POV: The ‘Russian Nesting Dolls’ Syndrome

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Caused by a number of reasons, it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted on my blog. Traveling to Hanoi to expand on my research for my forthcoming photo book “Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam”, then to Cairo then to San Francisco for non-photography related reasons, has limited my available time and focus to do so.

Since I started my involvement in this personal project, I’ve experienced a resurgence of excitement, not only for photography, but also a spike in my intellectual interest in syncretic religious traditions, occult cultural customs and practices, Asian history and languages, to mention just a few.

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 literally supercharged, and reinvigorated, my enthusiasm for documentary photography, audio recording, storytelling and multimedia production.

I’ve already amassed a substantial inventory of photographs and interviews relating to Hầu Đồng ceremonies and the mediums who are involved in the practice, but similar to matryoshka dolls (aka Russian nesting dolls), every ceremony or interview I attend or conduct reveals another interesting opportunity. Moreover, the more I read and research about Đạo Mẫu, the more I discover other influences that intrigue me, and that I want to explore and incorporate in my continuously evolving personal project. I now have the serious fear of not knowing when to call it quits.

The British idiomatic expression “how long is a piece of string?” in response to a question of how long will a project take is apt in my case. It’s in my hands when I deem it to be complete, but with the continuous emergence of connected traditions, I’ll have a difficult time to say enough is enough.
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