Gold-Tinted Portraits Seek to Bring ‘Dignity’ to Abused Women

Nath donned a sparkling dress, pulled her hair back tightly with a floral-print pin, strung jewelry from her neck and ears, and layered her face in foundation and powder.

But no amount of makeup could hide the plum-colored bruises her husband’s fists had left on her cheeks. So when a camera was aimed at her face and the flash fired, she turned away in shame, allowing only her hair adornment and jewelry to be seen.

Yith, a victim of domestic abuse, in the series "Dignity" (Mona Simon)
Yith, a victim of domestic abuse, in the series “Dignity” (Mona Simon)

Nath—a nickname she chose to protect her identity—is one of 10 Cambodian women German photographer Mona Simon is featuring in her new portrait series “Dignity,” which opens at Meta House in Phnom Penh tonight, to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Nine of Ms. Simon’s subjects are victims of domestic abuse while the last is a counselor at a women’s NGO, and she said she hopes their faces will bring attention to the thousands of women who are mistreated every day.

According to a study released last month by the World Health Or­ganization, 1 in 5 Cambodian women who had been in a relationship had suffered physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their partner.

But rather than go straight “into the ugliness” to address this violence, Ms. Simon said, she opted for a different approach.

“These women continue to see themselves as victims, and how are they going to get out of that? You’re not helping them in documenting that,” she said.

“I wanted to give them an experience when they can feel beautiful. And it’s not just about your physical beauty. It’s about confidence.”

For her portraits, Ms. Simon collected traditional dresses, hired makeup artists and hair stylists, and photographed the women in a studio for one day in August and one day last month. She then added a gold-tinted filter to the images in symbolic defiance of the Khmer saying “Men are like gold; women are like cloth.”

While some of the women, such as Nath, experienced moments of embarrassment during the shoot, they “told me it was the happiest day they’d had in years,” Ms. Si­mon said. “They could feel joy and feel respected and feel beautiful and feel valuable.”

This joy is evident in a portrait of Sith, a 42-year-old farmer whose smile is the broadest of all Ms. Simon’s subjects.

Divorced from her abusive and alcoholic husband for 20 years, Sith has raised her only son alone.

“Women can do everything,” she said. “More importantly, is that it’s better to be divorced and alone rather than living with abusive husbands who beat us and physically and emotionally hurt us.”

“Dignity” runs through December 12. “This is not for earning money, it is about the quality of the festival,” Ms. Arai said. “We couldn’t accept all the people who came to the screenings [in previous years]. We implemented this in order to protect and organize this festival for those who are interested in film.”

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