When Eric Beugnot arrived in Phnom Penh three years ago, one of the sights that amazed him the most were the huge piles of car and machine parts that line Street 70, north of Boeng Kak lake.
“This is something one does not see elsewhere, and which–at least in my case–now evokes Asia: this sort of excess, structured and unstructured,” he said. “We see either giant heaps of assorted parts or motors carefully laid out one on top of the other.”
Fascinated, Mr Beugnot soon wanted to go behind the scene, so to speak.
“There is a whole world of people working, and what captivated me was the contrast between this inhuman universe and the human side: People who work behind those piles, who handle those metal parts, who beat or weld them,” he said.
This prompted him to photograph life in and around the shops, having been a serious amateur photographer for 25 years.
An exhibition of Mr Beugnot’s black-and-white series entitled “Piles,” which opened yesterday and runs through Oct 13 at Chinese House, includes images taken earlier this year on Street 70 and at shops near the Olympic market.
Mr Beugnot has managed to make this universe of metal parts exciting through crisp images and original angles, and to give those hard workers dignity.
In one photo, a woman is cooking with traditional street equipment in the middle of auto parts–people tend to live at the back of their shops, Mr Beugnot explains.
In another photo, a young man is taking apart a heavy engine block without wearing protective gloves or shoes.
Realizing that people don’t use protective gear in welding, machine and auto-part shops, Mr Beugnot launched an NGO with Cambodian colleagues–this he did as a private initiative and not in his capacity of director of the French Development Agency in Phnom Penh, he said.
The PMP Association–PMP being the French acronym for protection against work-related diseases–first conducted a survey and identified more than 1,000 shops in Phnom Penh employing more than 5,000 workers, he said.
“And in those storefront shops, many workers weld wearing ordinary sunglasses. Those workers are young and, without being aware of it, are in the process of damaging their eyes,” Mr Beugnot said.
In other shops, he said, “Workers are beating metal all day without hearing-protection headphones, damaging their hearing. And others work in very dusty environments without dust masks.”
Proper equipment is not that expensive: welding glasses may cost $5, he said. “Of course, it’s more than a pair sunglasses at 2,000 riel but using them may protect a person’s health in the long term,” he added.
Sales of Mr Beugnot’s photos will be donated to the NGO, which is planning a campaign to promote the use of protective gear among shop workers.
Sales of Mr Beugnot’s book “Amoncellements,” or “piles,” will also go to the NGO, he said. The 104-page book launched last night was designed and produced by Phnom Penh’s photo agency Melon Rouge. It consists of Mr Beugnot’s “Piles” series with text in French, English and Khmer.