Essaouira Report: The Gnaoua (Gnawa) Music Festival

I recently returned from the coastal little town of Essaouira in Morocco, where the world-renowned 12th Festival of Gnaoua Music took place from June 25 to 28. This is an annual event, religiously attended by fans of international and African music since it’s the venue of many world-class musical groups, generally from Africa, Europe and the Americas. To me, the attraction was to photograph the exotic Gnaoua musicians during their performances, as I had heard they had small–almost private–seances in various parts of the little medina in the very heart of Essaouira.

Gnaoua (sometimes also spelled Gnawa) music is a mixture of sub-Saharan African, Berber, and Arabic Islamic religious songs and rhythms, and it combines music and acrobatic dancing. Aurally and historically, its main influence is traced back to sub-Saharan Africa, but its current practice is concentrated in north Africa, mainly Morocco and Algeria. However, I have discerned similarities between Gnaoua music and folk songs from Sudan, so perhaps its influence extends even further. (more…)

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Cairo Report: The Real Thing?


This is the second episode recounting my pursuit of authentic Zeqr, the Egyptian Sufi ceremony, after my first experience in a neighborhood of Old Cairo was somewhat diluted by a competing soccer match. This time, the Zeqr ceremony was supposed to be even more authentic because it was to take place on a Thursday night in a small rural village on the western banks of the Nile River called Matawat.

I am ready by the agreed-upon time of 10:30 pm, and wait for the hoarse honk of Abdel-Fattah’s (aka Kojak) rickety taxi. It sounds right on the dot; an extraordinary feat in Egypt where time-keeping is rarely part of the national DNA, and we are on our way, amidst gas fumes and an exhaust pipe ominously rattling against the Peugeot’s floorboards. My gear is primed and ready, and I am really excited at the prospect. I knew this was to be the real thing; especially since it was Badawi’s father who had arranged it for me to photograph and record the ceremony. (more…)

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Cairo Report: Zekr, or Soccer?


On my way to Cairo I developed a plan to photograph and document the zekr; a form of ritual performed by Sufis, a sect of Islam frequently considered as too liberal and too progressive by the more orthodox theological authorities in Egypt and the Islamic world. It was a tall order since I was after the authentic zekr, not some version diluted or prettified for the tourists and tour groups. It was therefore by pure luck that I discovered someone with strong connections to one of the Sufi tariqahs or sub-sects, and who promised me full access to a number of these rituals. The devotions of many Sufis center on the zekr, a ceremony at which music, body movements, and chants induce a state of ecstatic trance in the disciples. (more…)

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Marantz PMD620

One of the accessories I needed to get before leading my Theyyams of Kerala photo expedition earlier this year was the ::amazon(“B000Z8CUX2”,”Marantz PMD620)::. It is a small hand-held audio recorder, which I needed badly at the time because my aging M-Audio MicroTrack I was beginning to act erratically.

The PMD620 is attractively designed, with a grey metal front covering a black casing. In terms of size, it’s about the size of an older generation iPod, or about 4 inches by 2 inches and 3/4 inch in thickness. It sports two built-in mics into the top two sides of its body, and two 1/8-inch jacks are available for an external mic and headphones. A neat little trick is to use the Line-Out jack for your headphones instead of the one on top. This is more convenient, and avoids the headphones coming near the mics whilst recording. (more…)

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Are You Doing Audio Slideshows Yet?

I’m a fervent believer, a virtual “evangelist” if you will, in combining multimedia along with still photography. I can only speak to travel and documentary photography, but multimedia obviously lends itself to all visual disciplines such as wedding, landscape and other photography styles and directions.

I teach emerging photographers and photojournalists classes that shows them how to make quick work of slide show production, using their own images and audio generated in the field, to produce a cogent photo story under the simulation of publishing deadlines. Most of the class time is spent photographing in the field, while indoors time is devoted to weaving the material into photo stories, and the storytelling; the core of all multimedia productions. I will be teaching such a class at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in the Himalayan foothills of India in July 2009. (more…)

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Larger To Sell

Since I started The Travel Photographer blog, I’ve come across a lot of photographers’ web sites, and found some that are excellent; some are sort of good, while others are, frankly, just hideous.

We all know that the main objective of a website for most photographers is to promote themselves, to sell and expand the reach of their photography to new clients, and certainly to internationalize their work. However, too many photographers forget that simplicity is always best in creating websites. Whether photo editors or just casual viewers, simple websites with killer images are those that work. (more…)

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Theyyams of Malabar: Incarnate Deities

tewfic_theyyamPhoto ©Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved.

I’ve just returned from Kerala, India where I was leading a 2 weeks photo-expedition to this area whose tourism slogan is “God’s Own Country”. Geographically, the region is called the Malabar Coast, and it includes most of Kerala state and the coastal region of Karnataka state. This is extremely diverse area, with ancient ties to maritime trading routes with the Arabian Gulf and much beyond.

The highlight of the expedition was the unique Theyyam rituals and performances, which are indigenous to a small rural area in north Kerala. This opportunity provided a window into a world of remarkable and ancient traditions, seldom seen (nor appreciated) by mainstream tourists. (more…)

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Fixers, Field Recorders & the iTouch

Having been photographing Theyyams, the religious rituals indigenous to Northern Kerala in India a couple of weeks ago, I thought it’d be timely to share my approach when I photograph such public (and possibly sensitive) events such as those I witnessed.

The most important tip is a no-brainer. Employ the best fixer you can find and afford. I’m not talking of tourist guides who trawl tourists in their wake, but of fixers who are adept in solving problems, who can get you to where you need to be in less time with less hassle than you can on your own, and who have the requisite connections. Good fixers are not easy to find, and must develop a personal connection with the photographer. If you don’t like your fixer, chances are that he or she won’t do a good job. (more…)

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Kathakali: Kerala’s Dance-Drama


I’ve just returned from Kerala, India where I’ve been leading a 2 weeks photo-expedition, and I’m already suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms. No matter how many times I travel to photograph in South and South-East Asia, I still feel such symptoms when I return home, and I realize that the intensity of my photography, whether during festivals and rituals or just plain-vanilla street photography, is drug-like. (more…)

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Ten Travel Photography Commandments


Photo ©Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

I’m soon to travel on a photo-expedition to the south of India with the intention of documenting the unusual ritualistic dances called Theyyam. The dances take place in remote villages principally in the state of Kerala, in a region known for its several thousand-year-old traditions, rituals and customs.

I thought I’d start my inaugural post by sharing my ten travel photography commandments, distilling what I’ve learned over the course of the past years as to what helps make better travel and environmental (on-location) portraits…or at least, what works for me. (more…)

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