Photographer Captures the Changing Lives of Rural Workers

When Canadian photographer Blair McDougall embarked on a project here three years ago, his goal was simply to show Cambodian people in their daily environment. But what he produced goes far beyond simple depiction.

His series “Khmer: A Portrait,” now exhibited at Meta House, reflects the harshness of the world people in the countryside face every day. And yet, the photographs suggest human beings with rich stories to tell and abundant inner strength.

'Little Fish' (Blair McDougall)
‘Little Fish’ (Blair McDougall)

Mr. McDougall’s intent was to photograph people in their settings and encapsulate their stories in one image, he said. “I am documenting a rapidly changing world for future generations, including my own children.”

He mainly focused on people whose working conditions have so far hardly evolved: small farmers, fishermen and workers in traditional brick factories.

In the photo entitled “Just Waiting,” a woman is sitting on the stairs of a tired palm-leaf and bamboo home on stilts in flooded land, with a man standing in a boat below. The photo is in shades of grey except for touches of red in people’s clothes and the painted motifs on the boats.

In “Going to School,” a man drives a makeshift platform with a small motor on a railroad track while his small boy sits in front of him, his school bag on his back, the image rendered in muted grey with brownish red accents.

Mr. McDougall has been living for part of the year in Kampot City since 2012, otherwise splitting his time between Nepal and Quebec.

Come June, he usually shoots icebergs and outport villages off the Atlantic coast in northern Canada, another fading world he is determined to record.

Photography was his first love, a trade and art that he studied and began to practice in his teens, he said.

At 25, he went to university to obtain a degree in agriculture and worked as a farmer for decades, but after sustaining an injury, Mr. McDougall abandoned farming and went back to photography in 2006.

For his series on Cambodians, he used a digital camera and modified the images on computer using specialized software. “Photos are taken as color images, and then basically desaturated except for the reds and oranges—a simplified way of putting it—so that it better shows the people.”

“The subject is insulated a little bit from the background, but it still ties him to his environment,” the 55-year-old photographer explained. “There’s a little color remaining in the background but it’s less distracting.”

His exhibition at Meta House ends March 16.

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