A young Cambodian couple gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, hands entwined. She is glowing in a Western-style cream bridal gown. He looks smart in a slim-fitting tailored suit.
But it’s not their wedding day—this scene was staged a month before the main event. And it cost thousands of dollars to create.
Pre-wedding photography has been popular across Asia for several years, but is only now taking off in Cambodia.
Soy Kimchhuong, 32, and Eng Chanthea, 28, are among a growing number of couples who spend a day or more posing for pictures at scenic venues before tying the knot.
For their photo shoot in October 2012, they chose to travel to Hua Hin, in Thailand, and combined it with a holiday.
“Nowadays for a wedding we have to have a very nice photo to show,” Ms. Chanthea said. “[You have] one life only, one wedding.”
Ms. Chanthea, who is now four months pregnant with the couple’s first child, admits that she was the driving force behind the elaborate photo shoot, although her now-husband came around to the idea.
They are typical of an emerging group of well-to-do, trend-conscious Cambodians who want wedding mementos that are, in actuality, far removed from a traditional Cambodian affair.
“Mostly it’s not arranged marriages, not the elders picking the [match]. It’s the real couples,” said Eng Bunkim, who took the photographs and is a founding member of the creative collective Idea Laor.
“For the couple…. they want to capture this sweet moment.
“Mostly in Cambodia [couples] don’t like to take pictures [together] after the wedding. They think they are married already, so no need to take pictures, they see each other every day.”
The growth of the pre-wedding photography craze is illustrated by an exhibition that opened at Meta House this week, entitled Eternity, featuring images from five photographic studios.
A similar event in 2011 featured just one studio: Roosterkool Photography, which was the first in Cambodia to offer the now-popular outdoor shoots and charges customers upwards of $1,200 for a one day package.
That includes a makeup artist, a stylist and props, but not the cost of hiring a venue or buying outfits. Comprehensive multi-day shoots start at $4,000, and traveling outside of Phnom Penh attracts a “distance fee” in addition to accommodation and transport costs—which can quickly add up.
Ma Channara, the owner of Roosterkool, who is better known to his friends and clients as Rooster or Mr. Kool, got the idea for his business while studying interior design in Singapore, where the pre-wedding photography craze had already taken hold.
“The people now they start to know the trend,” he said. “Before when I came back from Singapore, some people did not understand. They said ‘Why do you do it?’ but it is popular in Asia for about four years and it is becoming more and more popular in Cambodia.”
Mr. Channara’s business is flourishing. When the 32-year-old started out in 2009, he worked alone, occasionally roping in his cousin to act as an assistant. Now, he has nine staff members, including three professional photographers, working for him.
Before each shoot, the couple is interviewed to determine their tastes and preferences to ensure the photographs reflect their personalities.
For some, the hefty price tag of pre-wedding photography can be a stretch, and with an older generation often mystified by the need for such a luxury, Mr. Channara says he has seen plenty of couples scrimp and save for their photo shoots—sometimes even keeping their plans secret from parents.
“For so many in Cambodia, it’s all about showing off,” he said. “In a group of friends, if one gets me [to take pre-wedding photographs], they all get me.”