For photographer Sarik Art, taking portraits of women engaged in ordinary professions was easy. The hard part was persuading the women to agree to have their photos taken. Many of his subjects are employed on the periphery of Cambodia’s sex industry—as orange sellers, “tuk kralok” vendors, karaoke singers and beer girls—and were afraid their photos would be used in newspapers and magazines looking for a scapegoat for the nation’s social ills.
“A lot of people condemn these women,” Sarik Art said. “On the radio and throughout the media, people are looking for someone to blame for the problem of prostitution.”
Commentators may see such professions as shameful, but for many Cambodian women, these jobs offer their only chance to escape from poverty. In his exhibition “Dream and Reality” currently being shown at Irina’s Gallery, Sarik Art examines the contradictions of a society caught halfway between traditional and modern gender roles.
Working as a full-time photographer is a distinct change in lifestyle for Sarik Art, who is the former Funcinpec governor of Kandal province. The 66-year-old, who in his government role was known as Chak Sarik, lived in France and the US during Cambodia’s most troubled years, returning to Cambodia in the 1980s to form part of the pro-Sihanouk resistance movement. In Paris he studied with fashion and dance photographers and picked up the technical expertise evident in his portraits.
Photography remained a hobby for most of Sarik Art’s life. It was only upon retirement from his government position that he once again picked up his camera and took the photographs that make up “Dream and Reality.”
The exhibition is divided into two halves. On one wall hang pictures that capture the everyday facts of women’s working lives, while another wall shows images that reflect the fantasies women use to transcend their often unglamorous day-to-day existence.
The “reality” photos show the exuberance with which many women approach their jobs, regardless of how others may perceive them. From factory workers frowning in concentration at the production line to professional dancers performing raunchy routines, a sense of power and pride is common to all the portraits.
Only in the latter part of Sarik Art’s lifetime have Cambodian women had any role in public life outside of the family or the rice field. “Even in the 1960s and early 1970s, jobs for women didn’t exist,” he said. “Compared to that time, there’s a lot of freedom for women now.”
Although some in Cambodian society may accuse modern-minded women of destroying the nation’s moral health, Sarik Art is convinced women’s freedoms will only grow. “Women watch the TV, videos,” he pointed out. “They know that in other countries, women are free. You can’t stop that kind of progress.”
With this freedom to work comes financial security, which Sarik Art believes is the key to the future for Cambodian women. “They earn money,” he said. “And whoever has the money, has the power.”
But it’s not only power that women crave; judging from the “Dream” section of the exhibition, marriage, money and a creamy complexion are also common aspirations.
“When you have difficulties, you dream,” said Sarik Art. “When you are poor, when you work hard, you dream.” His photographs of elaborately coiffed women posed in traditional clothes are the realization of common-held fantasies among Cambodian women. Dreams of beauty and wealth are the chief means of escape from a lifetime of hard work and financial struggle, he said. The fairy tale transformation a day in the photographer’s studio offers is an escapist pleasure for many ordinary women.
The enjoyment Sarik Art gets from giving women the opportunity to indulge their dreams is clear, both from the portraits themselves and the way he describes them. “She has a very funny smile,” he said of one of his subjects. “She came to my house, and when the light fell across her like this, it was beautiful,” he said of another.
Whether posed or natural, working or dreaming, it seems all Sarik Art’s subjects enjoyed posing before his lens. “When they see their picture,” he said, “they are happy.”
The reception from male visitors to the exhibit has been less enthusiastic. “Until now, men have only reacted to the technical, artistic problems of my photographs, not to the subject,” he said.
It is easy to see why some men may not know what to make of Sarik Art. An educated establishment figure in his later years, his passion for photography and his progressive ideas about the role of women in modern society make him something of an anomaly among his peers.
But if Sarik Art is aware of this, he doesn’t show it. Enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke in the fading evening light of Irina’s Gallery recently, he leafed through his images of beauty with the air of a contented man.
When asked if Cambodian women are the most beautiful in the world, he paused to once more inhale from his cigarette. “No,” Sari Art said with a sly smile, “But they’re okay.”
“Dream and Reality” by Sarik Art is at Irina’s Gallery, No 7, St 228, Phnom Penh until April 15th.