9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 4

A medium cracks the serpent whip to begin the ceremony.

A medium cracks the serpent whip to begin the ceremony.

This is the last in a four-part series on the 9 Emperor Gods Festival that took place at the Tow Boo Kong Temple in Butterworth, Penang, Malaysia.  You might find it helpful if you read the FIRST,  SECOND and THIRD parts of this story before continuing.

On this the final night of the nine-day festival Taoists gather to pay homage to the nine gods and send them back to heaven. More people gather on this one night than any of the previous nights. This is special. The evening started with my crew arriving at an already packed temple. Everyone was standing in the courtyard holding three or four long joss sticks. If you don’t know what a joss stick is, think large incense sticks. These are usually lit and then placed in a sand laden urn as a prayer offering. But tonight they will be carried in the procession of the gods to the sea.

After we had waited for some time, the mediums, who by now we know by sight, come out and sit on their stools to ready themselves to be possessed by the spirits of the children and the monkeys.

I want to pause here. I have heard people criticize other reports of this and other festivals for being inaccurate. Let me say; this information is straight from the participant’s mouths. Every night I would ask questions of devotees and record their answers when I could. These are stories that these followers have lived with for their whole life, yet everyone I asked seems to give me a different response. So to be clear, these are not my words, but theirs.

Back to the mediums. They sit and readied themselves and then the leader again, cracks the serpent whip. Each of the nine mediums starts to sway and move and then eventually stand up and take on the attributes of a child or often a monkey.

  • Each of the nine mediums starts to sway and move and then eventually stand up and take on the attributes of a child or often a monkey.
  • Cracking the whip to start the ceremony.
  • All the mediums seem to be energized by the cracking of the whip.
  • Another medium cracks the whip. Note the pacifier in the mediums mouth.

They ready themselves and the crowd to meet the veiled gods. Each god is removed from the inner sanctum of the temple and brought ceremoniously to a waiting float in the shape of a boat. After they are loaded onto the boat no time is wasted, the floats proceed out the temple and onto the route of the procession. A huge crowd follows each float always holding up the burning joss sticks. The route wanders around and then ends at the ocean side.

The boat/float that contains the gods is met by a huge crane that is quickly attached to it.  The crane then lifts the boat from the transport and slowly swings it over to the shoreline. Here after some effort, the boat is eventually disconnected from the crane and attached to another boat by a cable.


  • A medium makes a pathway for the gods.
  • Note the pacifier.
  • The gods are removed from the temple under a cover. Here a flag is used to create a barrier.
  • The gods are moved through the crowds.
  • The under cover the gods make their way to the boat where they will ride to the sea.
  • The dragon figurehead of float as it leave with the gods to the sea.
  • The crowds of devotee following the floats.
  • The crowds of devotee following the floats.
  • Alway eager to have their photos made.
  • Even the mediums want their photo made by Simon Bond.
  • This medium blessing a devotee whiel waiting for the boat/float to arrive.
  • Riding atop the float.


At this point we were told the ship with the gods would be pulled out to sea and set on fire and that would be the end of the festival. But to our surprise, they lit the vessel on fire right there on the beach. It went up in flames in a matter of seconds. The gods were released back to where they came from as the crowd prayed and worshiped.

  • The boat waits to be hoisted to the beach.
  • A crane hoists the boat with the gods to the seaside.
  • Floating through the air like something out of Peter Pan.
  • Easing the boat to the shoreline.
  • One of the lead mediums giving direction.
  • Securing the boat.
  • Last minute blessings.
  • Fighting the surf while trying to tie the two boats together. The motorboat will pull the other out to sea.
  • The fire being lit.
  • It only takes seconds for the boat to be consumed in flames.
  • It only takes seconds for the boat to be consumed in flames.
  • Clearing he debris so the boat can leave.
  • Saying farewell to the 9 Emperors.


After some time the flames had died down, and the smoldering craft was pulled out to the open sea. The festival ended, and we were left to walk back to the temple and our car sandy and wet.

In closing, this festival was one of the most spectacular festivals of the year. We covered the events from one temple. But there were dozens if not more temples in the area that were doing all of the same events but on different nights.


Rajasthan 2015 Photo Workshop Announced


I am thrilled to say that we set our plans into motion for the next Rajasthan Photo Trek (workshop). We have run this workshop for two years now and have been given high marks from all our participants. If you want to make photos in one of the most exotic places on earth with the most colorful dress and exciting locations then Rajasthan is your choice. Join me and photographer and author Piet Van den Eynde as we travel for two weeks across the Indian state of Rajasthan, the Land of Kings. Continue reading

The Mamas of Chowrasta

This is a multimedia essay by Nate Watkins and myself. We have been working on this for months. We first approached this essay thinking we wanted to help preserve two dying trades among the Mamas in Penang, butchering and fish mongering. Through the process of making this we found out that, while we may have felt sad that these trades are dying out, this current generation is content to be the last. Their children are the first generation to become professionals among them. As a result of the time shooting these images and footage we have made lasting friendships with many of these men.

Check out more of Nate’s work HERE:

PhotoPhilanthropy Activist Awards Judging.

My colleagues over at visualpeacemakers.org ran this video in a post yesterday. I thought it was so compelling that I needed to rerun it here. As a photographic storyteller you need to here what these judges say. This is a real glimpse into the minds of the judges and more importantly the realities of what makes a photo good essay. Watch this and take notes.

Empty Nets

A fisherman pulls in an empty net off the shores of Batu Ferringhi.

I am working on a project for a NGO that is focusing on the peoples of Africa and Asia’s coastal waters. In short, we are looking at issues of over fishing, climate change and natural disasters like the Acheh tsunami and how these factors effect the livelihood of the coastal people. This is from today’s shoot right here in my backyard.


83 year old fisherman, Ariffin pulls a horseshoe crab from his net.


Empty nets are frequent these days.


Becasue the fishing is so bad, Ariffin and his family suppliment their income by transporting Arab tourist to remote beaches to picnic.

Multimedia: Durian, The Scent of a King

I am convinced that the durian is a misunderstood fruit. As you will learn from watching this slideshow that it is known for its pungent odor and it’s rather mushy texture. I have also learned that it is rather subjective whether it is pungent in it’s smell or just “heavily scented” or if the texture is mushy or in fact creamy. Continue reading

Video; The daunting future?


For the past year or two I have been creating photo essays using only still images and some audio. Yet, I keep listening to photographers, well-respected in the business, telling me I need to get into video. This is intimidating for me. I used to work in video, years back. But, long since gave it up. Though my Canon 5D Mark II does shoot amazing video, even the thought of shooting it is way out of my comfort zone. On this trip to Sumatra I promised myself I would shoot some video. I did manage to get a few frames here and there, but I realized very quickly that video and stills photography are not an easy mix. It’s very hard to shoot video and stills at the same time. You almost need to set the time aside and shoot nothing but video. If you’re a still photographer like myself, you know how almost impossible that is to do. I literally think in still images. I attempted to retrain myself to think in motion. Yes, composition is very similar. But other things are different and it was a real struggle. That doesn’t even begin to talk about the huge learning curve with Adobe Premiere or After Effects. Now, I’m not saying, I’m going to give up shooting video. But, it’s going to be a slow road.

The other shooter on this trip, Nate Watkins is a natural with video. It seems to flow for him. Nate made the video above using some of my still images, some great video he shot with his Canon 7D and some audio we captured.  For you techie people, Nate edited this quick and dirty in iMovie. He used a kit lens on the Canon 7D. The audio was captured using his Sony PCM-M10 the little brother to my PCM-D50. Nate got this on my recommendation and I think he would say, he was not disappointed. This proved to be an outstanding small recorder half size and price of the PCM-D50. To give the sound that extra little boost we used an Electro Voice RE-50b hand held microphone. What this mic did was to narrow down the audio field and thus minimizing the background noise, yet still maintaining a full, rich sound. I think you will agree the combination of audio, video and stills works well together.

Tom Little, IGVP And The Need For Peace

A photo essay by John Stanmeyer about Tom Little and NOOR.

(Click the photo to go to the story at VII)

This post is a little out of the ordinary for me. But I think my readers will still be interested in the photos and the plea associated with it is important. By now, you’ve heard of the killings in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban executed 10 Christian aid workers for no apparent reason other than the fact they were Christians that might be sharing their faith. The leader of the 10 was an eye surgeon named Tom Little, who had given 30 years of service to the people of Afghanistan. This is a real shame. It’s an insult to Islam and goes a long way at damaging any relationships that are being built between the two faiths. This hits home because I know several employees with this NGO. I did not have the privileged to meet Tom Little, but I wish I had. Yes, it was no secret, they were Christians. The fact is, it was their faith that motivated them to spend years helping the blind see in Afghanistan.

All these doctors and workers were associated with the National Organization of Ophthalmic Rehabilitation (NOOR) Eye Care, a program of IAM. NOOR does nothing but good for the people of Afghanistan in northern Pakistan. Their doctors and workers preform cataract surgeries, make glasses and help people see. According to Wikipedia:

In 2009, NOOR treated 179 000 patients and performed 11,000 surgeries. In addition, Ministry of Public Health eye hospitals supported by NOOR saw 157 000 patients and performed nearly 7,000 surgeries. It dispensed over 17,000 pairs of glasses, and 359,000 bottles of eyedrops. NOOR has a particular emphasis on training and it runs a three-year ophthalmology residency programme. Almost all ophthalmologists and all ophthalmic technicians in Afghanistan have been trained by NOOR.

There are reports that people who had been blind from birth and in their 50s given their site back by these doctors. Yet, the Taliban for some reason fear them enough to kill them.

This is exactly the reason why I am a part of the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers. Our goal is to draws photographers from all cultures, ethnicity and beliefs and to help breakdown religious hate and cultural stereotypes and biases that divide us. We want to see the type of hate that killed these 10 people and so many others every day, destroyed and replaced with compassion and appreciation. Maybe this is too big a job and can never be done. Probably so. But it shouldn’t stop us from trying and at least making a positive mark on the world. I am thrilled that John Stanmeyer of VII was able to document Tom Little’s work before he was murdered. It needed to be told.

If you agree with me and feel this madness has to stop, please join me and support IGVP. If you are a photographer, consider joining and being apart of this important community. IGVP is days away from going live. Simply click this link HERE and sign up to be notified when the site is online and then you can be apart of something very important.

The Photo Essay: Give it Your Best Shot

Photo by Leslie Fisher

Monday we started talking about photo essays. We began by looking at SoundSlides, a great product to use to help you produce engaging photo stories. In fact, Monday’s post marked the beginning of a giveaway that will last throughout this week and culminate on Friday with some lucky person getting a licensed copy of SoundSlides Plus. So, today I want to talk more about the actual essay itself. Continue reading