Lives in Balance

Photo Exhibit Focuses on Life in the Tonle Sap Flood Plain

A fisherman preparing for an approaching storm, a flock of waterfowl rising from the water, a family in a floating village drying fish to sell.

The images captured in the photographs form a mosaic of life around the Tonle Sap lake and touch on the importance the lake, its communities and its wildlife hold in Cambodia’s history, culture and economy.

The 24-photograph exhibit “The Angkorian Landscape Past, Present and Future,” sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society, is now on display at the Grande Hotel D’Angkor in Siem Reap. The photos, taken by Eleanor Briggs, will come to Phnom Penh in April, although WCS has not decided on a location for the exhibit.

The pictures and accompanying text, translated into Khmer, will also be compiled in a book and given to senior government officials.

Focusing on wildlife in her photography, Briggs has traveled through some of the region’s most remote areas. Most of her time in Cambo­dia has been spent around the Tonle Sap lake, including several months living in a floating village.

“I try to get as much information as I can into the frame about all of the things going on in people’s lives,” she says.

Briggs chose to document life around the Tonle Sap to show the importance of the lake in Cambodian society. The Tonle Sap forms the world’s largest freshwater flood plain and is home to Southeast Asia’s biggest waterbird colony. Nearly one-third of Cambodia’s population lives in the Tonle Sap flood plain, while 70 percent of the nation’s protein comes from the Tonle Sap fishery, with an annual catch of more than 300,000 tons.

The pictures in her exhibit are not filled with crowds of people or complicated scenes. Some photographs are stark and simple, like the fisherman paddling across the lake, the shadow of an airplane in the corner of the frame—“past a future laid out on the Cambodian landscape,” Briggs says.

Other pictures are powerful because of what cannot be seen in the frame. The photograph of a fisherman holding a great cormorant at first strikes many as a picture of a man releasing a bird to the wild, Briggs says. The bird, in reality, had been poisoned by hunters and was dying when the man came upon it.

Though she has been taking pictures since the 1970s, Briggs, 61, shot exclusively in black and white for many years. She shot her first role of 35-mm color film in 1989 during a trip to Vietnam and has stuck with color since.

“My real interest,” she says, “is time-travel photography, where things are pre-industrial, where people are living close to nature, where they can’t twirl dials to control their climate as we do.

“It’s been lost almost everywhere except in some of these countries that haven’t been intensely developed yet. The life you see in the floating villages on the Great Lake is the same life you see in the reliefs on the Bayon.”

In many of the places she visits, people see themselves as having a small place in the environment, unlike Westerners, who take up a huge part of their surroundings, Briggs says.

“The people are still much more in balance with nature. Of course, their standard of living is not great,” she says. “I hope there can be development in a different way than the old capitalist way of destroying resources, then planting a few trees afterward.”



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