Em Phary was a child when her mother died at their Kampot province home and her father, who had been maimed by a land mine, took her and her two sisters to Phnom Penh.
For months, they lived under a tree in the big city. Eventually, the three girls found a home at the Kean Kleang Orphanage, while their father returned to Kampot province, where he eventually died.
Now 18 years old, Em Phary is one of the students from that state orphanage who are telling their stories in “Khmeye,” an exhibition held through Tuesday at the Sorya Center.
Their word-and-photo essays were produced during a photojournalism workshop organized by PhotoVoice in cooperation with Global Children, a US NGO that manages arts-training programs in Cambodian orphanages.
Based in London, Photo Voice was launched in 1999 to give people who have no voice in society the chance to explain what they face every day, said Anna Blackman, the NGO co-founder and executive director.
Countries like Cambodia often are shown through the eyes of foreign photographers, said Eugenie Dolberg, Cambodia project coordinator for PhotoVoice. In the NGO’s workshops, people learn to speak of their country as they see it, she said.
When the course started in early March, Blackman said, “none of the students had ever taken a single photograph.”
And yet for a long time, Sam Soren, 17, had dreamed of studying photography. “I would also watch foreign visitors who took pictures at the orphanage, and thought that, if I had a chance, I would become a photographer,” Sam Soren said.
During the first three weeks of the course, 18 students were given basic, automatic cameras with which to experiment. Then the 12 who decided to stay in the workshop received manual, 35-millimeter cameras.
Students had to master aperture and exposure time, in addition to composition, said Dolberg.
The course involved learning to present a story through both words and images, said Mak Remissa, a freelance photojournalist and teacher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, who taught at the workshop. “Some students, who were good with photos, found writing quite difficult,” he said.
Building the confidence to interview perfect strangers on the streets of Phnom Penh was a very big step for many of them, Dolberg said. Since students spend most of their time at the orphanage, located across the Japanese bridge on the Tonle Sap river, many of them knew little of the capital and its people. Still, the 12 students were soon looking at ways to illustrate their own stories, said Dolberg.
Sam Soren had spent a year supporting her two younger brothers after their parents were killed by a bolt of lightning in a rice field in 2000. “It’s unbelievable that the two people who were close to my mother were not harmed and that my father, 15 meters away, was—it was destiny,” she said.
Sam Soren would do whatever work she could—working in fields or cutting wood—to keep her two brothers in school. “I was sorry to quit school. But, if they were illiterate, my brothers would not be able to earn a living in the future.”
For a few months, the three children received small donations from former Agriculture minister Tao Seng Hour; and toward the end of 2001, Kandal parliamentarian Ho Naun helped find them room at the orphanage.
For her workshop assignment, Sam Soren returned to her Kandal district of Kien Svay, and photographed the life of three siblings—an 18-year-old boy who has been supporting his two younger sisters since their parents died. “We have had a similar experience and he feels as I did, which is why I took his picture,” she said.
To illustrate his story, Pha Lina, 16, mostly photographed the life of young boys at pagodas.
After his parents died of illness about four years ago, he lived with an aunt while his sister was sent to Phnom Penh, he said.
Too poor to feed an extra person, Pha Lina’s aunt took him to a pagoda. He later ended up living on the streets of Phnom Penh, until an aunt took him to the orphanage.
On Wednesday the exhibition will move to the south campus of Pannasastra University on Norodom Boulevard.
the cambodia daily