Educating a New Generation of Photographers—and Their Audience

More than a century ago, Walter Benjamin predicted that the illiterate of the future would not be those who cannot read texts, but those who cannot read images.

Christian Caujolle, one of the most important figures in the world of image and the artistic director of PhotoPhnomPenh, believes that this prediction has already come true. He describes modern society as contradictory: full of images, but also full of image illiteracy. 

Installation of Maika Elan's exhibition at Romeet Gallery (PhotoPhnomPenh 2013)
Installation of Maika Elan’s exhibition at Romeet Gallery (PhotoPhnomPenh 2013)

“Instagram is the most obvious example of this,” he says. “Instagram doesn’t allow us to have ideas about images. The most terrible thing is that it presents itself as a generous thing, but the individual doesn’t understand that they are just beautiful on the surface.”

Image illiteracy is a problem that Mr. Caujolle has tried to combat in Cambodia through Studio Image, a program affiliated with the Institut Francais that conducts photography workshops in Phnom Penh.

During one workshop, he began to promote the work of Mak Remissa, a photographer who in 2007 brought Cambodian photography for the first time to Europe with an exhibit inspired by the Cambodian saying: “When the water rises, the fish eat the ant; when the water recedes, the ant eat fish.” Another of Mr. Remissa’s exhibits is now being shown at PhotoPhnomPenh, with photographs that use fire to comment on man’s relationship with nature.

Mr. Caujolle, a curator and a professor at the Ecole Nationale Superieure Louis-Lumiere in Paris, has worked with some of the most important photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries, but is not a photographer himself. After studying history and philosophy with famed philosophers and cultural critics Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, he worked for years as a journalist and photo editor for the French newspaper Liberation and founded the prestigious French photo agency VU.’ He first started traveling to Cambodia in 1996. In 2008, the then-director of the Institut Francais, Alain Arnaudet, told him that there was a young generation in Cambodia eager to learn about photography.

“He told me he had decided to create a festival, and asked me if I wanted to organize it. I said yes,” Mr. Caujolle says smiling. “And that was the beginning of PhotoPhnomPenh.”

PhotoPhnomPenh makes a point of displaying art both indoors and outdoors. “Art in public spaces is fundamental,” says Mr. Caujolle. “Especially in Phnom Penh.”

To explain why, he uses the example of Che Nging, a 20-year-old Cambodian photographer who took pictures of fish in her home kitchen with the help of her mother (who sometimes cooked them before she was able to photograph them).

“Look at Che Nging’s work,” he says. “C’est magnifique. I’ve seen thousands of still lives. It’s not just the aesthetic coherence she gave to the photographs and its technical complexity that makes them exceptional, but the way she uses photography to express something. Nging uses photography to give these tiny fish an importance they wouldn’t have in people’s kitchens. She took the basis of poor Cambodian food and turned it into jewels.”

Mr. Caujolle says PhotoPhnomPenh use public spaces to display particularly accessible exhibits like Ms. Nging’s. ”Fishermen can see this,” he says. “How many people push the door of a gallery in Paris? Not many. And in Phnom Penh? Some people think that galleries are not made for them. But public spaces are.”

But why not also display publicly the work of artists such as Maika Elan, a talented Vietnamese photographer, who was one of the first to photograph her country’s gay scene.

“There are images that need time for contemplation that public spaces can’t provide, and the rule is that there are things you can’t put outside,” he responds frankly. “Cambodia has a tradition of architecture, sculpture and dance. Not painting, not nudity. And sometimes the artist has intimate intentions, such as Maika.” Ms. Elan’s photographs of homosexual couples were mostly photographed indoors, he points out. “I respect both the artist and the public. I don’t want to extremely provoke people. I want people to ask themselves at least one question after seeing an exhibition.

“A festival has to mean something,” he adds. “I don’t want to change Cambodia. It will be them who change the country.”
Mr. Caujolle says his dream is to attend a photography festival organized by Cambodians, and praises Cambodia’s younger generation for their strong spirit.

“There are many problems in Cambodia, but there’s interest in the future,” he says. “I admire these youth: They are not worrying just about tomorrow’s food, but looking to the future.”

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