Portraits from around the world

Published on Sunday 8th, Sep 2019
Tuscany, river
Men fishing at Prato (Italy)


Going through the photo albums of my travelling years, I realise that most of my pictures revolve around still-life themes, be they landscapes, cities, edifices, or sites of historical and cultural interest. There are, of course, a few snapshots of family and friends, and, unavoidably, some of myself – those last ones, they initially monopolised my interest but have thankfully decreased to just a handful per year. To my surprise, though, there are very few portraits of other people – those unknown passersby who define the space that I traverse – as if I have been too timid to take a closer look through soul windows left ajar, afraid that I pry into stories that are not my own. And, yet, it is these faces – unequivocal expressions of the divine – that give meaning to our surroundings, for, despite its grace, Nature, even the Universe itself, conveys little without the evolution of our interpretations. It is our views, our explorations, our inevitably prejudiced perceptions that define our surroundings; it is our attention that gives worth to infinity.

So, at the dawn of a new, internal shift, I find myself increasingly engrossed in the people that surround me, observing with tenderness the individual lines of imperfection – the stamps of our humanity – while putting my faith in our ability to create reality out of possibilities. We are all similar: physical presences of spiritual fingerprints, unique, sacred, and frequently fragmented, our steps so soft they barely leave a dent. But we stubbornly walk on the perpetual path of homecoming in a quest of the narratives that unite us, until we grasp the cyclical nature of these tales and delve, once more, into the fluid consciousness from which we emerged.

Browsing through my meagre portrait collection, I handpicked forty short stories that triggered a chord. Certain recurring themes surface from this experiment: joy, unity, pride, music. Above all, though, I find myself gravitating around old, and somewhat exotic faces, perhaps in an attempt to reconnect, like those first intelligent humans, with the ancestral lines: those initial perception of the divine, the basis of our identity, the eternal wisdom that guides and protects us. Ultimately, every picture is part of the larger collage that defines me, a touch of humanity, and a different face of God.

Corniche, summer, twilight, Corinth
An old couple rests on a bench, musing at the sea as the sun sets in Loutraki (Greece). I do not dare to go closer for the photo, but as I pass by them, I hear the woman recounting stories about the Goddess Aphrodite in such detail as if giving a lecture. I am impressed by the topic; but, above all, I am mesmerised by the serenity of the moment.
Sharjah, festival, UAE, tradition
Emirati men during an Al Nahama show, singing traditional, fishermen’s songs. Their bodies swing, imitating the ebbs and flows of the sea; the group stands in unity, the way humans usually do in front of a stronger power; and the song is so melodic, it brings tears to my eyes.
Hanoi, Vietnam, Confucius temple
Every year, young men and women gather at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi to celebrate the end of an educational cycle. The girls wear a white ao dai (maybe the world’s most elegant school uniform), have flower wreaths on their heads and rose bouquets in their hands. As they stand in line, most of them looking away towards the same direction, a girl in the middle turns and smiles broadly. There is nothing like the joy in the face of youth!
Makadum area, Nepali
Women sitting outside a coffee shop in Galba Village, Nepal. The traditional bright colours, the fake-beads necklaces, the pierced noses, and the large tray full of chilly red peppers attract our attention. Or, perhaps, it is the women’s peaceful and welcoming demeanour. Although the village is situated on the mountains just a couple of hours away from Kathmandu, its inhabitants belong to a tribe of Mongolian origins, hence their facial characteristics are not the common ones a visitor usually encounters in Nepal.
Berbers leading camels through the Moroccan desert (I am, obviously, on the camel). Although the photo is taken in Morocco, it could have been in any other desert of the Middle East. The colours, the footsteps, the clothes, the bare feet sinking into the sand, all are timeless – and, thus, eternal.
Bali, Indonesia
A group of men try to pull out of the sea a large jukung (traditional, fishing boat) at the beach of Jimbaran, in Bali. It is still quite early in the morning, the air is misty and wet, the sea remains clutched to the edge of the sky’s cloaks, and the horizon is barely detectable. Yet, the men huff and puff, coordinating, changing positions, pulling and sweating together, for this is how a community is meant to work: in unity.
Tuscany, Italy
Unity often comes from rituals. This is the celebration of Palm Sunday in a Catholic Church in Prato, the moment the priests and the congregation reach out and hold hands for a while. I choke, for there is no gesture more fragile and gentler in the world than people holding hands.
China, Beijing
An old man sits at the area that surrounds the Temple of Heaven, ready to play his sheng flute (a traditional, Chinese wind instrument made of bamboos). There is something ancient in his expression – and it is not his age. I feel I have gone back in time.
Old man in Alexandria, absorbed in his paper, backgammon on the table, a nargileh at his side. Despite the tiny pavement and the buzz of the city, he remains engrossed in his article, blind and deaf to the life unfolding around him.
Bhutan, religion, spiritual place
Women chanting, rotating their prayer wheels, and counting the beads of their rosaries at the shade of the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu. Although spiritual enlightenment is the primary goal, the group spends most of the time giggling and chatting. They appear to be inconsistent with their target – and, yet, isn’t true enlightenment achieved through joy and laughter?
Egypt, hiking
Nasser, our Bedouin guide from the Jebelaya tribe, stands on a sand rock having at the background one of the wadis of the Sinai trail. There is pride in his posture, for the wisdom of his people has been etched on his DNA, and he eagerly passes on the knowledge through the stories that he tells every night around the fire.
tea plantations
Old woman picking tea leaves in a plantation in the countryside of Sri Lanka. She is not beautiful and, yet, the scene is so pastoral and picturesque that we rush to take photos. She poses smiling for a while, and then she hunts us for money. We are surprised, as, usually, taking pictures on the island does not come at a price.
Men folding flatbreads outside a bakery in Shiraz. Nearby, the city celebrates the month of Moharam, and processions of men in black whipping their shoulders in a thundering tempo pass through the streets. The bakers remain relaxed, smiling warmly at our tourist curiosity, focused on the small necessities of which their life consists. There seems to be a feeling of enhanced reverence and peace. Maybe because we stand around bread.
One of the few, remaining laternas (large, portable music box) in Ermou street, in Athens. The trolley on which it sits is covered in embroidered cloth, while at the centre there is usually a black-and-white photo of a beautiful woman, the whole covered in garlands of flowers and talismans. For the tourists, this is just a music box. For us, Greeks, it is a nostalgic reminder of an era that is about to fade entirely into oblivion. These last laternas feed on our memories and, thus, survive for a bit longer.
Vietnam, fun, sports, game, joy
An impromptu badminton game in the streets of Hanoi. When there is a will, there is a way.
Beijing, China, marriage photos
Newly married couples are always keen to commemorate the occasion in the most beautiful spot, but the Asians have turned this into an art. I did not get a photo of the bride walking on the Great Wall in high heels (a steep price to pay for a photo!), but at least I got this (admittedly, much more conservative) snapshot, in front of the Forbidden City.
Lebanon, Tripoli, celebration
During family gatherings, the Lebanese seem to follow a specific ritual for the group photo: they line up behind the main table – some of the hostess’ culinary creations still visible – and they stand smiling in a pose that appears to be formal, but, somehow, is full of tenderness and warmth. Apart from the friend who invited me, I did not know the rest of the ladies, and yet they welcomed me as a member of the family in their home, turning this photo into a reminder of gratitude and hospitality.
Nepal, Pashupatinath temple, Kathmandu
Gurus in the Pashupatinath Temple of Kathmandu. Painted in sacred colours, wrapped in just a sheet of cloth, with numerous bead necklaces around their necks, they meditate most of the day, praying for the salvation of their soul and ours. And, yet, they ask for money when someone wishes to take their photo.
Peru, Puno
Young girl with llamas in the countryside of Peru, on the way to Puno. Despite the tenderness of this rather pastoral scene, the girl is actually posing for the passing tourists for a fee. I take the picture from afar, so I don’t pay. The girl is focused elsewhere, but the llama sees me – and smiles.
Our last homestay in Northern Vietnam was not the most pleasant one. Despite the spacious rooms, the house was untidy and unclean, while the hosts were rude and indifferent. But when we gathered in the evening around the hearth for dinner, the grandma, dressed in the Red Dao traditional outfit, emanated such serenity that all other disagreeable elements – even the screaming toddler – disappeared. I remember only her smile.
I was still new to the UAE when I attended my first entertainment night in a luxury hotel in the desert, the whirling dancing man being one of the many attractions. Although I liked his show, I still remember him with a tad of sadness, for he was so feminine, that I feared his life should be difficult and painful in the conservative society of the Gulf. I might have been wrong; however, I could not take it out of my mind that the broad smile was hiding many tears.
Fez, Morocco
In the city of Fez, the small workshop of the knife sharpener seems to sprout out of the pages of an old storybook. As I take the photo, the guy, with the Smurf-like cap balancing on his head, cracks a smile, and it is this – intentional or unintentional – joy in his job, forever captured in the snapshot, that makes the moment so unique.
Emirati woman, wearing the traditional battoulah, weaving a floor mat out of palm leaves, her fingertips possibly died with henna. These masks are not commonly encountered anymore, and one can see them only in the rural areas of the Gulf and the heritage festivals, always worn by older women.
Isfahan, Iran
A performance at the basement of the Music Museum of Isfahan, using traditional Iranian instruments. The room is a bit gloomy as it lacks windows, but the music spoke directly to my heart, stirring memories of an oriental past that seems to be part of my heritage.
Mum teaching her baby how to eat an ice-cream cone.
China, Beiking, Zoo
Grandma and grand-daughter playing at the Beijing Zoo. The older generation protects; the younger generation ventures into the unknown. Joy and trust.
Petra, Jordan
Boy selling souvenir postcards in Petra. This cheeky and mischievous smile is adorable – despite the July heat that makes our visit unnecessarily strenuous.
Fisherman in Oman. Pride and joy need little more than just a good catch.
Morocco, Marrakesh
It was in the exotic and bustling with noise alleys of the old souq of Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech that I met with snake charmers for the first time. I was told that in the local, Berber dialect, they are called “assawas”. Wandering souls who, on the surface, appear to be just a tourist attraction, at a deeper level though, they are keepers of old traditions and magical secrets.
Iran, Shiraz
Men playing backgammon in the streets of Shiraz…
China, Beijing
…or cards in the gardens of the Temple of Heaven.
Egypt, Cairo
Man with gelebia, turban, and nargileh in Khan Khalili, in Cairo. As if coming out of a painting, somewhere – anywhere – in the Ottoman Empire.
Vietnam, Hanoi
Itinerant vegetable merchants in Hanoi, all of them women. Here, sitting on her low stool, the feet resting out of the slippers, eyes focused on the mobile screen. Life can be tough on the streets. Maybe the mobile offers an escape route.
Tripoli, Lebanon
I walk in the tailors’ souq in old Tripoli in Lebanon, and I ask permission to take a photo of a sewing machine. The man agrees and, without hesitation, sits at the chair and poses with pride, for a picture of his sewing machine without him seems meaningless.
Peru, Puno, Lake Titikaka
A visit to the floating islands of Lake Titikaka invariably ends with a demonstration of the local artefacts by the women of the Uros tribe. Their faces are dark, their traits are as if carved in wood, and their heritage goes back centuries ago, remaining almost untouched to our days. Note the variety of hats! Simply adorable!
Athens, Greece
Man feeding pigeons in the National Garden of Greece. A male version of the bird lady in Mary Poppins (photo credits: Nad Kattan).
Selling the instruments is not enough. It is the music that you play that makes a difference.
One of my favourite photos: two generations, sitting cross-legged on a rock on the mountains of Nepal, their basket, full of clothes, on the side.
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Three generations of Emirati men drinking Arabic coffee, sitting on palm-leave mats spread on the sand. At the background, the modern city of Abu Dhabi prevails but, in this corner, the time has paused, and something of the relaxing ambience of the local society seems to remain untouched.
Ireland, Cliffs of Moher
A violin player performs in front of his camera. Behind him (not visible in the photo), the majestic Cliffs of Moher rise from the roaring depths of the sea, and the wilderness of the landscape is soothed under the caress of the Celtic tune. The roughness of the rocks is made tenderer with the human touch, but, on the other hand, the music is inspired by the heartbeat of nature. It is this two-way communication, this interconnectivity, this embrace that helps us move forward, not only as a species but as a whole.


Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless otherwise mentioned).


Original article found here.

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