Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Victoria Knobloch | Charm of China

Photo © Victoria Knobloch | All Rights Reserved
I can make no apologies for the recent spate of China or Chinese related posts. As this blog's readers know, I'm currently neck-deep in a new long term project revolving around the traditional Chinese opera (and its various styles) amongst the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia and elsewhere.

So here's the work of Victoria Knobloch which she has titled China Charm. Many of her monochromatic images are of simple portraits, with some more complex environmental portraits (including the cormorant fishermen of the Li River), along with some landscapes. 

Aside from her portraits, I was mostly attracted to her work depicting men in traditional Chinese interiors (presumably rural tea houses) and walking cobblestoned old villages.

She has also a number of other galleries worth stopping by; those of Tibet, Tibetans in exile and Kham stand out and reaffirm Ms. Knobloch's fascination in Tibetan Buddhism. 

Victoria Knobloch is a German photographer who concentrates on black and white portraits and documentary work. Aside from her particular interest in Tibet, she's interested in vanishing cultures, ancient traditions and contemporary culture. 
Her work include photographs of Iceland, Uganda, of the Kumbh Mela in India and its sadhus, as well as the ancient city of Fez in Morocco. She has has her work exhibited international in many venues and countries, and is widely published. Her biography also tells us that she's also a classical singer.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Hokkien Opera Actor | The GFX50s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved (GFX50s)
At the end of every trip, whether I had been giving a workshop or working on a project, there's one (or perhaps two) frame(s) that I specifically fall in love with. This never fails to happen. I believe it's about developing an instant emotional bond for the subject(s) in such frames.

As I often tell those who attend my workshops...the photographer has to fall in a semblance of "love" with his or her models. Whether posed or candid photo shoots, successful imagery depends on the mutual bonds that develops between these parties. 

I was in Kuala Lumpur last month during the Nine Emperor Gods festival; an important Taoist religious festival which begins on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. 

While the festival itself with its unusual rituals and religious processions is a veritable feast for the eyes, for the senses and naturally for photography, I was there to photograph the performances and back stage activities of Chinese Opera (Cantonese, Hokkien, Amoy, etc) troupes that put on nightly shows near the temples to entertain the gods (as well as human audiences)*.  

Ampang Stage. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved (GFX50s)
Adjacent to the Tokong Kau Ong Yah temple, the festival's hub in Ampang, was an elevated stage where an Amoy or Hokkien opera troupe held its nightly shows... not much better than a rickety edifice, it must've seen better days when Chinese opera was much more popular than it currently is. 

It's at the back of this stage that I met "Wang"....at least, that's what I think his name is. It was difficult to decipher what he told me between the mouthfuls of rice he was having for a late lunch.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved (GFX50s)

After attending this troupe's rehearsals and night shows, I concluded that "Wang" was a minor player whose duties ranged from raising the curtains, drawing the threadbare backgrounds, and standing as a sidekick to the main actors.

Irrespective of his status on the troupe's totem pole, "Wang" seemed to be the "go-to" person to the remaining 5-6 actors. Having a wicked sense of humor seemed to give him the last word on every bantering discussion going on amongst the troupe...perhaps it was also due to his being older, but I would like to think that he was just a character.

Whenever I walked back stage and photographed him, he would pretend not to notice my presence, speaking in Hokkien to a stagehand or a fellow actor...but he always had a sly twinkle in his eyes which meant he appreciated the attention. 

I always showed him his images on my camera's screen...he would glance at them, shrug and turn his attention elsewhere...as if these were irrelevant. However, on one occasion he looked at me, grinned (as in the above frame) and rubbed his thumb and index finger in the universal gesture signifying he expected me to pay him..

When I reciprocated the gesture to ask him to pay me, Wang went into a paroxysm of laughter. He had "gotten" it. I extended my hand...he extended his..and we shook hands; separated by language but united by humor.

It was at that moment a bond of sorts was formed...and it was the moment when I knew that the portraits I did of him would be my favorite from this trip.

Around one-thirds of the images I made during the Chinese opera performances and in their back stages were made using the Fujifilm GFX 50s mirrorless 'medium format' camera and a 63mm f2.8mm lens. I cannot laud this camera enough in terms of image quality, versatility and ergonomics. Its format forces me to take more time to compose the images, and it's the perfect supplementary tool for my X-Pro2 which I've used to make the remaining two-thirds of my images.

*These photographs will be part of my longer project involving the dying art of Chinese Opera amongst the Chinese diaspora in South-East Asia, which I hope will be published as a photo book.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Istanbul & Beyond | Robyn Eckhardt & David Hagerman

I was raised in a household in which French was the predominant language, and the cuisine was primarily Mediterranean...not surprising as Egypt's culinary roots were (and still are) influenced by Turkey...and to some degree, Greece, Italy and France. Ottoman Turkey and its antecedents ruled Egypt from 1517 to 1914, following the defeat of the Mamlukes, and its culinary influence is still pervasive to this day.

This, perhaps a convoluted way, explains the fact that I consider it as my "comfort" food; one with which my taste buds are very familial with, and one that reminds me of growing up in a household where Osta Hassan, the loyal family cook, would prepare for us aromatic kebabs, dolma, and imam bayaldi (the famous Turkish aubergines).

So it was with considerable pleasure that I received Istanbul & Beyond, a Turkish cookbook by Robyn Eckhardt & David Hagerman.

I haven't had the chance of meeting the two-time Saveur award winner Robyn Eckhardt, but I know David Hagerman, the travel photographer, from Foundry Photojournalism Workshops held in Manali (India) and Istanbul. 

Istanbul & Beyond is certainly a very well researched and crafted cook-photo book which introduces (or reminds) us of mouth-watering regional cuisines as well as life in the villages, cities, farms, and high pastures of the lesser-known provinces throughout Turkey. I read in one of the many kudos for this book that these recipes were gleaned over the past twenty years, as a result of traveling more than 13,000 miles along the backroads of Turkey. It certainly is best described as both a cook book and a travel photography book...so it has a place not only in the kitchen shelves but also on the coffee table.

Robyn and David are currently on a coast to coast book tour and appearances in late 2017 and early 2018, and the events program can be found here

Istanbul & Beyond was deservedly named as one of the best 34 cookbooks for the fall 2017 season by Epicurious.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Chen Haiwen | China's 56 Ethnic Groups

Photo © Chen Haiwen-All Rights Reserved

Whilst in Shanghai, I was very pleased to meet with Mr Chen Haiwen; a master photographer, the founder of Shanghai Museum of Antique Cameras, the recipient of the highest photography award in China twice in a row and Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Photography Association. He and his family were a model of gracious hospitality and assistance.

Between the summers of 2008 and 2009, he and his support teams visited 28 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, 554 cities and counties of China (and Taiwan), to produce The Family Photos of China's 56 Ethnic Groups.

Mr Chen and his team took 57,228 family photos of 1,125 cultural heritage  ethnic group representatives. These are analog images that provide a complete ethnographic record of China's 56 ethnic groups.

Using a VIP invitation to the Shanghai PhotoFairs, I posed in front of one of Mr Chen's large format images.

At Shanghai PhotoFairs
Aside from his masterly work with China's ethnic groups, take a look at his monochrome photographs which are in a separate gallery titled Zǎoqí Zuòpǐn (Early Works) which presents various images from (presumably) Shanghai and other towns....street and interiors. 

Photo © Chen Haiwen-All Rights Reserved

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Girl of Nanjing Road

I'm not exactly sure where my interest in Shanghai erupted, but I do know that my chinoiserie "phase" has been bubbling for quite a while. Although it was influenced by my travels over the past two years to Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur, it was triggered by a couple of visits to the Malaysian capital's Old China Cafe; an atmospheric eatery in its Chinatown's vicinity.

It was at this 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 opium-addled Western photographer.

Another another influence is In the Mood for Love, the 2000 Hong Kong film directed by Wong Kar-wai, starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. It's moody theme is especially inspiring. 

Fast forward to earlier this year when the opportunity presented itself to photograph a sequel to my earlier The Red Qi Pao audio slideshow in Shanghai itself...where I chose a storyline that features Yiyi as the red qi pao-clad girl of Nanjing Road; a famous road in the city. Her story "occurs" in the 1930's and involves a foreigner only known as "gweilo".

During the 1920s into early 1930s, Shanghai was where the best art, the greatest architecture, and the strongest business was in Asia. It rivaled many cosmopolitan European cities, earned the sobriquet of "The Paris of the East" and became known as a place of vice and indulgence.With its dance halls, brothels, glitzy restaurants, international clubs, Shanghai was a city that catered to every whim of the rich. 

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
This is a marked departure from my so-called specialization of "travel photography meets photojournalism" and of documenting (mostly South Asian and South East Asian) religious festivals, obscure rituals and cultural events. I dubbed this as "fashion-themed story telling", and with the current strong interest amongst Asian photographers in fashion/models photo shoots, I am considering whether to include it as one of my forthcoming workshops.

For The Girl Of Nanjing Road, I was fortunate to work with Yiyi, a professional model and an aspiring photographer who -despite our language barriers- understood almost instinctively what I expected of her during our 3 hours session.

© Zhou Ding. With Ms Yiyi in Guilin Park, Shanghai.
For most of the images that are used in The Girl of Nanjing Road, I used the fabulous Fuji GFX50s and its 63mm, along with the equally impressive Fuji X-Pro2 and its 16-55mm lens. 

I edited the audio tracks using Audacity, merging Yiy's narrations with Good Night Serenade by Chinese singer Zhou Xuan; China's 'Golden Voice' and one of the most popular and important actress/singers of the 1930s and 40s. The still images and audio tracks were converted to an mp4 using iMovie. 

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Robert van der Hilst | Chinese Interiors

Photo © Robert van der Hilst | All Rights Reserved

While in Shanghai some weeks ago, I had the good fortune of meeting Mr Chen Haiwen (whose work will be featured here in a forthcoming post) for the very first time at his impressive offices in the Xuhui District.

I was happy receiving Robert van der Hilst's 'Chinese Interiors' coffee-table photo book as a gift from Mr. Chen, who told me he and others had helped  the author/photographer during his travels which resulted in this very handsome tome.

Robert van der Hilst is certainly a world traveler. He studied photography in Amsterdam and started traveling in his late teens. These travels took him to France, North and South America, and China. During the past 20 odd years, he focused much of his efforts on China, and he produced many personal work as well as taking on assignments for well-known international magazines.

In 2004 until 2008, he started his seminal personal work titled Chinese Interiors. He tells us that he was always enjoyed photographing people inside their homes, because he was greatly influenced and inspired by Dutch mid-17th century genre painting. In 2010, the Shanghai Culture Publishing House published the book, followed by the French publishing house Gallimard. This same year, he exhibited his photographs in Amsterdam, Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, Berlin, Munich, Barcelona, and Brescia.

Robert van der Hilst is certainly an inspiring photographer, and his website's galleries which feature his work from Mexico, Fukuoka (Japan), Shanghai and particularly Cuban Interiors are worth setting aside time to savor. I wasn't too keen on his Qatar work...perhaps that country didn't 'speak' to him as the others did.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Cheryl Hoffman | The Flow And The Fire

As readers of this blog know, I've spent roughly two weeks in Kuala Lumpur to photograph the Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival with particular interest in its concomitant Chinese Opera performances. The latter are presented primarily to entertain the gods and spirits, and secondarily for humans. 

I was privileged to be introduced to, and then guided through, the ritual labyrinths of the nine days long festival by Cheryl Hoffman who is not only a long time resident of Kuala Lumpur and a formidable photographer, but is also an "éminence grise" in all matters related to the religious and cultural DNA of Malaysia. 

Although Cheryl's website provides fascinating galleries of her photographs made during various festivals (including an "almost" official guide to the Nine Emperor Gods festival), I thought I'd feature her most recent audio slideshow The Flow And The Fire which she describes as "...on the eve of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, space is transformed by the merging energies of yin and yang and the power of ritual belief."

I can sense my readers asking for a short summary of this festival, so here it is. The Nine Emperor Gods festival is a 9 day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It's believed that the festival helps balance the cosmic forces every year, and rejuvenate human life.

The Nine Emperor Gods are in the nine stars that make up the constellation known as the Big Dipper. The Emperors are believed to control the movements of the planets and coordinate the life and death of human beings. It is also believed that worshipping at the festival will prolong life and provide absolution from sins and unpaid debts.

In a nutshell, there are three main events during the festival; the welcoming ritual which includes a street procession, traditional music and spirit mediums with swords followed by ceremonial sedan chairs. Next there's the trance rituals which are performed in the streets near the temple (in Ampang) to purify the environment...and this is followed on the last day of the festival by the sending off ceremony which sees the Emperor Gods dispatched in a small boat.

By the way, I was struck by the similarity between the Taoist Dǒumǔ (Mother of the Dipper) and the Vietnamese Đạo Mẫu (mother goddess) whose cult I documented in my recent photo book.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Yan Yang Tian Opera Troupe | Kuala Lumpur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 October 2017

Qinqiang Opera | Shanghai

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Shanghai | Incongruities In Monochrome

Shànghǎi by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

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

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

These are some of them. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Cantonese Opera | Audio Slideshow

Cantonese Opera by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Noah Shahar | Chinese Opera

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Cantonese Opera With The GFX50S & X-Pro2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Legend of the Purple Hairpin | Fuji X-Pro2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 21 July 2017

Daoquing Opera | Li Jianzeng

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

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

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

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

* I could not find a website for Jianzeng.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Mosuo (or Dabu) | Karolin Klüppel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Beneath The Makeup | Abel Blanco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Ca Trù Musician | Fuji X-T1

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

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

Ca Trù (pronounced “ka tchoo”) is a complex form of sung poetry found in the north of Viet Nam using lyrics written in traditional Vietnamese poetic forms. It flourished in the 15th century when it was popular with the royal palace, and was a favorite activity of aristocrats and scholars. It was later performed in communal houses, inns and private homes. 

Ca Trù performances involve at least three people: a female singer (đào nương) who both sings and plays the clappers (known as the phách), an instrumentalist (kép) who plays the đàn đáy (three-stringed lute), and a “praise drummer“ known as quan viên who beats the trống chầu. When spectators (usually male) entered a Ca Trù performance, they purchased bamboo tally cards. In Chinese, Trù means card, while Ca means song in Vietnamese, and thus Ca Trù means tally card songs. The tallies were given to the singers in appreciation for their performance. After the performance, each singer received payment in proportion to the number of cards received.

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

Monday, 26 June 2017

Nagi Yoshida | Ethiopia

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Thrones of Semana Santa | Brandon Li

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 June 2017

Hotel Photography : Using Staff As Models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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