“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
â€” Oscar Wilde
For the past few months I have been trying to meet with Tewfic El-Sawy. When he’s in London, I am in Bombay. When he’s in New York, I am in Brussels. When he’s in Brussels, I am in Brazil.
But we both receive our respective travel newsletters and in several occasions showed each other mutual respect and admiration through brief comments on our online publications, websites and emails hoping to have a chance to meet at last between one continent and the other.
Have you ever had that feeling before? When you get so global there are no frontiers or dimensions. Without necessarily traveling, today you are able to connect at any level with people through the millions of miles that separate you from that person without even knowing her, through the different social networks, or any other platform provided by the internet. Tewfic and I were connected through visual images.
The month of November has come, where accidentally or not, both of us are in the same part of the world and that is New York City. Believe it or not, after a few exchanges of texts and emails to decide where we would meet I get to “miss” our appointment that should have been in Tewfic’s West Village apartment.
“It’s interesting as an apartment because its walls are totally covered with artwork…with Asian stuff I get when I travel. Would it get a mention in architectural digest? No.
“From a photography standpoint, its not interesting because its not a studio…the only thing is that there are some of my pics in my office and a couple of computers and lots of hard drives. All digital now. I know what you have in mind…a sort of ‘photographer in his work milieu ‘…while the paintings, Buddhas and Burmese prayer books would be good, its not really photography. So its really up to you to decide…I’m open to whatever you’re comfortable with.” He writes.
And my Apple Calendar for some reason lost its info that week. So he “cleaned the mess” of his apartment for a visit he was expecting that never took place, Tewfic had travel appointments he could not cancel and patiently agreed to meet me at the Bottega Del Vino the next Monday before my November Newsletter edition.
He recognized me immediately. I could not say the same for me as there are practically no picture of him in his profiles. Tall, grey hair, black wool turtleneck and an Allure from a distant but familiar place, he greets me with a handshake and half of a smile.
My usual decaff expresso macchiato and a capuccino for him are on the Italian wood table. A couple from Sao Paulo passes by and after exchanging a few words in Portuguese with them I find myself answering Tewfic questions such as, “So you are Brazilian? Is this a Canon G9?”
“Yes I am Brazilian, without noticing I am talking about my life, career, travels and cameras and in a rush because I remind him that It was me who asked for the interview! Finally, inspired or on guard, he pronounces his first statement: “I am very good at listening (pause, silence) I am used to listening. I was a banker.” Wow! After such a revelation I almost stop breathing hoping the rest would come righteously.
And in a paused tone, almost of a nobleman he recounts his story: “I was born in Cairo, Egypt, (that’s where the Allure comes from) and used to work for Citibank there. On my several trips to South East Asia and Indonesia, I used to take some pictures in my free time and I guess this awakened my interested in travel photography” He used a 35mm Canon A-1 and his only experience, according to Tewfic, apart from those business trips, was just shooting “family stuff.”
His Canon choice was based on the fact that it was user friendly and that he could neatly see the shutter speed and light numeric conditions in a clear viewfinder while he was shooting. After being transferred to different cities for his business such as Houston, Texas; Bahrain, London and lastly New York, a sort of epiphany took place when he realized his banking milieu was more about politics than proper and pure finance. “I had enough,” he says, “and this is how I decided to do photography 13 years ago.”
In 2000 he travels for the first time to India armed with a better Canon and large telephoto lenses. Nowhere better than the Rajastan circuit to realize that he started a love story with its colors and “beautiful people as you know” being mostly the theme and the expression of his capturing eye through the shutter speed.
The Internet was just beginning to boom. Tewfic decided to invite a few friends and people who have an interest in photography to join him for, a first of many that will follow, travel expeditions to Nepal, India and Bhutan. Most of those friends were interested in India and thought Tewfic would know his way around (which he confided me he didn’t) and went along touring with him in complete instinctive trust.
And the photo expedition destinations reached four corners of distant lands. From Indigenous inhabitants of Central India to exorcism rituals at the shrines of Sufi-Soldier Saint-Baba Bahadur Shahid, Burma’s Irrawai waters where they befriended the people of Tha’nakha, the Guelagueza festival of Zappotek native inhabitants of Oaxaca, Mexico, honoring the corn-goddess Centeotl and of course I could I not mention Tewfic “rubbing shoulders with ascetics, mendicants, mystics, pilgrims, gurus and yogis, charlatans and beggars in Allahabad ” the largest pilgrimage in the world?
Not making a living out the photo-expeditions “provided my costs are covered, I am fine with it ” Tewfic manages to keep their price extremely affordable (approximately $3,000 US dollars for an average of 10 days trip exuding airfare). Because he uses local travel guides and agencies and does not market at all, people get to know about them through his blog or word-of-mouth and are required to have a special invitation to participate.
He generally organizes three expeditions a year and one workshop where he happen sometimes to teach to an audience of 700 people locally like in Mexico last year. His pictures are sold as individually supervised prints by large multinational companies, banks and art galleries who send their buying agents directly to Tewfic desiring a specific work of art. Other clients include image banks, adventure-travel catalogs, and renowned publications.
For those who still don’t know, Tewfic is pleased to announce he has finished the task of reviewing some of the photographs he returned with from his October 2008 Bhutan photo~expedition.
There are many that he hasn’t seen yet (what a suspense!) but will finally managed to upload some made during the Tamshing and Thangbi Mani Tsechus onto a gallery. He also recorded a lot of ambient audio at various locations, which he will soon start to work on a multimedia feature.
Curiously he mentions in his last newsletter: “If you’re expecting ‘pretty’ travel photographs in this gallery, don’t. Most of these were chosen based on my current stylistic preference for more photo-journalism and documentary photography.”
My last question: “Any future project or dream?” Tewfic confides in me that in he wants his work ” to move away from the pretty smiles…” Thank God he has no camera in his hand as I couldn’t possibly avoid the large smile on my face.
Copyright: All photos in this post are courtesy of Tewfic Al- Sawy.
Photo credits of Tewfic during the expeditions are from tour participant Ralph N. Childs.
The 2009 Travel Photographer Photo Expeditions and workshops : Tewfic Al- Sawy
The Blog : The Travel Photographer
The Motion : Multimedia