For years, Stephane Janin led a double-life: Working in France in artistic development, but stealing away to Cambodia for a month or two each year to take photographs.
But all that is over. Janin now works full-time running Popil PhotoGallery—a new alternative space for photography in Phnom Penh.
The gallery opened two weeks ago with an exhibition of Janin’s own works.
But Janin said that unlike the handful of other photography galleries in Cambodia, Popil will be devoted not to his own work, but to that of photographers from Cambodia and eventually from throughout Southeast Asia. In addition to regular exhibitions, he plans to hold meetings to foster dialogue about photography and to bring artists and viewers together.
“It’s a commercial gallery because it is a place for sales—it is not sponsored by an organization. But it is also an alternative gallery, a place for Cambodian photographers and a meeting place,” he ex-plained.
Janin said a number of young Cambodian photographers have already expressed interest in showing at the gallery—in addition to Belgian Magnum agency photographer John Vink, whose works are already being shown.
And Popil will host the works of five local photographers for the city-wide Visual Art Open exhibition in December, an event to promote contemporary arts in Cambodia that will include some 20 artists in 10 venues.
In the meantime, Janin’s works are currently on view—spanning 12 years worth of visits in a sort of retrospective love affair with Cambodia.
The photographs, both black-and-white and color, swarm with the din of daily life here.
One series captures train travel, with all its grit and dust, from overcrowded train cars, to lunch at the station, to a precarious-looking open-air train car powered by hand.
Street scenes brim with action while intimate portraits invade on private moments of contemplation, all starring a cast of characters unique to Cambodia.
The photographs are full of tricks of light and focus. Shots taken through a grimy train window and photos of back-lit silhouettes leave plenty to the imagination, suggesting countless potential narratives.
Many of the photos have an uneasy quality, the result of the appearance of a disembodied head through a hole in a broken wall or a motion blur that conjoins a woman’s face and a nearby billboard.
Even a portrait of a beautiful young woman takes a sinister tone thanks to a pig’s snout emerging from the cart behind her.
These are not your typical shots of Cambodia.
As Janin says, “If I see a cliche coming, I turn back and run the other way.”
That, he said, means avoiding Angkor Wat, pagodas, rice fields, smiling girls with kramas and litany of other all-too-common photogenic pitfalls.
Instead, he works with an eye toward what he describes as “humanist photography,” a photojournalistic record of the culture and the people.
“Humanist photographers have a great love for the society and the culture they are taking pictures of,” he explained. “It is not only an intellectual interest, it is also an empathy and a love for the country.”