Photographer Captures Intimacy of Daily Life in Cambodia

When French-Canadian photographer Serey Siv embarked on a project two years ago to photograph ordinary life across small-town Cambodia, his goal was far from simple.

Assuming the role of an observer, he sought to capture the “timeless” side of life in the country: the small episodes in people’s daily lives that could have taken place in the 1960s or on Monday. To better set the photographs out of time, he shot in black and white.

Photo entitled Remedy Man by Serey Siv mv
Photo entitled ‘Remedy Man’ by Serey Siv (Serey Siv)

“I played a bit with this notion of past and present,” he said on Friday.

An exhibition of Mr. Siv’s series, “La balade de Serey,” or “Serey’s Stroll,” opens today in Siem Reap City.

It took a year for Mr. Siv to capture the images of daily life, waiting to seize the moments as they happened in the “beautiful natural light” that occurs for only a few hours each day. The result is images in which the gray and black tones make the scenes all the more striking and create a quiet intimacy with the people portrayed, drawing in the viewer.

In one photo, “Remedy Man,” an older man with a hat, long-sleeve shirt and a cigarette dangling from his mouth pushes his bicycle through a busy market alley, steering with one hand and holding a large basket of merchandise on the bicycle seat. In another, “Riverside Love,” a man carrying an active baby boy looks somewhat at a loss as to how to handle him.

“Being able to go about with a camera and seize an intimate moment of life that will never really happen again, with emotions that cannot be exactly repeated: This is what fascinates me,” Mr. Siv said.

He photographed the series on his digital camera along National Road 6 in Siem Reap City between mid-2015 and the middle of last year. “What I would usually see was survival, the basics of life such as getting up and going to work,” he said. “I also saw moments of family life….The Khmer like to be with their families.”

“And people love to talk,” Mr. Siv said. “They would talk for hours to clients or among themselves, something we don’t have the time to do in major urban centers.”

The project also had a very personal side. Mr. Siv’s parents were Cambodian refugees who arrived in Canada in the early 1980s. Born in Montreal in 1986, he has known little of Cambodia, so this photo project, he said, “was a way to connect.”

“As I was taking the photos, I was also learning about my parents, my ancestors, my Cambodian people I had not really had the chance to meet in Canada.”

Over the course of the project, he said, “I discovered that I’m rather proud of being Khmer.”

Photo entitled Riverside Love by Serey Siv mv
Photo entitled ‘Riverside Love’ by Serey Siv (Serey Siv)

Mr. Siv, who studied music and photography at Concordia University in Montreal, spent two years in Tokyo learning Japanese and working for a music label as a singer and musician. He then spent a year in Seoul, also as a musician and singer. He relocated to Phnom Penh three years ago, and has lived in Siem Reap since mid-2015.

Mr. Siv has founded a photographers’ group, Mirage Collective, and also runs the Mirage Cafe in Siem Reap. He is now working on his next photo series, which will explore drug rehabilitation.

The exhibition in Siem Reap City also includes portraits taken in Kep and Kampot provinces.

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