There are sets of photographs of Cambodia so common that it’s hard to imagine individual photographers setting out time and time again only to emerge from the darkroom with the same thing: the dreamy landscapes of Angkor Wat, the scenes of war in which Cambodia is presented as a crucible of violence, the snapshots of politicians and voters struggling to establish a peaceful democracy.
The stock images-fleeing refugees, the mangled and maimed victims of fighting, the soldiers, and the rest-leave the common people of Cambodia as mere ciphers of the larger “Cambodian story.”
Capturing the ordinary humanity of everyday life in Phnom Penh and its suburbs was the objective of British photographer Kevin Bolton, who recently published a collection of his photographs taken over a two-year period documenting street life in the capital city .The result is a portrayal of the human face of Phnom Penh and the common people who eke out a living below the golden spires, palatial villas and ostentatious public buildings of their city.
Bolton’s book “Phnom Penh People-A Photo Documentary” finds its voice in the simplicity of everyday life, a “reality” the photographer went in search of more than 10 years ago when he first arrived in Asia.
“It’s not about the tourist locations. As the title says, it’s about the people,” says Bolton, who has lived in Cambodia and photographed what he has seen for the past five years.
It is the difference between the raw and the cooked of Cambodia’s images, he says.
“It’s nitty gritty. It’s raw, its real. That’s what appeals to me….what you can really see,” Bolton said recently in an interview. “Showing something as real as you can.”
But the reality Bolton strives to reproduce in his 153-page glossy hardback does not mean the book is laden with the horrors of the country’s poverty or the victims and perpetrators of it violent past.
Photographed between 1998 and 1999, the documentary represents the city at a time of transition and the first fledgling years of peace, he says.
Politics, militarism, monuments and other stock Cambodian cliches will not be found in his collection. That work, he says, is for other photographers and probably more fitting for other times in the city’s history.
Everything is relevant to today,” Bolton says.
Self-published and printed in Cambodia, Bolton’s work is currently the only one of its type and a document that will mature with time as Cambodia develops and the taken-for-granted street life of today fades with the onslaught of progress and sophistication.
Already, some of the subjects of Bolton’s pictures have begun to fade as everyday features that once made up Phnom Penh’s character. Moto-remorques are rare sights on city streets since they were banned by municipal officials a few years ago, and one run-down colonial style building is now the home of a trendy, foreign-owned wine bar.
The book-1,500 copies were printed by Bolton’s publishing company Eight Ball Publications-is available from the London Book Store and Monument Book outlets in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Bolton says he may move on to Burma next year to begin a similar documentary project. How will he remember Cambodia? “Wonderful to traumatic. Traumatic to wonderful,” Bolton said.