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Foreigner photographs Hầu Đồng

Update: September, 29/2016 - 09:00
Following his passion: New York-based travel photographer Tewfic El-Sawy is passionate about endangered cultures and religious rituals. Photo Courtesy of Tewfic
Viet Nam News

By Hồng Vân 

Tewfic El-Sawy just published his first book of colour photographs, Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam, an outgrowth of his passionate interest in indigenous religions and cults.

“It was a wonderful journey into the world of this typical Vietnamese tradition. I am enourmously proud that I am the only non-Vietnamese photographer to have photographed Hầu Đồng ceremonies in such depth,” said Tewfic.

Coffee table book: This is the first book of color photos taken by a foreign photographer to document the Vietnamese Hầu Đồng ritual. –Photo Courtesy of Tewfic

Tewfic has pursued photography full time since losing interest in his work as an international corporate banker in 2000. Initially he attended photo workshops with talented photographers to learn from them. But Tewfic is mostly self-taught.

Tewfic’s international trips, taken while he was still a banker, gave him the opportunity to see a variety of cultures in the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

“Witnessing and comparing these cultures was always a fascinating pastime for me,” said Tewfic.

While leading his first photo workshops during the 2000s, Tewfic decided to offer diverse experiences to allow the participants to explore and document religious rituals. Since then, he has continued to nurture his passion for photographing unique and unusual traditions, festivals and rituals through his travels.

“I was attracted to obscure traditions, studied them and photographed events as they happened. My photographs have a definite documentary objective,” Tewfic said. “Whether Sufi festivals or obscure Hindu religious events - such the gathering of the Vellichappadu and Theyyam or the Cao Đài tradition in central Việt Nam - I always had an intellectual, and not only a photographic, interest in such esoteric activities.”

Unique: Hầu Đồng rituals merge religion, fashion, choreography, theater, soothsaying and mediumship to engage audiences in a way Tewfic hadn’t seen before. –Photo Courtesy of Tewfic.

Tewfic first attended the Hầu Đồng ceremony in 2014 during a trip to Việt Nam to lead a photography workshop for US and Australian photographers.

One early morning in September 2014, Tewfic was walking on Fansipan Road in Sa Pa, listening to religious music coming from a local temple. Through sign language exchanged with an ethnic woman, he knew the ceremony would start at 9am.

“This is how my two-year journey into the world of Đạo Mẫu, indigenous Vietnamese mother goddess worship, and Hầu Đồng, ritual spirit mediumship, started. Totally by accident,” recalled Tewfic.

A few days later, the New York-based travel photographer attended another Hầu Đồng ceremony. It was at that event that Tewfic decided to study the ritual, its history and practitioners.

Folkways: Tewfic is fascinated by obscure and unique indigenous traditions. He likes to study them and to photograph events as they unfold. –Photo Courtesy of Tewfic.

Back home in the US, he researched the topic on the Internet. He discovered that no non-Vietnamese photographer had ever completed a comprehensive documentary or photo essay on the ceremony.

“I took it as a sign: I had to be the first to publish a book about this religious tradition,” Tewfic said.

The 170 page colour photo book was finished and published in early September. It introduces Đạo Mẫu and its rituals to both international and Vietnamese audiences who are not familiar with, or who misunderstand, the tradition, said Tewfic.

"Đạo Mẫu and its Hầu Đồng rituals is a fascinating syncretic religious practice. I found the rituals and ceremonies to be the only ones -in my experience - that mixed religiosity with fashion, that merged choreography with theatrics, that involved soothsaying and mediumship, and engaged audiences in a way I hadn’t seen before,” said Tewfic.

“What a contrast to the dour and joyless rituals of the so-called monotheistic religions! Not only that, but it extols the ancient history of Việt Nam, the struggles of its heroes against the many foreign invaders, and strengthens the nationalism and patriotism of its people.”

“It is Việt Nam’s heritage and it should be known around the world. I am hopeful that it will soon be inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list,” said Tewfic.

Despite having two other monochrome photo book published, Tewfic faced some problems with the scarcity of references needed and the language barrier, which made it hard for him to understand quickly what is happening during the ceremony.

Tewfic had to rely on Vietnamese friends for translation services from the first days of the project to understand what was happening.

“The kindness of Vietnamese friends, acquaintances and strangers to me during my time in Hà Nội was unique,” said Tewfic.

He spent a total of 18 months in Hà Nội, including six two-week trips, attending dozens of ceremonies in the city, suburbs and other provinces, to prepare for the publication of the book.

He also interviewed some of the most well recognised spirit mediums of Việt Nam, including Lê Thanh Tâm, Nguyễn Vi and chầu văn (a highly rhythmic form of singing accompanied by Hầu Đồng ritual) singing artists Trịnh Ngọc Minh and Hoàng Tiến Hưng.

“I learned a lot from interviewing the mediums and by observing their mannerisms and styles during the ceremonies and in social settings,”said Tewfic. “Their individual stories have common threads. They told me of their struggles with illness and other challenges in their lives which were healed and resolved when they answered the call to become mediums.”

Vietnamese culture and stories: The photo book introduces Đạo Mẫu and its rituals to international and Vietnamese audiences. –Photo Courtesy of Tewfic

For Tewfic, the female mediums were more interesting on a personal level. The male mediums were perhaps more knowledgeable about the history of Đạo Mẫu, but the life stories of the female mediums made more of an impact on him.

Tewfic was always treated with enormous kindness, generosity and hospitality whenever he attended a ceremony or interviewed mediums for his book.

“I am sure I made many mistakes when I attended ceremonies, perhaps getting too close to photograph things. But I was always forgiven with a smile. The audience was always appreciative that I attended the ceremonies, and would often offer me fruits and bottled water. I will never forget their kindness,” said Tewfic.

The photographer will introduce his new book on Hầu Đồng in Hà Nội on November 5 at 43 Nhật Chiêu and on November 11 at 24 Lý Quốc Sư.

“Due to my fondness and affection for Việt Nam, I also hope to discover new projects in Việt Nam that I can bring to various audiences,” Tewfic said. — VNS 



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