Friday, 9 December 2016

Flore-Aël Surun | 10,000 Spirits


© Flore-Aël Surun - All Rights Reserved
After my return from Hanoi where I launched my Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam photo book, I am naturally keen to start on a new long term project, and researching Asian spirit mediumship, I found Korean shamanism to have many similarities to the Vietnamese Hầu Đồng rituals I spent almost two years photographing. By the way, it is said that shamanism is what humans followed before the advent of organized religion.
The Korean shamans are called "mudang", and are usually female (in contrast to the "gender equality" amongst Vietnamese spirit mediumship practitioners). They are known to perform ceremonies called gut in local villages, to cure illness, bring good luck or plentiful harvests, banish evil spirits or demons, and ask favors of the gods. After a death, the mudang also help the soul of the departed find the path to heaven. They communicate with ancestral spirits, nature spirits, and other supernatural forces.
There are two varieties of mudang. The kangshinmu, who become shamans through training and then spiritual possession by a god, and the seseummu, who receive their power through heredity. In both cases, the mudang is initiated after a process called shinbyeong, or "spirit sickness."
The spirit sickness often includes a sudden loss of appetite, physical weakness, hallucinations, and communication with the spirits or gods. The only cure for shinbyeong is the initiation rite, or gangshinje, in which the mudang accepts into her body the spirit that will bring her shamanist powers. This has some similarities to what the Vietnamese spirit mediums experience, although in their case, initiation rites with a master medium must occur.

Flore-Aël Surun's photographs of South Koreans shamans in her 10,000 Spirits gallery consists of more than a dozen photographs of the practitioners either performing their craft or portraits. She tells us that " A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing."

She has also produced a short photo-film of her photographs accompanied by the audio of the shamans' chants. It is well worth viewing as it gives an added dimension to the eeriness of the practice.




Flore-Aël Surun studied photography in Paris, then lived in Romania for a year totally immersed in the daily life of kids living on the streets of Bucharest. This documentary, entitled “Sur-vie sous” (Survival Under) was awarded the Special Jury Prize of the Angers Festival of Scoop and Journalism in 1999. In 2001, commissioned by the Joop Start Masterclass, she made the documentary “FTM-MTF”, a series of portraits of women who have become men, which questions the notion of identity.

Since 2002, she has begun a series of documentaries on world peace which have led her to join a Buddhist march in the Negev Desert, hideouts in Canada for young American deserters and among other places, a village in which the three great religions coexist.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Leonid Plotkin | Mysterium Tremendum

Photo © Leonid Plotkin - All Rights Reserved
"Mysterium tremendum et fascinans" 
Mysterium Tremendum is a Latin phrase meaning fearful mystery, which was coined by Rudolf Otto who is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion.

This is how Leonid Plotkin -a photographer whose work I've featured a number of times on this blog- titled his photo essay of Buddhist rituals and of ceremonial dances made in the remote regions of Ladakh and Zanskar.

Some of the photographs are of Cham dances; the masked and costumed ceremonial performances associated with Tibetan Buddhism performed during Buddhist festivals. These dances are accompanied by music played by monks using traditional Tibetan instruments. The dances offer moral instruction relating to compassion, for good to defeat evil and bring merit to the performers and the audience.

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

Friday, 2 December 2016

The Mother Goddesses Tradition | UNESCO


The Việt beliefs in the Mother Goddesses of Three Realms, also known as Đạo Mẫu, was inscribed on December 1, 2016 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

And the inscription comes as an important chapter in my 18+ months journey documenting this indigenous belief system which I stumbled across during a photo expedition in northern Vietnam in September 2014. It also serves to underscore the importance of this tradition to the millions of Vietnamese who flock to it for their spiritual needs, and to gain help in achieving good health and success in their communities, occupations and social circles.

I am proud to have launched my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam in Hanoi just 3 weeks before the formal announcement, and contributed in a small way to the anticipatory buzz of the mystical world of Đạo Mẫu and Hầu Đồng.

My three photo talks and my photo book were written of in more than 18 different newspapers and other publications, shown on various television programs, and I had no less than 4 television appearances/interviews including some that involved my photographing Hầu Đồng ceremonies with tv cameras trailing me.


I guess timing is everything. Had the UNESCO inscription taken place at the end of 2015, I would have missed the "hoopla" boat, and my book and talks may have had much less media traction than what I experienced earlier this month.

Rather than rewrite the back story on how and why I started this photo book, this older post will provide a detailed explanation. 


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Mark Bennington | America 2.0


Photo © Mark Bennington - Courtesy Huffington Post
Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on,” his campaign said in a release. June 28, 2016
I never thought I'd see a fascist running for President of the United States, and win the election on a platform of hatred, misogyny, racism and discrimination...but one did.

I was thrilled to see Mark Bennington's America 2.0 portraits which, as he describes them, are his direct response "to the politicized images of American Muslims depicted as a plagued foreign diaspora". He found it to be the time to start this project that dealt with the aspirations of ordinary people, and give them a voice through his portraits and interviews.

Reading these young and accomplished people's thoughts is an eye-opener. It is what our country is all about : E pluribus unum, the 13-letter traditional motto of the United States of America; the "Out of many, one" which is at the core of our very strength. It's not the febrile election campaign's loose and empty talk from a fascist that can and will ever change that.

The Huffington Post also featured America 2.0 here.

Mark Bennington is a portrait photographer based in New York City who travels for commercial/corporate/editorial assignments and personal projects. He was also an adjunct professor of photography at S.I. Newhouse School. His first book "Living the Dream: The Life of the 'Bollywood' Actor" will release in December 2016 (HarperCollins).

Monday, 21 November 2016

Travel Photographer Society | Contest And Workshops


Travel Photographer Society (Kuala Lumpur) has announced its annual travel photography contest, as well as its schedule of unrivaled workshops.

The travel photography contest is known as TPS Awards 2017, and having seen and judged the 2016 entries, I can confirm that the quality of the submissions were spectacular...and I expect the 2017 submissions will surpass them. So submit your best work, and impress us all!



I am also pleased to invite photographers to enroll in my workshop "Storytelling With Photographs And Audio" during which I shall share my thoughts on how to weave still photography into stories, how to use ambient or other recorded audio to enhance the stories, and how to use these images and audio to produce cogent photo stories under the simulation of publishing deadlines.

The workshop will be from 27 April 2017 - 02 May 2017, and will push its participants to unleash their inner creativity by producing short (3 minutes) multimedia stories; whether documentary, street life or fictional. The underlying objective is to have fun in unleashing the participants' creative juices with no restraint.

While teaching this workshop in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, I produced a totally fictional story of a man searching for a red-cheongsam clad woman in the Old China Cafe. A pure figment of my imagination triggered by two short visits to this well-known atmospheric establishment.



Other workshops will feature Dr. Shahidul Alam, Etienne Bossot (Travel Photography) and Calin Kruse (Design of a Photobook).

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Dina Goldstein | Modern Girl

Photo © Dina Goldstein | Courtesy The Guardian
My visual sensibilities, undoubtedly influenced by my just completed trip to Hanoi and my brief foray in "street fashion" portraiture, were tickled by the recent work of Dina Goldstein, as seen in The Guardian newspaper in its China Girl feature.

According to Ms Goldstein, her Modern Girl gallery is inspired by Chinese tradition and the evolution of international commercialism. With a photographic/design sleight-of-hand (and in a tongue-in-cheek manner), she reworks the iconic advertising posters of 1930s Shanghai, China.

Actual models replace the girls shown in such adverts, which followed the societal emergence of the Asian women chipping away at Confucius traditions that demanded total obedience. Women were expected to demonstrate obedience before all other virtues, and at every stage of life. Girls were required to obey their fathers; wives required to obey their husbands; widows required to obey their grown-up sons. At no point in her life was a woman, according to the traditional Confucian views, expected to function as an autonomous being free of male control.

Dina Goldstein is an Israeli-born photographer with a background in editorial and documentary photography. According to her biography, her photography is intended not to produce an aesthetic that echoes current beauty standards, but to evoke and wrest feelings of shame, anger, shock and empathy from the observer, as to inspire insight into the human condition. She independently produces large-scale tableaux photographic series that are philosophical, satirical, technical and visually attractive.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The Autumnal Nymph Gallery


The Autumnal Nymph by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

(scroll down on cover image to view the gallery) 

Yes, I've been absent from updating my blog for almost a month...but as I've explained in my earlier post, I've been extraordinarily busy setting up three photo talks in Hanoi. These took place for November 5, 11, and 12 at well known and popular venues in the capital's art scene, and were attended by Vietnamese TV stations and its newspaper media. More about that later.

I used the little downtime I had to try my hand at street fashion photography. I accidentally met Zhang Mansi near Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, and asked her to pose for me during the few free hours I had.

Mansi is a native of Dali, one of Yunnan's most popular tourist destinations in China. She is a third year student in Hanoi University. She reminded me of Luo Shen, a mythical figure of ancient China, who became popularly known because of a poem, Ode to the Nymph of the River Luo (Luo Shen Fu), composed by Cao Zhi of the Three Kingdom period.

This is certainly not the first time that I dip my toe in the so-called "street fashion photography". I find it to be quite a break from my travel photography, and it -this time- also provided me with a welcome change of pace from the photo talks' grueling schedule.

My travel photography is infrequently posed, and relies mostly on candid images...unposed and not set up; a kind of travel photography meets photojournalism. So finding suitable spots in Hanoi's Old Quarter and directing the lovely Mansi as to how to face the light was a welcome change, and distracted me.


Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam | Talks In Hanoi


I've been extraordinarily busy these past few weeks setting up three photo talks in Hanoi. These are scheduled for November 5, 11, and 12 at well known and popular venues in the capital's art scene.

These talks will include about 80 color photographs; most -but not all- featured in my newly published Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam photo book. The talks will be in English, as well as Vietnamese by a translator. 

The interest has been beyond my most optimistic expectations, with major Vietnamese newspapers already reporting on the book and on the three public events. 



Members of Hanoi’s Hầu Đồng community are invited, along with the members of the press and a handful of television stations, such Vietnam News Agency, VTV4 and Hanoi TV will be there as well.

Marketing and commemorative materials such as posters of the event are planned, and will hopefully be ready by the time the photo talks are held.

So I look forward to welcome Hanoi'ans (and others perhaps) to attend my talks, and enter the world of the mystical world of Đạo Mẫu and its rituals.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Media Blitz


I'm preparing for a forthright of media appearances and two or three photo talks that will take place in Hanoi about my photo book: Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam.

The "media blitz" will take place during the first two weeks of November 2016, and I'm slated to be interviewed on television by Vietnam News Agency (VNA), VTV4 and Vietnam National Television.

I've also been interviewed by various Vietnamese newspapers, such as the National Times, Thanh Nien Newspaper, Viet Nam News (Expat Column) and Hanoi Grapevine. A lengthier feature will soon be published in Ho Chi Minh City's Oi Vietnam magazine. 

Friday, 23 September 2016

Takehiko Yagi | Holi

Photo © Takehiko Yagi-All Rights Reserved
"I have been fascinated by the colors of the sacred festival of Holi for nine years now. I fell in love with the festival for the first time when I saw it on television as a high school student." 
This is very possibly a first. 

My Twitter feed has the link to the photo gallery Diving Into The Colors of Holi by Japanese photographer Takehiko Yagi, and naturally I followed it to view it.

Scrolling down the intensely colored images of the well known Indian festival, I stopped at the above photograph, showing the spiritual intensity on the faces of devotees in the temple of Banke Bihari in Vrindavan, the epicenter of the Holi festival. 

I recognized this exact scene because I was there as well....at the same time, and photographed these very same devotees. And then I remembered being shoulder to shoulder with an Asian photographer, who, now I know, was Takehiko Yagi. We were both swathed in scarves and eye protections; our cameras protected by makeshift (or ready-made) plastic covers, and we had our backs to the stage where the idol was periodically shown to the mass of devotees in the temple's hall.

This is my own photograph:


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
While the scenes at Banke Bihari Temple, the epicenter of Holi devotional revelry in Vrindavan, provide incredibly compelling photographs of devotees covered in color, I remember concluding that the scenes were also repetitive, and there was the risk of hitting the point of diminishing returns after a while.

Most photographers prefer to remain to the sides of the temple, but not Mr. Yagi or me. We preferred venturing in the courtyard where the frenetic activity was, and where we were most at risk from the Holi weaponry. I recall being drenched in colored water thrown at the crowds by the temple's priests.

Takehiko Yagi was born in Fukuoka, and attended the Tamagawa University College of Agriculture, and started his career as a professional photographer in 2014. He was awarded
a Nikkei National Geographic Photo Prize in that year, and was Grand prize winner of the 4th Nikkei National Geographic Photo Prize.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Hanoi Grapevine | The Spirit Mediums of Hanoi


I'm very pleased that Hanoi Grapevine has featured news of my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam on its popular portal.

Hanoi Grapevine describes itself an important and active promoter of the arts in Vietnam. It provides bilingual content of high-quality art and culture happenings in the contemporary landscape of the country and offer reviews by interested, informed and opinionated commentators. 

It has also announced that Hanoi’s expats and local citizens will have chance to talk to me about Đạo Mẫu and Hầu Đồng when I am in Hanoi in early November for a number of appearances at different photo talk venues.

Fuller details will be announced on this blog once I have the firm dates. The venues are in central Hanoi and are popular for art, photography and music events.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

My Book's Back Story | The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam

All Photographs © 2016 Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I remember September 12, 2014 very well. I was in Sa Pa, the famous hill station in northern Viet Nam, and despite the early morning humidity, the Black Hmong vendors were already waiting for tourists. I was walking on Fansipan Road, bantering with some of them, when I heard religious music wafting from a nondescript building. I asked the vendors and was told it was a temple. I walked in and met women dressed in red traditional clothes who, through sign language, told me that a ceremony would start at 9:00 am.

This is how my two-year long journey into the world of Đạo Mẫu, the indigenous Vietnamese mother goddess religion and hầu đồng, the ritual of spirit mediumship, started. Totally by accident. Serendipitously. 

I was flabbergasted that I hadn't heard of Đạo Mẫu before. My so-called specialty as a travel photographer is/was ethno-photography with special interest in esoteric religions and cults. And here, on a silver platter, was an ancient indigenous religion that had escaped my notice. To me, that was analogous at how cats react to catnip...the "happy" receptors in my brain went haywire.

It was after attending another 'stumbled-on' hầu đồng ceremony, this time two days later in the market town of Bac Ha, that I resolved to explore the religion, its rituals, its history and its practitioners. 

I had quickly researched the topic online, and discovered -to my surprise-  that no non-Vietnamese photographer had documented the religion and the ceremonies. There were commercial videos on YouTube and other sites, but no serious photographic essays or documentaries. It was at this point that I took it as a sign that I had to be the first to do that...and eventually this evolved into publishing the book: Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam.

Sharing The Ceremonial Wheat Wine Known As "Rượu Cần". Photo ©2016 Kim Nga
It took more than 18 months since that first accidental encounter with a Đạo Mẫu religious ceremony to reach the point where I felt I was ready to produce a substantial book about my journey into the depths of this esoteric religion, in its sacred rituals and music. 

Apart from the five or six trips of two weeks each to Hanoi, from attending over two dozen hầu đồng ceremonies in the capital, suburbs and further afield, and from interviewing some of the most popular spirit mediums, I researched Đạo Mẫu in as many publications and books that I could find. It wasn't readily available, and even the venerable New York Public Library wasn't able to find a specific historical tome in its inventory. I learned a lot from interviewing the mediums and by observing their mannerisms and styles during the ceremonies and in social settings.


On reviewing the material I had gleaned from my research and trips, I concluded my book would end up being between 150-200 pages, with about 100 full page color photographs.  I carefully chose and edited my photographs out of the thousands I had taken, and I started typing the manuscript.

The next step was to choose a print-on-demand publisher. I had toyed with the idea of using a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publishing costs for an offset printing, but decided against it as too time-consuming and potentially a time-waster. After a few tries, I settled on Blurb Books.

I have had past experience with Blurb Books, when I published two monochrome photo books:  Bali: Island of Gods and DARSHAN, but this would be the first time that I'd use them for a color photo book. Setting that aside, I had a number of reasons to use this popular print-on-demand publisher.

Firstly, I was used to Blurb Books' BookWright free tool, which allows users to publish custom photo books, magazines, and novels in either print or ebook format. I wasn't interested in its templates as I wanted total creative control on my book's layout, but I could use the rest of its features, including the ability to eventually produce the book in printed form and ebook.

At work using Blurb Books' BookWright
Secondly, Blurb Books has its own bookstore for books, and has a option which allows its users to publish their books on Amazon. Thirdly, I knew that Blurb Books could produce my books very quickly, and could deliver them efficiently to my eventual buyers.

This brings me to my efforts to get an international publishing house interested in my book. I collected a few of my best photographs of hầu đồng ceremonies, added a few paragraphs on the religion's background and emailed TASCHEN, TeNeues-USA, Phaidon and others. Most of the publishing houses demurred or didn't respond.

Being very pleased at the quality, layout and color reproduction of the dummy test book, I ordered a hard cover large format landscape version of the book, and offered it for sale as a special edition on my own website at a discount to start the marketing momentum. Not only were the results very encouraging, but the feedback made it all worthwhile.

Đạo Mẫu (and its Hầu Đồng rituals) is a fascinating syncretic religious practice mixing a number of artistic elements, such as music, singing, dance and the use of costumes. It also happens to be a joyous religious ceremony, without the dour, morose, guilt-ridden and fearsome ambiances of some other established religions we all know about.


The ceremonies are often joyous and engage the audience.

I had remarked in an earlier blog post that I had found a calling with this book project. My photographic expeditions-workshops were characterized with constantly having a definite documentary objective to them. Whether the objectives were Sufi festivals, obscure Hindu religious events such the gathering of the Vellichappadu and Theyyam, or the Cao Dai tradition in central Vietnam, I always had an intellectual, and not only a photographic, interest in such esoteric activities, and those who joined my trips seemed to have shared that. However, being practically unable to spend but just a few days at such events meant that significant ‘coverage’ was impossible, and this frustrated me. Spending weeks in a single location or on one single religious event was impractical with a half dozen or more other photographers in tow.

Literally stumbling on the Vietnamese religious tradition of Đạo Mẫu, and its ceremonial tangential manifestations such as Hầu Đồng and Hát Chầu Văn in late 2014 has literally supercharged, and reinvigorated, my enthusiasm for documentary photography, audio recording, storytelling and multimedia production over these past two years.

Pondering what to do with a gift of money and a lit cigarette during a ceremony. Photo © Hoang Anh
The special editions ready to go.


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Jean-Claude Moschetti | Egunguns | Magic on Earth

Photo © Jean-Claude Moschetti - All Rights Reserved
African spirituality, such as worship of ancestors and protective spirits, also includes traditional secret societies and voodoo, and is a fertile field for unusual ethnographic photography.

Jean-Claude Moschetti's photographs in Magic On Earth is about these African occult traditions where masks are considered to be mediators between the living world and the supernatural world of the dead, ancestors and other entities.

He tells us that in Burkina Faso, these masks represent protective spirits that can take animal forms or can appear as strange beings. These spirits watch over a family, clan or community, and if the rules for their propitiation are followed correctly, provide for the fertility, health, and prosperity.

The word Egungun signifies all types of masquerades or masked, costumed figures worn by the Yoruba people, and which are connected with ancestor reverence, or to the ancestors themselves as a collective force. The Yoruba is an ethnic group of Southwestern and North central Nigeria as well as Southern and Central Benin known as the Yorubaland cultural region of West Africa.

Amongst the Yoruba, the annual ceremonies in honor of the dead serve as a means of assuring their ancestors a place among the living. They believe the ancestors have the responsibility to compel the living to uphold the ethical standards of the past generations of their clan, town or family. The Egungun are celebrated in festivals, known as Odun Egungun, and in family ritual through the masquerade custom.

Jean-Claude Moschetti has photographed his Egungun series in four different countries; Benin, Burkina-Faso, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. He plans to continue this series throughout the African continent.
 
Born in France, he studied at the Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des Techniques de Diffusion, en Belgique, and worked in the movie industry. He worked as a freelance photographer/photojournalist since 1995.

His work appeared in Le Figaro, Libération, Le Monde, GEO, Les Echos, Le Point, L’Express, La Vie, Capital, Challenges, L’Expansion, L’Usine Nouvelle, Moniteur duBTP, Liaisons Sociales, LSA, Que Choisir, Forbes Magazine, Financial Times, among others.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Berta Tilmantaitė | Burma - Myanmar

Photo © Berta Tilmantaitė -All Rights Reserved
I am saddened by the recent news of a major earthquake affecting Myanmar, and at the loss of life and at the reported damage to over 150 historic pagodas in Bagan...so I was glad to have noticed the work of Berta Tilmantaitė on my Facebook timeline-wall.

It's not as much on Bagan and its pagodas, but is a visual and musical journey through Myanmar, specifically while Berta and a friend were traveling on a public boat from Yangon to Pathein, and onwards to Bagan. They stayed on the deck with all other people - locals, traveling to small villages along the river. I recall taking this public boat at dawn from Mandalay to Bagan, and it was a wonderful trip.

Berta Tilmantaité is a Lithuanian multimedia journalist, photographer and videographer. Her visual stories from different parts of the world often focus on the connection between human and nature. Berta has BA in Journalism from Vilnius University (Lithuania), also took a course in Photojournalism at Danish School of Media and Journalism. She holds MA in International Multimedia Journalism (University of Bolton/Beijing Foreign Studies University). Currently Berta works as a freelance multimedia journalist and photographer. Her work has been published in various media outlets, such as National Geographic, Al Jazeera, Geographical, GEO, Rhythms Monthly, China daily and others. She also occasionally lectures at Vilnius University and VGT University in Vilnius, Lithuania





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?