Becoming a People Photographer. In Cambodia.
Our lives are complex – each choice we make leads us towards certain choices and away from others. Throughout our lives we have layers of experiences and choices that guide us from one decision to the next. It would be difficult to look back and pinpoint all of the decisions that brought me where I am today. But one thing I know: Photography has had an affect on my decisions for the last few decades. Currently my time is spent in Siem Reap, Cambodia – a stranger in a strange land. Prior to my first trip to Southeast Asia I was more comfortable photographing trees and rivers than making images of people. The people of Cambodia turned that around for me.
It’s hard to say why I ended up here. I have been here for about two years. My first visit was four days in 2014. Usually I am tired and cranky when I do long international flights and everything is annoying when I get off the plane. I know all I have to do it go to bed and in the morning when I wake up all will be better. But landing in Cambodia was different. The flight was probably 22 hours or so, but when I got here I felt like I was ‘home’. The next morning I walked around on my own for a bit and for some unknown reason I approached a lady and her baby and asked if I could take their picture. That was so unlike me – I much preferred the trees and rivers. No objections from them. Ever.
For many people a visit to Cambodia means a few days in Siem Reap with visits to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. A few nights around Pub Street for some food and drink top off their sweltering, people-infested visits to the temples. They may fit in a cooking class, a visit to a floating village or a night at the circus but overall their visits are relatively short. And they never know what they are missing.
For anyone interested in people photography Cambodia is a great place to get your feet wet or hone your skills. The people here are unbelievably welcoming – even to people like me who tend to pop up unexpectedly. Whether they are sitting in front of their homes or tending their rice fields I show up on a motorcycle or a bicycle, camera in hand ready to make some images and they have no problem offering their smiles.
My travels take me down miles and miles of dirt roads and single-track paths in remote areas that only fit two-wheeled traffic, give or take a water buffalo or two. Many of the people I pass rarely, if ever, see a westerner riding these paths. People smile, wave and shout hello all the time.
Bewildered looks quickly change to smiles as I make my way into the rice fields – mud squishing between my toes. The closer I get for some wide-angle shots the wider the smiles become. After putting the camera down I quickly learn what backbreaking work rice farming can be. I have planted, harvested and cut rice with the supervision of local experts who seem to enjoy watching me work more than they like having images made of them.
I spend a lot of time in the dry season searching for remote Angkorian era temples. I have been to over two hundred and thirty temple sites so far. Some may consist of little more than one ancient stone left over from hundreds of years of collapse, ruin and looting.
One time I stopped at a home where a family was celebrating Chinese New Year. It was their shouts of ‘hello’ as I passed along the dirt road that made me stop. I found one of the people there spoke more English than I spoke Khmer.
He asked me what I was doing out in the countryside. After telling him I was searching for old temples he left his family to take me around his boyhood haunts to show me the remnants of a seven hundred year old wall that surrounded a temple that disappeared centuries ago. We spent an hour and a half walking through open fields, thorny brush and thigh-deep water exploring that wall.
I often find myself exploring a single-track dirt path on my motorcycle. I don’t know if I am more surprised coming across a remote home or if the family is more surprised seeing a foreigner out in the middle of nowhere. A simple smile and ‘Soksabai’ (how are you?) is all it takes to get a smile from them. Once I pull out the camera everyone seems to want their picture taken. They love seeing themselves on the LCD screen on the back – and if you show them some video of themselves the kids screech with joy. The people here are great – even with so much poverty they still smile. Some work 12 hours a day seven days a week for $75 a month and they still smile. How can that be? It makes me look at things in a different light. It is refreshing for an American to see things like this.
Spending so much time in Cambodia has given me the opportunity to immerse myself in a culture / lifestyle that is very different from the one I am familiar with. I had to leave my comfort zone thousands of miles away in America – something that seemed easier than it should have been. I can’t help but think how different the world would be if everyone had the opportunity to do the same.
With all of the smiles that surround me daily it is impossible not to smile myself. Are you in the mood for smiles everywhere you turn? Come on over and give it a try.
Does traveling to foreign countries, meeting new people, and having life-affirming adventures with your camera sound like something you could get into? After six weeks of learning photography in our Summer Intensive program, you will be prepared to photograph with confidence and intention … anywhere in the world!