Travel Photographer Interviews: Tewfic El-Sawy

by Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström Jun 2, 2010
Tewfic El-Sawy

All photos courtesy of Tewfic El-Sawy

In a new series on Notebook, we interview professional photographers, and discuss their different perspectives on travel photography as well as tips for taking better pictures.

THE CREATIVE FORCE behind “The Travel Photographer”, Tewfic El-Sawy specializes in documenting endangered cultures and traditional life ways of Asia, Latin America and Africa.

His photography has been published in Outdoor Photography, Digital Photographer, GlobalPost, and have been featured by some of the largest adventure travel companies in the United States and Great Britain. He also organizes and leads exciting photo expeditions to places such as Bali, Bhutan, India, and Mexico.

MatadorU faculty and travel photographer Lola Akinmade caught up with Tewfic in the midst of planning his next photo expedition to learn more about the photographer behind the popular The Travel Photographer blog.

How long have you been a professional photographer?

It was a slow and progressive morphing from international banking to travel photography over the past 20 years, however I can say that it really got going in 2000.

Before that, it was almost like having two personalities; one being a “starched” banker during workdays, and a more relaxed personality befitting that of a travel photographer during the weekends.

What – or who – got your initial interest going in terms of photography?

There’s no doubt that my traveling on banking business to various countries ignited my interest in travel photography as a genre. These business trips made me realize that I liked having access to different cultures.

When living in London, my wife booked me in an 8-weekends course in black & white photography at the home/studio of Uri Lewinski and his wife Mayotte Magnus; both professional photographers with opposite stylistic disciplines where I learned basic darkroom work, developing and processing film and prints.

I also attended a street photography class with Constantine Manos in Havana, and a photojournalism workshop with John Stanmeyer and Gary Knight in Bali.

Tewfic El-Sawy
What were your first photographic experiments or experiences?

My first serious camera was a Canon A1 bought when working and living in Houston. It was essentially to photograph the family and my children growing up, however I also started experimenting with still life photography.

My favorite set-up was to back-light wine bottles, with a plate of grapes placed just so. I still have some of those prints, which are probably the most hideous still life studies ever done.

Eventually, I took my camera on my trips, and whenever I had a few moments I would walk the streets of Taipei, Athens or Stockholm and photograph whatever caught my eye. I used to be a black & white shooter at the time, and would return home to process the negatives, and print them in my basement darkroom.

I also experimented with unorthodox photo emulsions, and still have a couple of beautiful calla lilies photographs printed on liquid emulsion which hang on our walls.

However it was the adrenaline of travel photography that turned me on the most…especially exotic cultures. Photographing Stockholm’s Gamla stan or Paris was nice, but I was more in my element shooting in the back alleys of Taipei and Istanbul. It was on the back of these business trips that I started to specialize in documenting endangered cultures.

Tewfic El-Sawy
How would you describe the work you do now…obviously there’s a strong reportage / photojournalistic element, but are you involved in the commercial world also? Any stock photography?

I am drawn to religious rituals and cultural festivals (especially those which have ancient history to them), and by definition these require a photojournalistic approach to them.

I try to research these rituals and festivals so as to become reasonably familiar with their cultural background, history and origins. This allows me to have a better understanding of what’s going on, which I hope come through my images.

Because of this affinity, my work is more reportage-oriented as I try to weave imagery and cultural information together.

I did get involved in stock photography for a few years, but recently found that it wasn’t for me. I’ve moved away from the traditional travel imagery required by stock agencies and travel catalogs/brochures.

The stock photography industry has considerably changed over the past few years, so I lost interest. There are many other excellent photographers who make a living from commercial and stock imagery, and I admire them for doing so.

It’s highly competitive and very tough.

What 3 tips would you share for amateur photographers who are interested in pursuing your documentary style of photography?

In my view, the most important qualification is to have (and continuously develop) a strong and wide-ranging interest in foreign cultures, history and geo-political events. This is the underpinning foundation for the emerging photojournalist.

As for tips, I’d say the first would be to drop the ego, and to remain humble and helpful to others, whether they are in the same field or not.

The second would be to learn and use ancillary visual add-ons to still photography such as multimedia, audio recording, etc.

The third would be to learn some words and sentences in as many foreign languages as possible.

Tewfic El-Sawy
You are known online as “The Travel Photographer”. Can you tell us more about your website and workshops?

My photo~expeditions (as I call my trips) are technically by invitation only, which means that photographers interested in them usually subscribe to my periodic newsletters I send out.

These newsletters list forthcoming itineraries and dates, as well as galleries of my own work, and the subscribers contact me to join. The itineraries are based on traveling to “off-the-beaten-path” destinations as much as possible, and the photography style is best described as “travel photojournalism” or “documentary travel photography”.

Normally, I research specific destinations that have cultural and historical elements, and structure the itineraries with story-telling objectives in mind. During these trips, I tutor participants in story-telling techniques and multimedia using easy-to-use software readily and cheaply available from the internet.

The end objective of each photo-expedition is to have participants return with their locally-produced travel documentaries, as well as regular travel photographs.

Since participation in these photo~expeditions was originally based on first-registered-first in, causing long waiting-lists, I have had to introduce an element of screening based on a quick portfolio viewing and other criteria.

Apart from The Travel Photographer blog, my photography website ( showcases my travel photography galleries, my multimedia galleries, and my photo~expeditions. I am currently working on a parallel website that will be iPad and iTouch compatible.

Which other photographers – old or contemporary – inspire you most?

I have enormous respect for the photojournalistic work of James Nachtwey, John Stanmeyer, Munem Wasif, Gary Knight, and especially Sebastiao Salgado.

On the editorial and travel side, I like the work of relative newcomers such as Shiho Fukada, Jehad Nga, Diego Verges, Joey L. and many others.

Tewfic El-Sawy
Since you do a lot of portraiture, when you are approaching subjects to shoot, how do you set about it? Do you chat and explain what you’re doing? Or shoot first, ask questions later?

I mentioned Sebastiao Salgado as a visual influence. He’s also quoted as saying “If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture”.

That’s my overriding principle when I photograph people. I always try to engage the subjects before photographing them, and have various methods to “unfreeze” people for natural-looking environmental portraits.

The easiest is to show my potential subjects a gallery or two of my photographs which I carry on my iPod Touch. This arouses some sense of vanity…the “me too” syndrome. However, one of my time-tested techniques is to initially photograph children or babies, and showing them to the parents.

This immediately changes my image from being a foreigner into that of a family member. What I’m after during a photo shoot are two things: being accepted and/or being forgotten…I want to go beyond the reflexive smile.

I engage people as much as I can, since I want our “relationship” to be reflected in their eyes, on their faces and in their body language.

I love candid photography, which is frequently necessary and gives great results, but I prefer a more face-to-face approach to my portraits.

What’s the craziest or most inspiring encounter you’ve had in general?

Like most photographers, I faced difficult situations but fortunately none that I wasn’t able to defuse reasonably quickly. The most inspiring moment was during photographing elderly widows in Vrindavan (India), when one of them asked me to publicize their plight.

She called me her “grandson” and despite her poverty, she worried the sun was too strong for me. Along with other photojournalists who had been there before and after me, their plight was indeed publicized and some improvements were introduced by the local authorities.

The craziest (and worrisome at the time) encounter was probably being accused by a group of Indonesians of being an agent for the FBI.

Tewfic El-Sawy
What kit do you use / carry with you / can’t do without (camera make, lenses, flashguns etc.)?

My primary camera is a Canon 5D Mark II, along with a bunch of Canon L lenses such as a 24mm f 1.4, a 28-70mm f 2.8, a 17-40mm f4 and a IS 70-200mm f2.8 zoom.

I also use an older Canon 1D Mark II which is truly a workhorse of a machine. I’d love to replace it with a newer model but I’m emotionally attached to it, and it does the job I want from it.

I don’t use flash much as I prefer natural light, but I occasionally use a Canon 550EX.

Depending where I travel to, I either carry a Mac Book Pro or an Acer netbook to work on my images whilst in the field, or for my multimedia workshops.

Finally, what else are you working on right now and what are your ambitions for the future in terms of your photography work or anything else?

One of my on-going projects is on documenting the Sufis, and it’s a project that I try to work and expand on whenever I’m in India, Egypt, Morocco or Turkey. There are certain countries with strong Sufi influences such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I’m hopeful that these countries’ political situations improve and calm down allowing me to visit and continue this particular project.

I am one of the instructors at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, where my class is on multimedia for photojournalists, and I hope to continue teaching it as long as it’s of interest to emerging photojournalists. I also intend to continue with my photo~expeditions / workshops and, as I mentioned earlier, to further refine their thrust towards documentary travel photography and multimedia.

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