With a Camera and Headlight, Capturing People of the Night

Every image in Philong So­van’s series “In the City by Night” makes you want to find out more about the people in the photographs.

Ordinary folks, maybe, but with fascinating tales to tell. 

'After Dinner' (Philong Sovan)
‘After Dinner’ (Philong Sovan)

Finding and photographing them was a five-year project for Mr. Sovan.

“Sometime I would just visit to find the image, the area, and then come back later to work,” he said this week. “I would go alone, spend the whole night and do one shoot, maybe two. At times, I could not do any.”

In the series, which is being exhibited at Phnom Penh’s Java Ca­fe starting on Wednesday, the subjects are often staring at the camera, seemingly still as the world of the night moves around them.

One photo, entitled “Snooker,” shows a young boy with a pool-ball rack over his shoulder, surrounded by a man and other children in a warehouse-type room that opens onto an alley. In “White Jerricans,” a young man stands alone in front of neatly stacked empty fuel containers as two dogs lounge at his feet.

To interfere as little as possible in the scenes, Mr. Sovan worked alone and used the light of his motorcycle for the shots.

“Without light you can’t see them,” he said. “It’s quite dark in the city, in some areas off the main roads…and sometimes you only hear the sound of people speaking.”

“It may look like cinematography where a lot of people, actors were brought to a studio,” Mr. Sovan said. “But it’s the opposite: I used the headlight of the moto like a spotlight in a studio to capture regular people.”

Apart from finding the right people and places for his photographs, putting them together in a coherent body of work was also a time-consuming task, Mr. Sovan said.

“From one image to the other, I needed to find the ‘connect,’” he said. “There was no point coming back with a lot of photos if I could not show…the story.”

‘White Jerricans’ (Philong Sovan)

The 28-year-old photographer, whose work has been exhibited in France, England and Singapore in addition to Cambodia, came to photography out of passion.

Growing up in a poor family living along the Mekong river in Kandal province, he was brought to live with relatives in Phnom Penh at the age of 5 so he could attend school in the capital, he said.

Mr. Sovan loved the arts and es­pecially music. But jobs being scarce in those fields, he studied information technology at university.

“I did all kinds of jobs including construction worker, motodop, Khmer teacher for foreigners, house cleaning,” he said.

Then Mr. Sovan got a job in communications at a Catholic organization where foreign photographers were brought in to train the Cambodian staff. After two years in charge of video production, he resigned.

“I realized that I could go on with my passion: I loved photography,” Mr. Sovan said. “So I decided to leave the office…and work as a photojournalist.”

He spent a year on staff with a daily newspaper, obtaining an Honorable Mention Prize from The Society of Publishers in Asia in 2012, and then worked for the Xinhua News Agency.

In 2013, Mr. Sovan obtained a yearlong scholarship to study at the Louis Lumiere postgraduate school for audiovisual professionals in France. Since his return, he has freelanced and also taught in the Institut Francais’ Studio Image photo workshop.

Mr. Sovan is now setting up his own studio, where he plans to teach not only modern techniques but also black-and-white photography and the dark-room process.

“I think it will be interesting for Cambodians who may not know them,” he said.

The exhibition at Java Cafe opens on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.


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