Through My Eyes

Timing was everything.

Disclaimer: Long post. I suggest a bathroom break midway through reading.

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For the most part, the villagers of the floating community we photographed were surprisingly receptive to our intrusion of their Sunday afternoon. They wore genuine smiles when Nathan approached and exchanged warm greetings with him in Khmer. Many waved when they saw us coming. It was an alternative reaction from the times I’ve been approached by dusty children asking for money after I take photographs of them.

In a way, it’s as if Nathan makes them feel like celebrities. For some of these children, who don’t leave their compounds for anything except to attend school (if at all), they get a chance to “get out.” By being subjects of these impressive images that often show up in brochures and magazines promoting tourism in Cambodia, they reach all sorts of audiences. It’s a way of leaving their village without having to physically do so.

Nathan explained that the villagers are most likely not yet turned off by visiting photographers because this is an area that doesn’t see many tourists throughout the year (outside of the few he brings along during occasional weekend workshops). Kompong Chhnang has yet to be impacted by the tourist boom felt by the country since the early 2000’s. Thus, there are only 2 guesthouses that are considered decent in this city.

I find it difficult, at times, to photograph human subjects without feeling like an intruder. An aspect I liked about Nathan’s workshop was the emphasis on ethical practices and relationship-based work. In the past, I recall having questioned the line a photographer unintentionally crosses by wanting to capture someone else’s personal pain or suffering and the exploitation of that person’s private moment by including the images into a portfolio. I suppose a good photographer is one whom ultimately shares his/her work with the subject, as opposed to “owning” the credit, especially if success comes along as the result of their interaction.

Privacy is considered a luxury and not an option known by the members of this floating village. Most units are open to the fresh air, and the only walls that exist are those of the exterior that keep the people living behind them dry. When I think of the number of walls in the San Francisco apartment I share with my friend James, I laugh. If you think your family members know way too much about your personal life, think again.

Although I enjoyed the technical and field portions of the workshop, I didn’t feel quite as confident with my SLR as I had hoped leaving his studio. There were times Nathan rushed through the topics of aperture and shutter speed that I wish he would have spent more time explaining, especially since the other two women and I had difficulty processing these and applying the information to our practice shots in Kompong Chhnang and Udong. Overall, the workshop was a good introduction to travel photography, but I wouldn’t mind a more in-depth course that covers each feature of a typical SLR and allows more time to put instruction into practice.

I’ve decided to give myself an assignment. I will be creating a B&W photo journal of my time in Hong Kong next month. Being in these southeast Asian countries, I’ve had a tough time trying to communicate with some of the locals upon encounters. Because I don’t speak the languages, I haven’t had a real chance to connect and show compassion to my subjects. For example, I took a walk with my camera yesterday and came across this elderly man who had set up his barber shop right on the side of the road (no walls – just a large standing mirror, a seat for his client, and his tools on a wooden table). I so wanted to stop, say hello, and chat with him, and maybe if I was lucky to get a few shots of him working on his client. I didn’t want to just smile, greet, and take close-up portraits without asking them whether they would mind my presence or not. It’s moments like this that have made me realize I need to spend more time in HK. I do have the advantage of speaking Cantonese and would feel more comfortable approaching people there. It’s less hit and run photography, to say it simplest.

I’ve had conversations with fellow travelers about how I think HK is lacking in recognizable culture. I don’t think the SAR has been successful in retaining the Chinese culture it once may have had, back when my parents were growing up. When most foreigners think of HK, they think of it as a financial hub, a former fishing port, dim sum, good tailoring, another renegade province…these are all tell-tale HK, but really, what else is there? People go to Thailand for its cuisine, terrain, endless temples, tumultous history, laid-back Buddhist approach to life – it’s even known as “the land of smiles.” Vietnam easily summons images of conical hats on the heads of rice paddy field workers, steaming bowls of noodle soup, sensuality due to the sexual innuendos of foreign military presence in the past. I feel like HK has a lot to offer, but for those who don’t live there, we have no idea. Because the island separated from the motherland (by choice), it has sacrificed some of the things that make it recognizably Chinese. Some of the traditional customs of the past were pushed aside to focus on economic progress and accommodate the international community living and working there. Until HK embraces its relationship with China (as opposed to just being tolerant), I don’t think it will serve as a primary destination for travelers seeking more exotic and “cultural” experiences. My hope is that this personal project will allow me to see more sides to HK than I have in previous visits and be able to share with you what I see. It’s coming home to a place that you don’t know all that much about…

I realize that my previous posts have become a little heavy on the “do-gooder” and responsible tourism side of things. To lighten the mood, here’s what else has been on my mind…..

1) T-shirts to be made before leaving Cambodia –

Per Nate’s request:
No Honk Honk
No Sweep
No Want Coke or Skunk
No, (I’m) not Sylvester Stallone

For me:
No, not same same.
No, (I’m) not Japanese, Korean, Filipina, Thai, Cambodian. (I thought we Asians were able to tell each other apart!)
No have dollar for one flowah.
No Tuk Tuk.
No Motobike, Lady?!

~~~~
2) Question of the week: Why do Khmers walk around town in their pajamas all day?
Answer (according to Nathan Horton): They like things that match. Also, they like that pajama sets are so comfortable.

~~~~
3) Things I find amusing

– Miss Landmine Cambodia 2009 (Beauty Pageant): http://www.miss-landmine.org/cambodia

-Words of Mok Bunthoeun (2nd place Men’s winner @ the Angkor Wat Half Marathon; also a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh): “I am very happy. I have the mental strength to continue to run. I am tuk-tuk driver. I come to represent our nation.” The 36-year-old admitted he couldn’t keep up with the Malaysian ahead of him, noting the lack of good training conditions in the Kingdom. “I trained by myself,” he stated. “He [Kien] is far younger than me, and he comes from Malaysia. Their nutrition is better.”

~~~~
4) Restaurants I would recommend:
– Restaurant My Kid (Vietnamese), near Sunday Guesthouse by the Olympic Stadium
– Foreign Correspondents Club aka FCC (order the Nhoam Krah (a filling salad of fresh, crunchy lotus root, thinly sliced bbq pork loin, little dried shrimps, red onions, crumbled peanuts, chives, and this amazing citrusy fish sauce vinagrette)

~~~~
5) Tips
-Don’t exchange currency upon arrival. Everywhere you go will accept USD and some places will accept Thai Baht. You’ll only lose money by exchanging due to the commission & service fees.
-If you don’t have any large items on you, ride around on the back of a motobike at night, as opposed to taking a tuk-tuk. These are half the price (generally $1) and often get you to Point B in less time. Just hold on tight.
-Don’t lose your cool after the 4000th time you’ve said “No, thank you” to the throngs of tuk-tuk drivers who approach you asking if you need their services. Yes, you will want to pull your hair out. Yes, you will want to scream, “Wouldn’t I come to you if I needed a ride?!” Resist. These men are just trying to earn an honest living and because tourism has been hit due to the border conflicts with neighboring countries, business hasn’t been so great these last few months.

I’ll end this post with some pictures –

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Written by winniewongsf

December 8, 2009 at 4:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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