Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Hầu Bóng | The Cult of The Immoral

I found this fascinating short movie on my Facebook timeline. The many readers of my blog know of the recent publication of my book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam (on Amazon), and this short movie which was filmed in 1934 not only fits perfectly fits in the book's narrative, but also provides me with an incomparable view of the past, and how the ceremonies I documented were conducted over 80 years ago.

If the movie doesn't play, click here to watch it on YouTube.

Let me start by the title of the movie: in French it reads the cult of the immoral. French colonialism in Vietnam lasted more than six decades, and by the late 1880s it controlled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which it referred to as Indochine Francais. It became one of France’s most lucrative colonial possessions.

The French justified their imperialism as being a ‘civilising mission’, a pledge to develop backward nations. Consequently, most indigenous traditions were considered as barbaric, especially those that related to religion.

In my book, I highlight the role of Père Léopold Michel Cadière (1869–1955), a French missionary who wrote 250 research works about Vietnamese history, religions, customs, linguistics and who described Đạo Mẫu (the worship of mother goddesses in Vietnam) as being a cult, ignoring its ancient history and indigenous character throughout Vietnam. The French, through brutal force, intimidation and jail sentences, tried to eradicate the religion but this only reinforced its practice, but pushed it underground.

I've attended a large number of hầu đồng ceremonies during my research, and have not encountered female singers in the chầu văn that perform during the ceremonies. I was told that only males could be chầu văn singers, however in the movie it is most certainly a woman's voice that is heard accompanying the medium during her performances.

By the way, hầu đồng, Hầu Bóng or Lên đồng are interchangeable names for the ritual of spirit mediumship practiced in the Vietnamese indigenous religion, Đạo Mẫu.

The socialist government frowned on the practice but relented a few years ago as it was viewed as extolling the traditional values of the Vietnamese, their virtues, history and culture. It is now being considered by UNESCO for inclusion in its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.

However, many Vietnamese I met in New York City and elsewhere in the United States still consider it as a prohibited activity, or as superstition. A few have never heard of it.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Chu Việt Hà | Hà Nội Street Life

Photo © Chu Việt Hà -All Rights Reserved
It's been a while since I've posted the work by a Vietnamese photographer, especially one that specializes in street photography, which is one of my very favorite activities when I travel to Hà Nội; that is when I can drag myself from photographing Hầu Đồng ceremonies.

I've been following the work of Chu Việt Hà on Facebook link is for his Flickr page) for a while, and he has always impressed me with his keen eye. I know some of the locales in Hà Nội's Old Quarter where he photographs, and perhaps that adds to my enjoyment of his technique and his timing. Many of his photographs are made around Hoan Kiem Lake (as the one above), while others document the shopkeepers and the teeming life near Dong Xuan market.

According to a recent interview, Chu Việt Hà considers Robert Capa as one of his ideal role models, as well as Henri Cartier Bresson for his "decisive moment"...however I see much of Alex Webb's influence in his work. There's also humor in his work in the way he juxtaposes certain elements in the scenes that end up being incongruous.

A Fuji camera user, he currently works at a construction company in Hà Nội, and has been involved in street photography for approximately two years.

Photo © Chu Việt Hà -All Rights Reserved

Friday, 12 August 2016

Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam

For My Personal Blurb Bookstore, Click on Above Image

I am pleased to announce the official publication of Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam; a 170-pages photo book. I've been working on this book over the past two years, during which I traveled to Hà Nội no less than six times to attend and photograph various ceremonies, conduct interviews and research the tradition and its impact on Vietnamese society. I am the only non-Vietnamese photographer to have photographed Hầu Đồng ceremonies in such depth.

Hầu Đồng is one of the main rituals of Đạo Mẫu, the worship of mother goddesses in Vietnam. During these rituals, the mediums go into trances to allow their bodies receive the spirits of various deities. The journey of the spirits into the bodies of the mediums is an incarnation, and the process involves the spirits briefly hovering then moving into the mediums. The mediums change their costumes to indicate which deity has entered their body

Vietnam submitted The Mother Goddesses worship to the UNESCO for consideration as ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’, and expects this status to be approved by November 2016.

I have already produced one-of-a-kind limited number of special advance copies of Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam, and these were all sold out in a matter of two weeks. These special editions were hardcover large format landscape (13×11 in, 33×28 cm 170 pages), and were individually dedicated/signed, along with a surprise gift for those who bought it.

Those currently offered for sale through my Blurb Bookstore are in two formats: the standard landscape hardcover or softcover (both 10×8 in, 25×20 cm 170 pages).

For a glimpse of the book and some of its pages, drop by A Labor of Love. And for a quick view of the many testimonials received from people who bought the special advance copies, take a look at the following video. It also features one of the more famous music pieces performed during the ceremonies.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

POV : Say No To Cheap "Parachute" Photographers

A recent article (or a post) in the Hanoi Grapevine caught my attention, and aroused my ire.

It appears that an American photographer is seeking volunteers in Hanoi to assist her in producing a another of her photographic projects that involves making photographs of people living in their apartments or living quarters through their windows.

I am told the project does not involve surreptitious photography, but all is staged and arranged for beforehand, and although I fail to appreciate the aesthetics (if any) of such a project, others might find it interesting.

However this is not the issue.

According to the article, the  issue is that this photographer -presumably reasonably well-off- is soliciting the help of about 20 or so young Vietnamese photographers to scout Hanoi's neighborhoods (while she is still in the USA), take pictures of buildings and residents that may fit her requirements, obtain the approval of the residents to be photographed, and show her these prints on her arrival.

She would then pick and choose those that suited her best...and have the Vietnamese volunteers accompany her to these building, interpret for her, stage the various settings, and she would then click the shutter on her cameras, and that would be it.

So in essence...the way I read it is this: the fruit is peeled, sliced and ready to eat. But those who did all the work don't get a bite.

And what do the Vietnamese volunteers get in exchange? A decent day rate? A seminar on how to take their photography to the next level? Tips on how to improve their photography? A review and an edit of their portfolios?

No. According to the article/post, the photographer will provide meals (probably a cheap bowl of pho at some street corner) and a tankful of gas for the volunteers' motorcycles while she's in Hanoi.

I'm really sick and tired of reading and hearing stuff like that. This is shameful. There's no two ways about it. The United States has a abject legacy of war with Vietnam, and yet, I have seldom been in a country where they have not been welcomed more warmly, more effusively and with more generosity. And yet, this photographer cannot bring herself to do the right thing and give back something tangible to those she seeks help from.

I have conducted workshops in Vietnam, and employed assistants , fixers and guides...and never have I not paid them. Never.

Had this photographer's project been about the culture of Vietnam, its people... a social issue... something worthwhile... then I would accept and agree that the assistants could benefit from the "volunteerism", and learn and participate in a worthwhile production that projects well into their homeland.

Volunteerism is great when there's a redeeming value to it at the end of the day. But this, in my view, is not that.

This "photographer" should learn how to do research, how to develop friendships and relationships based on mutual respect, she ought to recognize that these young people have expenses and must be compensated fairly (perhaps not in line with United States' pay levels, but certainly with those in Vietnam)...these are not volunteers; they are fixers, who make things possible for this photographer to hang her work in expensive galleries in New York, London and elsewhere.

'Parachuting' for two weeks in a foreign land, and expecting people to help you for free just because you are a foreigner, is insensitive, unfair and wrong.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Udit Kulshrestha | The Nocte People

Photo © Udit Kulshrestha _ All Rights Reserved
The Nocte people, are an ex-headhunting lower hill tribe of the Patkai hills of eastern Arunachal Pradesh. They are ethnically related to the Konyak Nagas, and are originally from the Hukong Valley in Myanmar, from where they migrated during the 1670s-1700s.

They originally followed Theravada Buddhism and animism, but have adopted Hinduism since the 18th century. Many of them converted to Christianity by American missionaries whose objectives were to convert tribes in Myanmar and China. The Nocte society is divided into two groups, the chiefs and the commoners.

Udit Kulshrestha has photographed the Noctes, and his monochromatic gallery is on his website. An interview with him and on his Noctes work is also on The Wire, a web publication in Delhi.

Udit is an Indian photographer whose primary focus is on subjects of culture and social issues. I have particularly admired his excellent work on the Nautch Girls of Sonepur, Sanskaar, Braj Holi, Kumbh Mela and Pushkar Fair.

His work was published by Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Fortune, LA Times, Washington Post and leading Indian publications such as The Caravan, FountainINK, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Sunday Guardian, Motherland etc. His work has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institute. He prefers to delve in the culture and conflict in the unseen geographies of North East India. He is also the author of Darwaze, a limited edition self published pictorial photobook of his early works.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Barbara Colbert | Theyyam

Photo © Barbara Colbert - All Rights Reserved
Theyyam is also known as the “Dance of Gods”, which is unique to the folk culture of Kerala. The dance is an intriguing ritual integral to the worship of the goddess Kali. Originally reserved for the upper caste temple priests hundreds of years ago, it evolved to become a mass celebration for everyone.

The 800-year old celebration has roots in the age-old Dravidian culture of South India, and is a combines dance, drama, music and mime. More than 1200 temples in the Malabar region of Kerala host these religious dances during the first three or four months of each year.

The lower parts of the costumes in Theyyam are made of coconut leaves, while the upper part of the body remains bare and painted, although I have also seen some performers wearing two halves of a coconut shell as a bra. Usually, a paste of rice and turmeric is smeared on the upper bodies of the performers. 

The Theyyam headdresses, made of bamboo, wood, peacock feathers, leaves and flowers, are the heaviest and most elaborate part of the costume. In some cases, the headdresses rise to 50 feet, requiring a lot of training and balance from the performers.

For his book Nine Lives, historian William Dalrymple visited Malabar and asked a Theyyam performer to explain his experience. The oracle answered,
“You become the deity. You lose all fear. Even your voice changes. The god comes alive and takes over. You are just the vehicle, the medium."
Barbara Colbert's Theyyam photo essay describes her experience photographing a Theyyam dance ceremony in Kannur. She arrived at 4:30 in the morning at the courtyard of a small temple where the preparations had been going on all through the night.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Shiho Fukada | The Samurai of Fukushima

Photo © Shiho Fukada - Courtesy Bloomberg
Here's another photo essay on the Sōma-Nomaoi festival by photojournalist Shiho Fukada as featured by Bloomberg Pursuits.

The annual festival involves horse-riding participants don elaborate armor like samurais, who aim to recreate scenes from Japan's Sengoku period (1467–1603) which was marked by social upheaval, political intrigue and near-constant military conflict.

The festival's original purpose was a military exercise designed to sharpen the fighting skills of the samurai. One event in the festival, Shinki Sodatsusen, sees the samurai compete for flags that have been shot into the air. The festival has been designated as an "intangible cultural asset" by the Japanese government.

Shiho Fukada is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, cinematographer, and photojournalist based in Boston and Tokyo. She started her career as a news photographer in New York and has a decade of experience shooting and producing stories nationally and internationally. She currently pursues underreported stories both in video and photography. She has a degree in English literature from Sophia University in Japan and received a diploma in Multimedia Journalism from Ateno de Manila University in the Philippines.

Her work has been featured in numerous publications including The New York Times, Time, Stern, New Yorker, Le Monde, CNN, MSNBC and others.

Incidentally, I've never heard of Bloomberg Pursuits, which describes itself as its hub for lifestyle news and luxury reviews, your guide to the best food, fashion, travel, cars, watches, real estate, gadgets, wine, and cocktails.

And here is a short movie on the Soma Nomaoi festival.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Richard Atrero de Guzman | Sōma-Nomaoi

Photo © Richard Atrero de Guzman (aka Bahag) - All Rights Reserved
One of the great summer festivals of Japan’s northeastern Tōhoku region, Sōma-Nomaoi dates back over a thousand years and is held every year for three days during the month of July. Some 500 armored and helmeted warriors ride on horseback, and  take part in this military recreation.

There are primarily two main attractions during the festival: the Koshiki Kacchu Keiba and the Shinki Sodatsusen. The former event involve 12 samurais in their armor who race over a distance of 1,000 meters. The latter event involves several hundred samurais on horses that compete for the 40 shrine flags known as "goshinki" that are shot into the air with fireworks. 

Richard Atrero de Guzman (also known as Bahag) was recently at the festival and produced a number of photographs viewable on his Photoshelter website.

Bahag (or Bahagski) is a Tokyo based photographer/filmmaker whose photographs have been published in local and international publications. Despite photographing the glossy world of fashion and advertising, he is more inclined to produce socially relevant work in the tradition of documentary photography and photojournalism.

Traveling the globe for the past eight years, he was commissioned by core civic institutions like the United Nations and the Drik Picture Library in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is represented internationally by M4 Collective and Bahaghari World Photography Philippine. He is also a stringer for Anadolu Agency & RT Ruptly TV, a German international news agency.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

World Body Painting Festival

Photo © Heinz-Peter Bader - Courtesy Daily News
I wasn't aware that a World Body Painting Festival even existed, but I should have. It is an annual body painting festival and competition held in Pörtschach, Austria, and attracts artists from 45 nations, and attracts more than 30,000 spectators. The event was held on July1-3, 2016.

It's a competition between artists (I suppose they're called 'body painters') who work on models for the festival's three days with a given theme. The categories are brush & sponge, airbrush and special effects for the World Champion Award.

I've done some digging, and I chose a couple of galleries that feature the wildest body painting examples; the Daily News has a gorgeous gallery with large images, while the UK's Daily Mail has a set of equally interesting images here.

I viewed many more of these galleries and noticed the number of photographers carrying the quasi-obligatory DSLRs with 70-200 lens were cheek-to-jowl surrounding the stage where the painted models strutted and showed off their body canvasses. I would imagine that getting as close as possible to the stage requires sharp elbows and a thick skin...these cluster-fucks must have a lot of shoving and pushing, and are not for the faint-hearted.

Perhaps an event on my bucket list?

Monday, 18 July 2016

Dorie Hagler | Semana Santa

Photo © Dorie Hagler-All Rights Reserved

To continue religious posts which I've added to my blog over the few past weeks, and to provide equal opportunity to the three main world religions, I'd like to feature Dorie Hagler's Semana Santa photo story.

I attended a Semana Santa in La Antigua (Guatemala)in 2002, and it was quite an experience. Although small, it featured rituals indigenous to this Central American nation, which included covering streets of La Antigua with natural, aromatic carpets of flowers, pines, clover and fruits, which the residents made and placed in front of their homes. 

I recall the tremendous fervor expressed by the Guatemalans who participate in the processions and its preparations, creating an extraordinary outpouring of Christian faith and devotion. I found it quite easy to photograph in Antigua during the Semana Santa, as there are ample accommodations, the routes of the processions are planned in advance and no one minds photographers.

The processions in Antigua feature huge platforms, called andas, on which religious statues are mounted. The first platform, holding a figure of Christ with a cross, is carried by 60 to 100 men, called cucuruchos, dressed in purple biblical clothing. This is followed by a platform with the Virgin Mary, borne by women wearing black mourning.

I was also in this delightful small town while teaching at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in 2015 mainly using a Leica M9 and a Voigtlander 40mm f1.4 as I walked the quaint cobblestones streets of La Antigua, not straying too far from its epicenter, Parque Central.

Dorie Hagler is a New York City based photojournalist, storyteller and an advocate. Her photographs appear in distinguished publications such as Tina Brown Live Media, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Elle, The Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, The Albuquerque Journal, Ski Magazine, New Mexico Magazine, and many others. She was commissioned by international non-profits, local non-profits and documentary film-makers and has been awarded a public art commission by The State of New Mexico. Images from her personal documentary projects are collected by The State of New Mexico, museums, state agencies and individuals throughout New Mexico and the United States.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Remera | With The Book

Photo © Remera - All Rights Reserved

I haven't posted photographic work documenting Judaism for quite a while, and thought I'd remedy this unintentional lapse by featuring With The Book, a series of photographs made at the Western Wall in Old Jerusalem by Remera (more about him follows).

The Western Wall, also referred to as the ‘Wailing Wall’ is the most sacred place for Jews who believe it to be the only surviving structure of Herod's temple. For Muslims, it is known as the Buraq Wall, where the Prophet Muhammed tied Buraq, the winged riding animal which he rode during the Night of Ascension to heaven.

The wall has been a site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries; the earliest source mentioning this specific site as a place of worship is from the 16th century. Rabbinic tradition teaches that the western wall was built upon foundations laid by the biblical King Solomon from the time of the First Temple.

The Sages of the Talmud stated that anyone who prayed at the Temple in Jerusalem was as if he had prayed before the throne of glory because the gate of heaven is situated there and it is open to hear prayers.

Remera is a photographer of Rwandan heritage, who trained as an architect in France, and is currently living in Luxembourg. In 2009, he acquired a camera to document a trip to China. This journey has sparked an interest in photography and the desire to show other cultures. This road leads him around the world; Europe, Africa, North America, India, Nepal, Middle East.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Now! | Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam

Available for a limited time! Get an exclusive first run advance copy of Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam

Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam

US$ 235.00
(This exclusive price is for one advance copy. It's on a first come first served basis.
The price includes USPS shipping to an address within the contiguous United States.)

(Image-Wrap hard cover) 170 pages 13 x 11 inches/33 x 28 cms

Printed on Proline Pearl Photo Paper (Semi-Gloss/Best Quality 190 gsm)

Book weight approx 5.6 lbs/3 kgs

A large coffee-table format photo book with over 100 large color photographs and more than 60 pages of text, "Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam" explains the ancient Vietnamese syncretic religion of Đạo Mẫu, its rituals, its pantheon of deities, along with a narrative of my own experiences documenting it in Vietnam since late 2014.

Hầu Đồng is a ritual of Đạo Mẫu, and involves mediums being possessed by deities-spirits. It combines trances, spirit worship, sacred music, spectacular costumes, theater, superstition, nationalism and history. Prohibited by the French colonials and by the Ho Chi Minh regime, it went underground and is now going through a resurgence.

I am the only non-Vietnamese photographer to have photographed Hầu Đồng ceremonies in such depth.

In addition to the large color photographs and scholarly explanatory text, the book also features interviews with 7 prominent Vietnamese mediums-clairvoyants on their life stories, and on their spiritual connection with Đạo Mẫu deities.

These are exclusive first run advance copies, and will individually be signed by me (if so wished)
and may also be personalized with the recipient's name (and any message) on request.

A Labor of Love by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

Monday, 11 July 2016

Diego Huerta | Inside Oaxaca

Photo Diego Huerta-All Rights Reserved
“It is surprising that we have more than 57 native cultures in Mexico and we don’t know at least half of them. The information is nearly nonexistent.”- Diego Huerta
Diego Huerta discovered the depth of his country's dazzling cultural traditions and the myriad of its indigenous communities when traveling to Oaxaca, and attending the Guelaguetza, its biggest annual celebration and parade that features traditional dances and customs from the States’ eight regions.

Photographing this event launched Diego's Inside Oaxaca project in which he photographed carefully thought out portraits individuals of four of the eight regions that exist in Oaxaca. This project also led to a larger photo project called Native Nation, which consists of documenting Mexico’s more than 50 indigenous groups.

I attended a number of Guelaguetza dance performances (not the annual event which is held in the second half of every July), and when performed by experienced dancers, the choreography and costumes are extraordinary. That said, the Guelaguetza annual event is based on a celebration dating to much before the arrival of the Spanish, and remains a defining characteristic of Oaxacan culture.
Its origins and traditions come from pre-Hispanic earth-based religious celebrations related to the worship of corn and the corn god.

Diego Huerta was born and raised in Mexico, and currently resides in Austin, Texas where he bases my photography business.  I found two excellent articles on his craft on the Huffington Post here and here.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Puppeteer of Monipally | Untold

Photo Courtesy of Untold
The portal website of Untold is a veritable trove of photo stories of endangered traditions and art forms of India, and one that piqued my interest is The Lone String Puppeteer of Monipally.

Monipally is a small and peaceful village in Kottayam district, Kerala, and according to Wikipedia earns the sobriquet of 'The Spicy Virgin Village', but no further explanation is given.

The photo story of The Lone String Puppeteer of Monipally is of a 15-year-old women named Renjini, who is said to be the only person in the world today that can maneuver the entire epic of Ramayana on the tip of her lips – on a pole of string alone. Renjini and her grandmother are the only practitioners of this delicate ancestral art.

In Kerala, a centuries old legacy comes to life with wooden string puppets that tell the entire Ramayana and Mahabharata. The art form is called Nokku Vidhya Pavakalli,  and is an indigenous puppet theatre form practiced for centuries in Kerala.

The puppets are perched atop a pole that rests vertically on the upper lip of the puppeteer squatting on the floor. The puppets are animated with the help of strings held by the artiste. The act of balancing the puppets and animating them call for extreme concentration and practice, as the puppets are made to move in tune with the tempo of the accompanying music.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Viviana Peretti | Salaam Harlem

Photo © Viviana Peretti - All Rights Reserved
Eid al-Fitr or the Islamic festival of breaking of the fast is imminent, and millions of Muslims around the world are eager for it as it marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The religious Eid is a single day during which Muslims are not permitted to fast, and it celebrates the conclusion of the 29 or 30 days of dawn-to-sunset fasting during the entire month of Ramadan.

Viviana Peretti, with her Salaam Harlem photo essay, documented the Murid Islamic Community of America in Harlem, New York City, as part of her larger NEW YORK PRAYS photographic work.

A Murid (or Mouride) is generally defined as an initiate into the mystic philosophy of Sufism originating in Senegal and the Gambia. A high proportion of the Senegalese in New York City are “Murids, and they practice a Muslim work ethic that provides money to create mosques and sustain their operations. The ethic is based on the Quranic injunction that Muslims must do ‘amal saalih, or wholesome work, that is acceptable to Allah and will be rewarded. Many of these Murids work as street vendors.

I featured Viviana Peretti's work on many occasions on this blog. s an Italian freelance photographer based in New York where in 2010 she graduated in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism from the International Center of Photography (ICP).

In 2000, after graduating Magna Cum Laude with a BA in Anthropology from the University of Rome, she moved to Colombia where she specialized in photojournalism and spent nine years working as a freelance photographer.

Viviana has received fellowships and awards from the International Center of Photography, the Joannie M. Chen Fund in New York, CNN, the Fondation Bruni-Sarkozy in France, FotoVisura, the University of Salamanca, the Spanish Embassy in Colombia, the Photo Museum in Bogota, and the Colombian Ministry of Culture. In 2010 she has been selected for the Eddie Adams Workshop, Barnstorm XXIII. In 2013-2014 Viviana has been an Artist-in-Residence at L’École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP) in Arles, France.

Her work has been published in a number of international media outlets including The New York Times, Newsweek, BBC, CNN, L'Oeil de la Photographie, New York Magazine, Le Journal de la Photographie, and L'Espresso.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam

The highly anticipated photo book Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam will soon be available to coincide with the inclusion of this ancient indigenous in the UNESCO Registry which is expected in September 2016.

With over 100 large color photographs and more than 60 pages of text, it explains the ancient syncretic religion of Đạo Mẫu, its rituals and its pantheon of deities, along with my narrative of my own experiences documenting it in Vietnam since 2014.

I am one of the very few non-Vietnamese photographers to be welcomed during countless Hầu Đồng ceremonies, and allowed to produce a photo book of this tradition in this magnitude.

Serendipity is a funny thing. Having literally stumbled on this Vietnamese religious tradition and its ceremonial tangential manifestations of Hầu Đồng and Hát Chầu Văn in late 2014 literally supercharged, and reinvigorated, my enthusiasm for documentary photography, audio recording, storytelling and multimedia production.

I completely immersed myself in this project, traveling many times to Hanoi from New York City to attend often undeclared ceremonies in the capita, its suburbs and in other distant regions to its north and east. To have access and be welcomed in these ceremonies wherever they are held, one must gain the confidence and trust of the community, and initially be accompanied by someone known to the mediums or the musicians.

Producing a book is an achievement for certain, but there's something infinitely more important to me than the photographs I made...and that's the friendships and the human kindnesses I've been privileged to experience while at these ceremonies.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Mario Cruz | Modern Day Talibes

Photo © Mario Cruz | All Rights Reserved
A few posts back, I featured the work of Indonesian photographer Ulet Ifansasti on an Islamic boarding school in East Java, and I follow it up with the powerful monochromatic work of Mario Cruz on a similar subject; an Islamic boarding school in Senegal...however difference abound.

The long tradition of sending boys to study at Islamic boarding schools (also called madrasas) in Islamic countries is often rooted in positive values of religious and moral education, and on teaching classical theological, legal, and Qur'anic texts. However, politics and social exploitation have intruded in some of these institutions.

Over the last decade in Senegal,  the educational purpose of these boarding schools has been used by unscrupulous so-called teachers to exploit thousands of children who are known as "talibes"...the Arabic term for students.. 

Cruz spent months documenting the physical abuse of talibes, although much of it takes place behind the closed doors of these "schools". The teachers also known as "marabout" (A North African term for a learned Islamic teacher), know that their actions of treating these children as slaves, and sending them into the streets to beg and steal are criminal, but it's a slow progress to apprehend them and close down these schools due to Senegal's limited resources.

The number of children exploited by this system of modern-day slavery is estimated to number as many as 30,000 in the Dakar region alone and 50,000 across the country.

Mario Cruz is a Portuguese photojournalist, and studied studied photojournalism at Cenjor - Professional School of Journalism. In 2006 he began working with LUSA – Portuguese News Agency / EPA – European Pressphoto Agency. Since 2012, he has been focused on his personal projects dedicated to social justice and human rights. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Xavier Guardans | Windows

Photo Xavier Guardans-All Rights Reserved

Here's a gallery of monochromatic portraits of individuals belonging to a variety of Kenyan tribes, such as the Turkana, Samburu, Masai, Rendille, Gabra and Pokot, which were all made using the simplest of staging.

All of these were photographed through the window of the photographer's vehicle. The vehicle's window act as a simple picture frame, almost forcing the viewers to focus only on the subjects' expressions, hands and arms.

Over multiple trips to Kenya in 2006, the photographer took 25 black-and-white portraits from the backseat of his vehicle, photographing his subjects, members of Kenyan tribes, through a rear window.

Xavier Guardans was born in Barcelona in 1954 and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Bournemouth College of Art in England and was included in exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Madrid, Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca and the Museu d’ Art Espanyol Contemporani in Palma. His work is held in private and public collections, including at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Center of Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. Guardans has also had an extensive commercial career publishing his work in major magazines and worldwide advertising campaigns. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

In Production | Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam

It's been quite a long road to get to the point where I now have my ducks in a row, and have the first full "skeleton" of my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam ready to be printed as a dummy first cut book. I have had two made a few months ago, but these were of a much smaller page and image count.

The current iteration is of 168 pages, of which 104 are full-bleed photographs and 64 text pages, and at 15 inches x 11 inches (38 cms x 28 cms) is of one the largest image wrap landscape hard cover sizes I could find.

It ought to be ready by the end of this week, and I ought to see it by the end of the month. It's being printed in Kuala Lumpur, and because of an operational snafu, I've had to have it shipped to Ahsan Qureishi of Travel Photographer Asia, who has kindly agreed to ship it to me in New York City.

Once received, examined and reviewed I shall decide on further formats and sizes, and naturally on prices, as well as produce a trailer type of video to market it as widely as possible using social and other medias.

I am hoping to have it all set up by early September 2016 to coincide with the Việt Beliefs in the Mother Goddesses inscription to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Ulet Ifansasti | City of God

Photo © Ulet Ifansasti -All Rights Reserved
Many in the West have a skewed view of Islam and its 1.4 billion adherents, and much of the fault lies at the door of the mainstream (and other) media that is unwilling or unable to portray a balanced and more nuanced view of this worldwide religion.

Philosophically, I'm against schools that are not secular but in many cases (such as this one) it's poverty - rather than faith- that forces parents to place their children in an Islamic boarding school.

City of God is a photo essay on Lirboyo, an enormous traditional 'pesantren' (Islamic boarding school) in Indonesia. Located in Kediri, East Java, the boarding school is home to roughly 17,000 students, or 'santri'. It was founded in 1910 by KH Abdul Karim. Its pupils and students spend their days reading the Quran, studying Islamic scriptures and learning Arabic. They have around 20 hours of activities daily, beginning at 4am and finishing at midnight.

Ulet Ifansasti is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer, with a particular interest in social, environmental and cultural issues. Born in Papua and currently based in Yogyakarta-Indonesia, he started his career at a local magazine in Yogyakarta, Indonesia before joining Getty Images in 2008. 

His work has been published in many leading organizations and publications including GREENPEACE, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, STERN, The Guardian, TIME Magazine, USA Today, LIFE, National Geographic Traveller among others.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Nick Ng | Forgotten Faces of China

Photo © Nick Ng-All Rights Reserved
I've been admiring Nick Ng's photography since I viewed his work on Chinese Opera, which I featured earlier on this blog, so I was glad to have found more of it on The Huffington Post.

The collection of his photographs are titled The Forgotten Faces of China, and are of elderly Chinese who live in the rural regions of the country, and have been left behind by their kin. Millions of Chinese have migrated from the countryside, with a majority of the country's population now living in urban areas.

Millions of older Chinese are facing poverty and loneliness as their children flee villages for cities. The years of societal turmoil (radical communism followed by rampant capitalism) have frayed the ties that once bound the nation’s families together.

As a result of China's "One Child" policy, more than 160 million Chinese families have only one child. Similarly, these family members are 60 years or older. Although many Chinese children still care for their parents, it is clear that the old traditions about loyal Chinese sons and daughters may no longer be as solid as they once have been.

Currently appointed as and sponsored by Sony Malaysia as their Alpha Professional photographer, Nick Ng is a freelance photographer based in Kuala Lumpur. who started photographing in 2007. He has won many photographic awards in Malaysia and abroad since then as well having been featured in various publications and exhibitions.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Mecca | Asif Khan | Roads & Kingdoms

Photo © Asif Khan- Courtesy Roads And Kingdoms
With the advent of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, I thought it timely to feature an interesting essay published by the eclectic journals Roads And Kingdoms as Mecca's Other Pilgrimage.

The rather tongue-in-cheek, but not irreverent, writing is by Asif Khan, a documentary photographer who is based in India. His description of the Umrah, the lesser version of the Hajj or pilgrimage that is demanded from every able Muslim will enlighten those who are unfamiliar (or even those who are familiar) with the Muslim rituals.

It reminded me of my own experience visiting Mecca many years ago when I was visiting the nearby Jeddah on a business trip. I worked for Citibank at the time, and it was suggested I spend a few days in that port city to explore whether a job there was for me. While the job dimensions were great, the social restrictions in Saudi Arabia on my family were difficult to accept, so I turned it down. 

Whilst in Jeddah's Citibank offices, I was approached by Said Hafez, a colleague from Egypt, who convinced me to visit Mecca before I flew home to New York.  The distance of 40 miles or so was covered very quickly and that evening, I found myself along with my companion in the very heart of Islam. It was before all the new glass-concrete monstrosities were built,  and the Haram Al Sharif was superb.

Not being up-to-date with the rituals of ablutions and prayer, I faithfully copied the actions of my devout companion who knew exactly what to do and when.  I mumbled the only verse of the Qur'an I knew, over and over like a mantra....hoping no one would ask me anything that could prove my religious inadequacy (at least in their eyes).

The Kaaba itself was not as large as I had thought it to be, and at this time of the evening few people were about. Consequently, I had ample opportunity to touch the black meteorite known as Al Hagar Al Aswad which surface was made concave by the millions who had touched it before me during past millennia. 

The whole area was calm, quiet and serene and I easily imagined how the atmosphere brought the devout to their knees, and tears of devotion streaming down the faces of the supplicants. But for fresher and more descriptive account of Mecca and the Haram, read Asif Khan essay.

Roads & Kingdoms is an independent journal of food, politics, travel and culture. In its second year of existence, it was voted the Gold Winner for Best Travel Journalism Site by the Society of American Travel Writers. “Roads & Kingdoms” is borrowed from The Book of Roads & Kingdoms, an early travelogue written in the 11th century by Abu Abdullah al-Bakri in Córdoba.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Nick Ng | Chinese Opera

Photo © Nick Ng-All Rights Reserved
Readers of this blog know I immerse myself in personal projects that "speak" to me for many reasons; some of which are unknown whilst others are obvious. Documenting endangered cultures and traditional life ways, with particular emphasis on religious traditions and events, cults and esoteric practices, is what attracts me the most for my photography.

I've very recently started the process of exploring the tradition of Chinese Opera. Earlier this year, returning home after completing my work photographing the Vietnamese religious tradition of Đạo Mẫu, and its ceremonial manifestations of Hầu Đồng, for my forthcoming book "Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam”, I spent time admiring large photographs of Chinese Opera performers displayed at Hong Kong Airport.

Perhaps it was the visual/aesthetic connection between the Hầu Đồng mediums and the Chinese Opera performers that was at play, but it was then that I decided to add this project to my to-do list.

During my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur to attend Travel Photographer Asia 2016, I met Lim Li-Ling, a Malaysian part-time photographer, who had documented the Xiao Qi Lin Hokkien Troupe of Singapore  for a number of years, resulting in a book titled Wayang (A Javanese term for theatrical performances). Discussing it and receiving a copy of her book cemented my decision to go deeper into this traditional art form.

In contrast to Hầu Đồng which is relatively unknown by photographers outside of Vietnam, Chinese Opera has been popular with a large number of documentary photographers. I found a expansive amount of photographic essays documenting Chinese Opera; the first of which is by the very talented and prolific Nick Ng, a Kuala Lumpur resident and a Sony Malaysia's Alpha Professional Photographer.

Chinese Opera is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world. Many of the features that characterize modern Chinese Opera developed in northern China, particularly Shanxi and Gansu Provinces. The main forms are the Shanxi Opera, the Beijing Opera, the Shanghai Opera and the Cantonese Opera.

However, as Lim Li-Ling asserts in her Wayang book, Chinese Opera in the region of South East Asia is currently a dying art from whose performances are limited to key religious festivals.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Old China Cafe

I've spent just over a week in Kuala Lumpur to participate in Travel Photographer Asia 2016 during which I gave a no-spin phototalk on travel photography, and a class-workshop on The Travel Documentary.

The class workshop's objective was for its participants to learn and complete a short travel documentary consisting of 15-20 still photographs. During our forays in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown and its neighboring area, we spent some time at The Old China Cafe hiding from the sun or from the rain.

I returned to the cafe to meet two of my Malaysian friends a few days later, and had the chance of taking a few photographs of the very atmospheric interior. No one seemed to mind, even the patrons who were enjoying their lunch and drinks. 

The cafe was formerly the guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association, which was set up at the turn of the century and moved to this part of Chinatown in the 1920s. The owner of the cafe kept many of the architectural details of the building, and even the doors to the kitchen still have wooden latches. This type of pre-war shophouses may not exist much longer.

The concept of the woman in a red cheongsam hoped for by a stranger in the cafe (possibly an alter ego) was born during a conversation with my class. They were quite supportive of the idea, and even suggested enhancements....some of those inventive but impractical to include in this short piece.

I think this very simple audio-slideshow exemplifies the very spirit of my class....The Travel Documentary. Weaving 15-20 images to tell a story...whether factual, or like this one, a figment of the storyteller's imagination is what makes travel photography such a wonderful genre of image making.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

POV: Visual Storyteller | Fact or Fiction?

" I would say that today I am a visual storyteller..."

The Steve McCurry controversy rages on, unmitigated by his recent statements (which I am paraphrasing here) saying that, except for a brief stint at a small newspaper, he didn't work as a photojournalist per se, but considered himself as a visual storyteller.

I have been critical of McCurry's work for quite some time, and never considered him to be a photojournalist. I recall being harshly criticized by many of his fans when I published this point of view, and wonder where are they now. He might have explicitly described himself as a photojournalist or insinuated it, but I always viewed him as a travel photographer with a high propensity to stage his images, with a concomitant affinity for post processing.

During my recent photo talk at Travel Photographer Asia 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, I addressed the recent fracas and, in a way, condoned his evolution from photojournalist in the distant past to the current commercial-fashion photographer (Louis Vuitton, Valentino, etc) specialization.

In that photo talk, I said that it must have been the forces of the marketplace that molded McCurry's evolution. We all know how difficult it is to make a living from photojournalism and documentary photography, even for photographers as famed as he.  So, I'm not surprised or shocked that he chose the route he's following right now.

Some of us argue that storytellers ought to tell the truth; others like me argue that stories can be fictional or non-fictional. In my view, travel photography can be either. I adopt a true story telling discipline in my own travel imagery, adopting my "travel photography meets photojournalism" philosophy, but on rare occasions, I've staged some of my photographs. If I had to put a percentage to this staging, I'd say 5% of my images were/are staged....or directed. I've never hid that fact when asked, nor will I do so in future. And I'm not a photojournalist, and never claimed to be.

With that in mind, McCurry's prevarications about being a photojournalist (hence no staging and no heavy-handed post processing) have disappointed many of those who viewed him as an "eminence grise" in his field. Many more are outraged and angered because the image manipulations (especially the cloning and removal of things) discovered so far are tainting the whole industry with the same brush. Photojournalists who have abided by the strict ethics of photojournalism are justifiably angered.

McCurry has been recently shown to digitally modify (or have his staff digitally modify) some of his images to show what he wished he had seen and taken the picture of. That, in my view, is fictional visual storytelling, and is as far from the truth and photojournalism as can be. To wit, the 1983 photograph of the locals riding a rickshaw through heavy monsoon rain in Varanasi, in which people were removed. It's's what McCurry would have liked to see but didn't. It's also what McCurry wants us to see, and believe that it happened as shown. As for blaming a staff member for heavy handed post processing, it's always the photographer who must take final responsibility. Blaming an intern or staff is unworthy of someone of McCurry's stature.

However, many of the public took him to be a "reality visual storyteller", but he wasn't and from his many interviews, he didn't dispel this widely held view and possibly encouraged it.

It's always tragic when a renowned figure in any field falls from grace, but it also serves to remind us that truth is always liberating, and is always the best approach in anything we do. Is this an idealistic concept? Yes, it is, but it's also the right one.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Alexander Khimushin | The World In Faces

Photo © Alexander Khimushin - All Rights Reserved

"While travel is my life, photography is my passion. 
And it’s never been about the money…"

It is said that, in photography, a portrait is a composed image of a person in a still position, and often shows the person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

Many photographers also use an optical illusion used by painters since time immemorial, by placing the person's dominant eye in the center of the frame, to give the impression that the eyes are following the viewers.

And with more than 7.3 billion people of countless cultures and traditions, portraiture is a wonderful way to demonstrate the diversity, ingenuity, and beauty of humans.

I wouldn't be wrong in assuming that most travel photographers have started their careers and craft by photographing simple portraits; perhaps setting up their subjects against attractive backgrounds, or against anything they found. I recall my own start when, a 70-200 lens on my camera, I'd roam the exotic places I traveled to in search of faces that 'spoke' to me.

My craft has evolved during the years, and I've become inclined to photograph perhaps more complex scenes, however travel portraiture is always the primary visual "magnet". And from my experience, it is always portraits that attracts the most attention amongst a wide swath of viewers.

Alexander Khimushin explored 84 nations with cameras in hand over the past two years in order to photograph portraits of people he met for “The World In Faces,” a photo project celebrating diverse cultures around the world.

There will always be critics for whom this project (and others like it) will not sit well, but insofar as I'm concerned, it's a project that brings us all together.

Alexander Khimushin is an Russian/Australian independent traveler. He tells us that 8 years ago he packed a backpack for a journey around the world. Since then he's been traveling the globe non-stop.

The Huffington Post also has an article with larger versions of his photographs.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Alessandra Meninconzi | Time For Holi!

Photo © Alessandra Meninconzi-All Rights Reserved
One of my favorite travel photographers is Alessandra Meninconzi who has recently uploaded her new work from India, which she titled It's Time For Holi. Her photographs were mostly made in Vrindavan, and its surrounding towns and villages, during the festival of Holi.

I remember Alessandra messaging me from Vrinadavan complaining that her new Canon Mark 3 was in danger of being permanently colored in pink. She is a Canon Professional, so I'm certain that Canon didn't mind. That said, by many recent accounts, in many areas Holi has devolved into a a color "slug fest" that goes beyond fun with colors, and is no longer a religious observance.

Alessandra's galleries range from the Arctic Siberia to Ethiopia, from Lapland to the Silk Road, and from Greenland to Tibet and the Himalayas. She worked extensively for more than a decade in the remote areas of Asia, documenting minority people and their traditional cultures. More recently, she focused on the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions that are threatened by climate change, development, and resource extraction.

Alessandra Meniconzi is a Swiss photographer fascinated by the lives and traditions of indigenous people in remote regions of the world.Her photographs have been published widely in magazines, as well as in four books: The Silk Road (2004), Mystic Iceland (2007), Hidden China (2008) and QTI -Alessandra Meniconzi, Il coraggio di esser paesaggio (2011). 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Travel Photographer Asia Invalidates 2016 Original Winner

Photo © Alex Varani - All Rights Reserved
Travel Photographer Asia and its judges have taken the difficult, but unavoidable, decision to revoke its 2016 winning photograph of Malaysian photographer Yen Sin Won, and replace it with the above photograph by Alex Varani of Italy.

The new winning photograph was originally first runner-up, and with the said elimination is now the overall winner of Travel Photographer 2016 contest. It is of Indonesian fishermen battling a shark near Cenderawasih Bay. 

The updated line-up of the winners is here.

Although Yen Sin Won's monochromatic photograph (see my previous post to view it) was compelling enough to garner the admiration of the jury, it came to the attention of the judges when asking for and viewing the RAW version that it violated the rules and spirit of the contest regarding post processing restrictions on submitted images. 

As I posted earlier, Travel Photographer Asia is much more than a photographic contest. It is also a travel photography festival consisting of photo talks, an exhibition and photography master class & workshops for the professional and amateur photographer.

I shall join photography luminaries Ms Huang Wen, Mr. Che' Ahmad Azhar, Dr. Shahidul Alam and Mr. Vignes Balasingam in giving photo talks during the festival. My photo talk will focus on travel photography, and I'll touch upon its challenges and rewards, how to approach people and build trust, how to take the right photos for an article, how to build up a story with photos, and how to brand yourself. I will share how I started as a travel photographer, how I built my travel photo workshops business from scratch and how I go about developing personal projects. 

Friday, 29 April 2016

Travel Photographer Asia 2016 Contest Winners

Photo © Yen Sin Wong- Courtesy TPA 2016 
Ahsan Qureshi of Travel Photographer Asia has announced the winners (and best 50 photographs) of its 2016 contest in which more than 3000 images were submitted for consideration.

The winning photograph is "Jump Over" by Malaysian photographer Yen Sin Wong**. As a judge, I was immensely impressed by the quality of the submissions (which made the judging extremely tough), and by the fact that amongst the 50 top submissions, 6 are monochromatic. In my view, it took courage from these six photographers to submit entries in black & white to a travel photography contest. Color is frequently the instinctive choice for submissions to travel photography contests. I also noticed that the judges seemed to generally coalesce behind photographs that told a story, and that were more complex than simple portraiture. Naturally, all submissions were anonymous to the judges.

** see update.

Congratulations to all the winners and to all who gave the judges a very difficult task to do. Well done. For those interested in the prizes, check them here.

However, Travel Photographer Asia is much more than a photographic contest. It is also a travel photography festival consisting of photo talks, an exhibition and photography master class & workshops for the professional and amateur photographer.

I shall join photography luminaries Ms Huang Wen, Mr. Che' Ahmad Azhar, Dr. Shahidul Alam and Mr. Vignes Balasingam in giving photo talks during the festival. My photo talk will focus on travel photography, and I'll touch upon its challenges and rewards, how to approach people and build trust, how to take the right photos for an article, how to build up a story with photos, and how to brand yourself. I will share how I started as a travel photographer, how I built my travel photo workshops business from scratch and how I go about developing personal projects. 

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Julie Higelin | Thisksey Gustor Festival

Photo © Julie Higelin-All Rights Reserved
Julie Higelin brings us her images of the Thiksay Gustor festival which usually takes place during the month of November in Ladakh. It is held from the 17th to 19th day of the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar. This short (two-day) festival is held at three different Ladakhi monasteries—Spituk, Thiksey and Karsha Zanskar.

The festival commemorates the assassination of the 9th Century Tibetan apostate king Lang Darma by a Buddhist monk. The assassination is re-enacted during the festival by burning effigies symbolizing evil. Morning prayers are offered to bring divine peace to those who take part in it. After the two day celebrations, there are a ritualistic events and dances by Black Hat dancers. 

Julie Higelin is a Belgian self-taught travel photographer who, rather than pursuing a full time career in physiotherapy, traveled the world and developed a passion for a nomadic existence, learning photography at the same time. She started off her photographic career by taking on an assignment for an NGO in Madagascar, and her road map was set. 

She has photographed in India, Ladakh, Madagascar, Romania and Guatemala amongst others. She generally uses a Canon 5DMark3, and a Canon 24-70mm F2.8 L and a 16-35mm F2.8 L.