BANGKOK -- Dutch-born, Bangkok-based Hans Kemp is a heavyweight in photography, and not just because his latest book, "Divine Encounters: Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia," weighs nearly 3 kg (or 4.8 kg in a signed limited edition). This is a monumental work in every way -- 400 pages packed with provocative images, providing a fascinating and intimate portrayal of some of Asia's most unusual festivals and rituals.
The significance of such events is a longtime interest of Kemp, 57, whose previous books include "Burmese Light," about his travels in Myanmar, and "Bikes of Burden," about motorcycle transport in Vietnam. An international hit, "Bikes of Burden" has sold about 100,000 copies.
"Divine Encounters," published by Hong Kong-based Visionary World, is a wide-ranging examination of 14 rituals that regularly take place in 11 locations across Asia. Each chapter features a succinct description of a ceremony and its history, with many photographs spread across two pages for heightened impact at an expansive 50-by-33 cm.
The images are dramatic, but they also provide an insight into the enduring values of the region in the wake of a century of breakneck social and economic modernization.
"Across Asia, you have this modernization, but underneath there is still this tradition of spirituality that remains largely the same," says Joe Cummings, veteran author of numerous books on Asia, including "Buddhist Stupas in Asia" and "Sacred Tattoos of Thailand."
"It's like you can read about life from a century or more ago, and the values are still the same; the roots remain intact," says Cummings. "The sense of authenticity is huge, and you see that in the rituals and festivals. They remain important, vital to people. There is a strong attraction to these traditions. People really need to remain connected."
The challenge of capturing these colorful celebrations took Kemp to remote locations in countries including Myanmar, Mongolia and India. "It's been in my mind to do this since about 2001," says the author, who has been shooting photographs in Asia since the 1980s, living first in Hong Kong, later in Vietnam and now in Bangkok.
Some of the oldest photographs in "Divine Encounters" date from the photographer's early years in the region, including the spectacular chapter "Married to the Spirits," about nat worship in Myanmar. The country is largely Buddhist, but reverence for nats, or spirits, goes back to ancient times, and remains prevalent in many areas.
Kemp traveled to northern Myanmar and immersed himself in the crowds, capturing every aspect of revival ceremonies, including a captivating rolling circus that included hundreds of bull carts, looking like wagons from the American West, rolling across a dusty plain.
However, the majority of "Divine Encounters" utilizes new material, specifically shot for the book. "Once I really decided to do the book, I focused on getting it done, sprinting to the finish line, so to speak," Kemp says.
The final chapter, shot in culturally diverse Papua New Guinea, deals with one of the most gruesome ceremonies in the book. "Crocodile Biting" covers a rare initiation-into-manhood ritual in which a group of young men from the Latmul tribe, who live along the Sepik River in northern Papua New Guinea, are cut with razors, almost from head to toe.
"I had heard about this crocodile-biting ritual and wanted to cover it," says Kemp, whose pictures show how the young men's razor wounds are treated with smoke and painfully sculpted to transform skin into a ridged surface -- an obvious reference to the reptiles from which the tribe deems humans to have evolved.
Kemp photographed the cutting -- hundreds of cuts over many excruciating hours -- and followed the participants, their families and the tribe through the ceremony. After the cutting, the men, aged 18 to 25, were left to heal in a "spirit house" for four to six weeks.
The logistics of Kemp's trip proved daunting, not least because he had little information at the outset of where the cutting occurred. "It involved tons of work and research," says Kemp.
As so often happens in such remote regions, there were hurdles to gaining trust and access. Kemp says he was shattered when he was unexpectedly turned away from observing the ceremony he had planned to document. Fortunately, he made new connections and wound up shooting in a different location, where he was allowed to photograph the entire ceremony. "That's just how it goes sometimes," he says. "You hope for the best, and get lucky."
Another gripping chapter, "Bloody Passion," covers the annual reenactment in the Philippines of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Unlike the rest of the rituals in "Divine Encounters," this highlights an event that is commemorated around the globe -- although not usually like this.
At the Via Crucis in San Fernando, about 70 km north of Manila, Kemp documents in bloody detail how magdarame (flagellants) flay their bodies with whips, and are cut with razors. A handful of devotees are pictured parading with large wooden crosses before metal spikes are hammered through their hands for a chilling -- although not fatal -- crucifixion ceremony.
Each chapter of "Divine Encounters" tells a distinct story about a specific rite. Interestingly, they are not restricted to less developed countries. In "The Chosen One," Kemp follows a ceremony in Japan that taps into common tribal rituals intended to assuage the spirits, often using an individual to embody the misdeeds of the community.
In a detailed montage shot in Inazawa, in Japan's Aichi Prefecture, Kemp follows a Shinto ceremony in which a citizen is singled out to become, as Kemp writes, "the absorber of all evil and misfortune -- the Naoi-nin or Shin Otoko (Man of God)." We see the man's selection, his head being shaved and then the lengthy preparation for a community celebration in which he is shamed and attacked.
The festival dates back 12 centuries, according to Kemp, who captured the entire two weeks of festivities. "I was the only foreign photographer there," he says, adding that he was given free access, even camping out in the shrine to capture every moment.
In Hong Kong, where he lived in the 1990s, Kemp photographed the famous Hungry Ghost Festival for the "Return of the Lost Souls." This traditional Chinese festival (also called Zhongyuan Jie, Gui Jie or the Yulan Festival) has been likened to Halloween, partly because of its colorful costumes and its assumption of a visitation by the spirits of deceased ancestors.
Held on the 15th night of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the festival features participants paying tribute to their ancestors in the afterworld. Along with ripe fruit and pig heads, gifts given in Hong Kong now also include watches and mobile phones.
Kemp speaks admiringly of how these ancient traditions have survived, even with the modern trappings. "People still believe. They do these ceremonies, even as they come with their mobile phones. But it's still authentic," he notes. "The rituals are the same. People are still looking for meaning."
Kemp's objective is to document unusual people and cultures. In the era of social media, however, he often has unwanted company. "Many of these rituals and ceremonies have definitely gotten harder to cover," he says. When he started, he recalls, he would often travel to some distant land, and "have this amazing ceremony all to myself. Now, you find tourists in more places, poking their cameras everywhere."
Kemp laments the lack of cultural awareness among many onlookers, and their disrespect for sacred aspects of the rituals. "But I'm also glad these things are still going on, everywhere; it makes the world a much more interesting place," he says. "You realize you are not the only one who thinks there is more than meets the eye, asking the core questions: Who am I, where am I going?"