New Exhibition Looks at Life Through a Cambodian Lens

They named their exhibition 14+1 Photography. Four­teen young Cambodians, all university students or recent graduates, who em­barked on a one-year workshop given by the exhibition’s “+1”—French photographer Ste­phane Janin.

Fourteen Cambodians who—with their different circumstances and equipment of varying types and quality—made countless field trips to document topics of their choosing.

The result is a series of mini-documentaries on Cambodia today, from football practice and sidewalk restaurants to prahoc making and portraits of villagers in the countryside and fortunetellers in Phnom Penh.

These compelling slices of life, some in color, others in black and white—as diverse in style as the topics they illustrate—are being exhibited at the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh until the end of the month.

In addition to teaching the basics of photography, Janin said his goal was to have Cambodians portray their own country in their own way.

“Up to now, it has especially been expat photographers who have created Cambodia’s image,” he said. “I really wanted to make them come up with something personal. And the result is fascinating: 14 Cam­bodian looks at the country.”

In the process, Janin’s students learned about techniques starting with the photo-making process itself, which amounts to light imprinting an image on photo paper. This process was demonstrated by having students experiment with a “pinhole camera”—basically a small cardboard box in which one inserts photo paper in front of a pin-size hole serving as lens.

That the photo process could be this simple astounded students. “I was very interested and very surprised to learn about the development of cameras,” said Lim Sok­chanlina, a 20-year old English student at Norton University who documented life in hair salons for his essay.

While some students shot exclusively with digital cameras, others experimented with the more natural look and vivid colors of film, Janin said. Very soon, the students were discovering what it takes to get the right effect in a photo.

“The most important thing…in photography is composition and how to use light,” said Kong Vollak, a 24-year-old sculpture graduate from the Royal University of Fine Arts now studying at the National Institute of Education.

Composition was a particularly important component of Kong Vol­lack’s essay on Phnom Penh’s bustling bus and taxi stations, because he used a pinhole camera, which requires 15 seconds of exposure with no control over the movement of subjects in front of the camera.

“Movement of the object in a picture does not matter that much as long as it looks natural and is not action staged for the shoot,” he said.

The search for the right light taught them the constraints that photographers face, Kong Vollak said. “Most of us in the workshop got similar problems with time of day, light and weather.”

Getting people to behave naturally when a camera was pointed at them was not always easy, he said. Kong Vollak ran into difficulty trying to photograph monks’ lives in pagodas, because some said they were afraid of being portrayed in a negative way.

Matters nearly turned nasty for one student who wanted to shoot street children and drug addicts in Phnom Penh, Kong Vollak said. Heng Ravuth, a 21-years-old RUFA painting graduate also is studying at the National Institute of Education, had to fight drug addicts trying to snatch his camera, and was asked for bribes from gang leaders, he said. Heng Ravuth later turned to art photography, producing intriguing images of muted black profiles on deep red backdrop for the exhibition.

Vuth Lyno, a 25-year-old information technology officer for the International Labor Organization, decided to shoot roadside gasoline vendors, motorcycle-repair people and phone-booth attendants reflected in motorcycle mirrors. To get the photos he wanted required sometimes required 10 to 20 attempts, he said, worrying some subjects who kept seeing him day after day.

“I needed to photograph at one place many times, and this caused the repair guys along the street to look at me with concern on their faces,” Vuth Lyno said. Never­theless, he managed to get his shots.

But as a whole, the students said, Cambodians made no objection to being photographed.

The 14 also spent time in the darkroom and on computers to familiarize themselves with photo processing although Janin focused mainly on the art and techniques of picture taking. As Vuth Lyno ex­plained: “We did not want our photos to have to be edited too much on computer because we wanted to keep our original light and composition.”

Before he left the country last month, Janin said he hopes to see Cambodian photographers continue shooting similar documents to create a running portrait.

“I hope this [exhibition] will create an interest, so that each year there could be an annual look on Cambodia which could hopefully become part of the country’s archives,” he said.

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