The little town of Siem Reap in Cambodia was abuzz recently with photographers from around the world who were there for the Angkor Photography Festival. CHIN MUI YOON attended with camera in hand and discovered the power for change that lies behind the lens.
THEIR faces were full of fear and misery. They were like scared little animals. They’ve been treated like s**t because they beg, and they felt like s**t. They had no self respect.”
Strong words from French photographer Christophe Loviny, about the street children of Cambodia. Just another white man who doesn’t know Asia mouthing off?
Not quite. If anyone can make such observations, then it is lensmen like Loviny and his peers whose photos first told the world about the meltdown of Cambodian society under Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s.
These men were first drawn to this part of the world by the Vietnam War in the 1960s. They stayed in the troubled region and fed the world’s media organisations with searing images of the slaughter of an entire generation of Cambodia’s teachers, artists and intellectuals during four years of Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979.
They recorded the struggle of the street children’s parents who grew up in a country that had practically returned to medieval times. And they’ve been recording the lives of those children, too.
But they grew tired of taking pictures of dead-end kids living in sad conditions. Stepping out of the detached, journalistic role they’ve had to play all these years, these photographers decided to do something for the children.
And so, last year, some of them came up with the idea for a photography festival that raises funds for a street children’s centre in Siem Reap, the town nearest Cambodia’s world heritage site, the Angkor Wat complex of temples.
The centre, run by charitable organisation Green Gecko, feeds, clothes and educates children who have been forced to live and beg on the streets because their parents are handicapped after coming into contact with landmines – Cambodia has the most landmines in the world – or are suffering from HIV/AIDS or drug addiction.
Thanks to the US$15,000 (RM57,000) raised last year and at the Angkor Photography Festival this year – which ran from Nov 25 to Dec 1 – some 40 children will have hot meals, baths, clean clothing and tuition in mathematics and the Khmer and English languages. Food and health assistance will be extended to their families, too.
But the festival wasn’t just about the money. The organisers invited 35 children to join photography and dance workshops, which were conducted by Indian choreographer Sangeeta Isvaran, English art therapist Isabelle Rodker and Filipina art therapist Paula Holmes.
“Photography is therapy,” explained Loviny. “Photography can transform lives if it’s used the right way.
“We hope to develop the children, not just as photographers documenting their world, but also as human beings, through photography. Self-expression through arts has helped the children gain confidence where previously there was none.”
And then there were the dance workshops. Out of them came the Hip Hop for Hope dance troupe that has begun performing in hotels around the town.
“We cannot give the children hope and happiness for a week (during the festival) and then leave them to sink back into their dead-end lives,” said Loviny.
“Now they can present shows at the hotels and earn money. It gives them pride. We don’t want to assist them 100% because that creates a mentality of always asking for help, which is prevalent in Cambodia.
“We wanted to use photography, dance and art to change the children’s self-perception. These children had no self-esteem when we found them.”
They “felt like s**t”, as Loviny said, and it showed in the self-portraits each child was asked to create on the first day of the photography workshop. But just making those self-portraits was a step on the path towards better self-esteem.
“When the children’s pictures are projected during the slide shows, or when they dance on stage, people acknowledge their work and clap.
“They now know a different future is possible through their own efforts. We hope this is one way of changing this generation of Cambodia’s children,” Loviny said.
Not a party for Mat Sallehs
Outdoor slideshows were a strange sight in the touristy town of Siem Reap. There wasn’t even a cinema there.
Despite the humidity and the dust stirred up by traffic, shutterbugs attending the festival had gathered at the Royal Gardens to enjoy projections of photographs captured from around the world.
The images included haunting portraits of children affected by war and visual documentation of China’s growing pains, Cambodia’s landmine victims, rituals of monks, tsunami-ruined landscapes and Myanmar’s Rohinya people.
Workshops, discussions and exhibits were the other events during the fest, which had attracted hundreds of photographers, amateurs as well as professionals representing top news service agencies like Magnum and AFP.
The highlight was the works of 20 young Asian photographers and the 35 street children who had attended free workshops the week before.
Each night, as we gathered, I could sense growing excitement over this project that could be culturally and socially significant for the region.
Singapore is known for international performing arts and Ubud in Bali is gaining a reputation as the literary heart of Indonesia, thanks to the flourishing annual writers’ festival it hosts. Could Siem Reap be developed as a photographers’ hub?
It will be if the guys from the VII photo agency have anything to say about it. Several members of this prestigious Paris-based agency started the ball rolling by holding small workshops and slideshow events in Siem Reap las
t year. More photographers wanted in, and so the Angkor Photography Festival was formalised.
One of VII’s founding members, British photojournalist Gary Knight, said they wouldn’t want to hold the event anywhere else.
“We’ve all had a very long relationship with Cambodia,” he explained at an interview at Carnets d’Asie, a bookshop cum café and gallery that was used as the festival headquarters.
“We met while working and living in this part of the world when it was so different.
“There was war and chaos. We shared an experience here together as young men through our visceral relationship with Cambodia’s culture, history and people.
“It is nostalgic for us to hold a photography festival here, as photography had brought us to Asia all those years ago.”
And in practical terms, he added, Siem Reap is affordable. If the event were to be held in Jakarta, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, “we would disappear!”
“This is the smallest photography festival in the world, and we have very limited financial resources,” he said.
“We want to create a cultural event and also have fun!”
From landscapes to portraiture, from fashion and fine art to hardcore photojournalism, the festival highlighted all types of photography. Tribute was given to Japanese photographer Taizo Ichinose, who was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1973, and whose pictures of war and landmine victims remain some of the most haunting and defining images of the horrors of conflict.
Knight hastened to add that the festival is not a party for foreigners in Cambodia.
“The festival began with workshops and its primary focus remains training, teaching and nurturing young talent,” he said.
“I don’t want a festival for Asians or one for Caucasians. We mix the best work together. We hope to give exposure to more Asian photographers’ work, to encourage them to come here and meet photographers from other parts of the world, to engage in conversation and exchange ideas, to have a good time and go back home to motivate other young photographers.”
Loviny added that they “no longer have issues with ego, self-esteem or competition for jobs. We want to share the knowledge and experience we’ve been fortunate to have.
“That’s why we included a free workshop for 20 emerging regional photographers based on the professional model of VII’s workshops. We hope they can return to their countries to better document their societies and cultures.”
The Star’s Azhar Mahfof was the sole Malaysian representative picked from among 300 applicants. He shares his experiences and images on page 6.
More Asian involvement needed
The festival’s humanitarian aspect sets it apart, said organising committee president Roland Eng. The festival’s tagline is “Photography for Change”.
“The festival is non-profit. Our committee comprises volunteers, including well-known photojournalists who teach the workshops. We depend solely on sponsorship, goodwill and our own pockets,” said Eng, formerly Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States and Malaysia.
Siem Reap’s most stylish hotels sponsored spaces for the gatherings and outdoor projections; they include FCC Angkor, Sofitel, La Residence d’Angkor, Victoria Angkor, Amansara, Hotel De La Paix and Angkor Village Resort.
“We would like to move the programme into public spaces for more local interaction,” said Knight. “But we’d need the support of the Cambodian and local government to make it a more public event.”
Loviny said they would welcome Asian countries sponsoring their own photographers so that the limited funds the organisers have to work with could be channelled into programmes for children.
“Malaysia and the rest of Asia have progressed today while Cambodia is struggling to fit into a developing world that has left it behind,” he said.
“There is a strong culture of voluntary work in France; after all, that is the country where organisations such as Doctors Without Borders and Reporters Without Borders were formed. But the volunteering culture in Asia is also growing as the region devlops tremendously.
“So we would like to invite more Asian partners. And we hope to share the same spirit of sharing to make photography a catalyst of change.”
THE Angkor Photography Festival welcomes support in the form of photographers’ participation or voluntary work, as well as sponsors or donors for its day-care centre for street children. US$250 (RM875) pays for one child to attend the centre for a year and provides the child’s family with food. Or you can pledge a donation of US$50 or US$100 (RM175 or RM350) for one year.