in 1930 Shanghai, and she enthusiastically performed the role of the love-stricken Mei Li who was being ill-treated by her foreign lover. 

The atmosphere of the Old China Cafe lent itself perfectly to the theme, and while photographing, I had flash-backs of the wonderful movie In The Mood For Love by Wong Kar-wai, starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. For me, the photograph that best exemplifies the movie is the this one...of a pensive Mei-Li leaning against an old Chinese screen. I deliberately shot this frame so it would appear give it the mood I wanted to recreate in that particular sequence.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/Fujinon 16-55mm/f2.8
In Tokyo...the metropolis of more than 9 million people has the reputation of having many lonely people. It is reported that instead of actually forging relationships, or continuing those they have already, Japanese people are hiring actors to play the roles of loved ones. Many young men have no courtship skills, and are unable to forge lasting relationships with young women as in the West.

At dusk near Shibuya station, this young woman waiting for someone...perhaps her boyfriend, her husband or other girlfriends, struck me as being forlorn and sad. She's clutching her mobile phone, perhaps expecting a call or message with a pensive expression. I saw her as vulnerable, cocooned in a outsized woolen sweater but wearing an unseasonable short dress. 

Deep in her thoughts, she did not notice me...and every time I view this image, I wonder if her friend(s) showed up, or did she go home after a long wait....disappointed at her wasted evening.

For more of my Tokyo street photographs, see Tokyo Noir.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/Fujinon 18-135mm/f6.4
Since earlier this year, I've immersed myself in a new project involving Chinese Opera. While this project is continuously evolving and may now focus on this ancient performance art amongst the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia, I started it in New York City's Chinatown. This still-authentic area of lower Manhattan is home to Cantonese and Fujianese/Hokkien immigrants, and weekly shows are periodically performed.

This is one of my favorite photographs of a "mou sang" (hero) in a 
Cantonese opera held at the Chinese Community Center's theater on NYC's Mott Street. The performer is "Andrew" who is part owner of the Mandarin Court Restaurant just opposite the Center. His role is that of the mou sang (actor who can play both civil and martial roles)..and he was extremely adept in portraying the play's hero. I particularly liked his expression confronting his nemesis...and that his (inadvertent) reverse V-gesture is a vulgar one in Britain adds to his combativeness.

As I was standing about 20 feet from the stage, I used the X-Pro2 and the 18-135mm OIS lens to give me the range I needed.

For more of my photographs of Cantonese Opera, see this audio-slideshow.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
Taking the opportunity of being in Shanghai, I was able to photograph a sequel to my Red Qi Pao audio slideshow in that city itself. I was fortunate to be introduced Ms Yiyi; a professional model and a budding photographer herself, featured her as a red qi pao-clad girl of Nanjing Road; a famous road in the city. Her story "occurs" in the 1930's and involves the foreigner only known as "gweilo".

Along with Eric, a photographer friend, we went to Guilin Park for the 3 hours photo shoot. The park's tea house provided an perfectly suitable backdrop for the photographs. I used my GFX50s along with its 63mm lens, as well as the X-Pro2 and a 16-55mm lens. 

Ms Yiyi was very quick to understand what I sought, and had all the accessories needed to play the part; the opium pipe, the fake fur stole, the yellow fan and the high heels. While Eric was there to interpret whenever needed, I found it extremely easy to direct her as she intuitively knew what to do.

It was one of the most pleasant photo shoots I've had ever done. The tea house was empty at this time of day...perhaps because it was drizzling for most of the time, the park was not at all crowded, and the light was gorgeous. I shoot in ambient light, and I eschew strobes and reflectors. 

Unfortunately Ms Yiyi wasn't able to view the resultant The Girl of Nanjing Road audio-slideshow as Vimeo and YouTube are banned (or censored) in China, but I did manage to send an abbreviated version of it via WeChat.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/12mm Zeiss/f2.8
This is another monochrome "street" photograph made in a small eatery in Nakano, Japan. The elderly man was totally oblivious of my presence at the door of the eatery, and seemed to be lost in a world of his own. Similar to the Shibuya young woman in the previous photograph, he seemed to be lonely and vulnerable, and I felt sorry for him.

Naturally, these feelings are aroused in a matter of seconds, and he may have been quite the opposite...waiting for his wife and family to join him....but feeling sorry for him was my instinctive reaction. 

One cannot help but noticing in Japan that it has a rapidly aging society, where nearly one in four people is over 65, which means that more elderly are living alone every year. I recall returning home and looking at this image more closely...and thinking he must've been a widower or a bachelor, because there was no glint of joy, of expectation in his eyes.

I read somewhere this quote by a Japanese social researcher: 

“An enormous flaw in Japanese society is that we don’t look each other in the eye when we’re walking in the streets. We need to re-think the Japanese fear of interacting with others.

For more of my Tokyo street photographs, see Tokyo Noir.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/Fujinon 18-135mm/f6.4
Another of my favorite frames of Chinese opera was in Shanghai. Qinqiang is a regional type of this performance art, and the show was at the Yi Fu Theater on Fuzhou Road. The opera's tale was about two women; both brides but with different fates. The opera's title is The Qilin Purse (a red purse bearing the symbol or image of the mythical Chinese 'unicorn', meant to bring luck and good fortune to brides at their weddings).

Quite different from Cantonese or Hokkien operas, Qinqiang is much more sophisticated. It originated in the Yellow River Valley of Shaanxi province in northwest China, and boasts the most ancient, affluent and largest musical system of all Chinese operas, and is reputed to be the forefather of Chinese operas. It's also listed as a national Intangible World Heritage since 2006.

The cast seemed to be very well known to the enthusiastic audience, and while I expected to be asked not to photograph the show, it was quite the contrary with a couple of other photographers setting up tripods in the aisles. I didn't need to as I used the 18-135mm OIS on my X-Pro2 which was perfect for the task.

Due to the lighting and my settings (1/90 sec, f5.6, 75mm, iso 1000 and spot metering), I was able to capture the performers against a dark background rendering it almost black, and seemingly floating on a mirror.

At the end of the performance, there was an encore...and many of the audience went to the front of the stage to take pictures with their mobile phones...I was looking for an opening amongst the crowd, and a man shoved others to make way for me. He brushed my objections to the side, saying because I was a foreigner I had priority!

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
X-Pro2/Fujinon 16-55mm/f2.8
The tenth photograph (remember...they're not ranked by preference) is of a Hokkien opera performer applying his make-up before appearing on a stage in Sungai Way (Petaling Jaya). In contrast to the cluster of Malaysian photographers who were back stage that evening, I am not too fond of photographing the performers' reflections in mirrors. It's been done too many times, and have become trite....losing their impact because of overuse.

However, I made an exception for this one because I noticed the two reflections in the close-up mirror and the larger one....and because of the angle of view, I also noticed that the position of the performer's right hand with the brush (or applicator) looks different in the two mirrors. Perhaps an optical illusion?

If it wasn't for religious festivals, Chinese opera could well be virtually extinct in Malaysia. Before and during Chinese religious festivals such as the Hungry Ghosts festival and the Nine Emperor Gods festival, Chinese opera troupes live in the back areas of the stages that are specially erected, and perform nightly or even twice daily.

For this frame, I used the 16-55mm at a 24mm setting, iso 640 and center-weighted average.

For more of my Hokkien opera photographs, see Back Stage.