JRP: Tewfic El Sawy is the author of the fabulous photo blog, The Travel Photographer. Thanks to his websites I have garnered a new respect and admiration for those who label themselves travel photographers. JRP Blog is pleased to share with you this interview with Tewfic El Sawy.
Tewfic El Sawy: Thank you James for inviting me, and thank you for your supportive comments of The Travel Photographer Blog.
JRP: Where do you call home Tewfic?
Tewfic El Sawy: Home is New York City, where I’ve lived for the past 18 months. Prior to that, home was Bronxville in Westchester County, about 20 miles north of Manhattan. I’m Egyptian-born and initially moved with Citibank to Houston, Texas along with my family in the late seventies. This assignment was followed by a stint in Bahrain for a couple of years, then to London for about 7 years and then finally to New York.
JRP: What initially led you to photography and do you have any formal training?
Tewfic El Sawy: By and large, I’m really self-taught and I suppose I was drawn to photography because I have no talent in drawing or painting. I recall buying a Canon A1 in Houston because it was at the time the only camera that offered setting info in its viewfinder, and I figured that was a way to learn all about photography. I used it whenever I traveled on business, and perhaps it was this that’s the genesis of why I chose travel photography as a specialty. Let me say that my wife, perhaps recognizing what I didn’t at the time, booked me in an 8-weekends course in black & white photography at the lovely Wandsworth home of Uri Lewinski and his wife Mayotte Magnus.
Uri was an old school photographer in the mold of Ansel Adams (carefully executed landscapes as well as posed portraits), while Mayotte was more of a free spirit. I learned quite a lot of the basics then, including darkroom work, developing and processing film and prints. Otherwise, I learned from observing others, reading what I could and doing. I then attended a street photography course in 2000 with Constantine Manos in Havana, Cuba which was arranged by the Maine Photo Workshop. That’s about it.
JRP: Why have you concentrated on travel photography? What made this type of image capture attractive to you?
Tewfic El Sawy: As I mentioned, I think it was being in a business that allowed to travel internationally quite a lot. My camera accompanied me wherever I went, and if I had a few free hours I would photograph whatever I saw, be it in Qatar or Taipei. I’m also very interested in various cultures, religions and ethnic festivals. I’m one of those people to whom the National Geographic was (and still is) a source of inspiration, and I guess it just fed but also honed an enormous curiosity in different geographical areas.
JRP: What would I find in your camera bag for a typical trip and shoot?
Tewfic El Sawy: I recently bought the new Canon 5D Mark II, so that’s one of the two cameras I now use. The other is the Canon 1D Mark II workhorse which I just adore in terms of its reliability and durability (I owned two Canon EOS 1V and I suppose the Mark II just took their place). I also have a Canon 700-200mm 2.8L, a 28-70mm 2.8L, a 17-40mm 4.0L and a 24mm 1.4L. Although I prefer to shoot in natural light, I also own a 580EX flash which I seldom use. A Canon G10 for street photography (in New York City) and a Flash recorder Micro Track to record audio which accompanies some of my slideshows.
JRP: Is there one lens that you just can’t do without and why?
Tewfic El Sawy: There’s no hesitation on that one. It’s the 28-70mm 2.8L. I now realize I perhaps should have bought the 24-70mm, but I can’t recall why I didn’t.
JRP: I read where you don’t like to spend a lot of time processing images. Could you please describe your digital work flow and the software you use.
Tewfic El Sawy: I don’t like to spend a lot of time processing images at all. I just don’t have the patience nor the know-how to fine-tune my photographs to the point where they become, in my view, almost unrecognizable. Having said that, I ought to point out that I seldom sell prints, and that most of my sales have been to magazines, book publishers, or buyers who do their own printing. This saves me a lot of time, hassle and money. When I’m asked for prints, I outsource the digital process to a commercial outfit here in NYC. My digital workflow is a simple one. I use either an iMAC or Powerbook with which I’ve loaded Lightroom 2.2 and just convert my RAW images into TIFFs and that’s it.
JRP: Do you set a lot of custom white balances?
Tewfic El Sawy: No. I just use the Auto setting.
JRP: How do you handle image printing?
Tewfic El Sawy: I’m seldom asked for prints, which is great for me because it removes an enormous burden from my workflow. My images are handled digitally, either sent on DVD or FTP’ed to the client. When I am asked for large format prints, I rely on a commercial printer in Chelsea.
JRP: For you what is the most critical moment in the capture of an image?
Tewfic El Sawy: It’s a gut feel and it differs from one photograph to the other. Since I do a lot of people photography, I suppose it’s the expression in the eyes that tells me whether I “got” the shot or not. However, I’m also interested in story-telling, so weaving stories from imagery is a goal whenever I travel; it’s almost merging photojournalism and documentary photography with location/travel photography.
JRP: Do you have any projects you are currently working on?
Tewfic El Sawy: I’m working on self-publishing a photo book of Indian widows in the city of Vrindavan, which will carry the same title as its website “WhiteShadows.com.
JRP: What has been the best advice given to you by another photographer?
Tewfic El Sawy: In 2000, Constantine Manos of Magnum looked at my work and told me: “Your photographs are technically fine, but they’re too simple”. I’ve been trying to “complicate” them ever since.
JRP: What advice would you share with photographers starting out?
Tewfic El Sawy: It’s a very difficult industry in which to survive, so my advice is purely commercial rather than abstract. Emerging photographers must broaden their photographic talents as much as possible. For instance, if you want to do travel photography, do wedding destination photography. Do whatever it takes to bring in money to the table to allow you to pursue what you want to do, or find a paying job that has connections to the photo industry if you can. By the way, I have a moral dilemma with internships which are usually non-paying gigs.
JRP: Thank you Tewfic for sharing your thoughts and images with us. It has been a real pleasure talking with you, and I wish you continued success.
Tewfic El Sawy: You’re very welcome James, and thank you for thinking of inviting me to do this interview.
JRP: To view more of Tewfic El Sawy’s photography and to checkout his photo trips please follow these links: