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Portraits from the Cambodian Countryside

As much as I enjoy shooting pretty photos of temples and trees, at heart, I’m a portrait photographer. I need people in my photos! So after hitting the temples, we finished up at a nearby village where I walked from door to door, or should I say hut to hut in search of subjects.

I learned the phrase “Sum taut mui” which means “may I take your photo?” Also, “Sous day” which means “hello” and “aacorn tran” which means “thank you.” With those three phrases, I was pretty much golden! Actually, the people in Cambodia are exceptionally friendly. Once out of Phnom Penh, no one declined to have their photo taken. Indeed many thanked me afterward for shooting the photo. All too often my problem was that everyone wanted to jump in the photo when I only wanted one person.

For this shot, I only wanted the woman as my subject, but the kids wanted in too. It did help that I had Kimleng with me to translate, but still the communication from English to Khmer wasn’t easy.

Once you photograph one kid, you’re going to photograph every kid. Cambodia is going through a baby boom so there are kids everywhere. Kids here are an essential part of life - they’re needed to work and help in the fields to bring in money. A married couple without kids is a couple likely to go broke.

The kids are all so playful and adorable. They may not have all the luxuries of American living, but they’re never far from a smile or a laugh. They’re a great reminder to the truism that money and objects don’t buy happiness.

This boy had this horrible scabs all over his face and on parts of his body. I’m used to positioning my subjects by moving them around - which made more sense since I couldn’t communicate directly with them. I held this kid’s arm to move him where I wanted him. I quickly realized that this might not be a good idea since I had no idea if this was something communicable. As I washed my hands at a nearby well pump, I anxiously hoped I didn’t pick up some dreadful third-world malady.

This guy climbs up coconut trees to fill his bamboo buckets with sap. This sap is then boiled down to create a solid sugar.

This woman is outside her home, a very typical Cambodian raised house.

This house is not this man’s home. The owners are away. They’re probably French since there are many nice homes owned by former colonists sprinkled around the countryside. Cambodia was a French colony from the 1800’s. They left in the 50’s which soon after sparked a long civil war that culminated in the viscous rule of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in the 70’s. Although Pol Pot was pushed out of the large cities by a Vietnamese invasion in 1980. The war continued until Pol Pot died in 1998. Since then, Cambodia has been peaceful - though the millions of remaining land mines still leave a dangerous reminder of the long war.

This woman is boiling down the coconut sap to make the sugar.

This fellow has filled his bottles of coconut sap and is bringing them to the woman who will boil it down. This is a taste of how business has been done since the onset of civilization and the division of labor. No big factories or agribusiness. Just people working in their backyards and in their villages.

These women package up the sugar for sale. I think you can get three of these for a dollar.

This was my last shot of the day. I just love the story it tells. The dad with his machete. The kids in the background. The home they live in. The people here work hard for a living. Their muscles are cut and beer bellies are rare.

The beauty of travel is that we get to experience scenes that are so different, even exotic, from our day to day life at home. Really though, what’s exotic to us is normal to those who live in these places. I love to photograph that normalcy no matter where it lives - be it in America or faraway. It’s the underlying humanity that I love to connect with.

On a technical note, I brought with me a small lighting kit and umbrella that I used to light all of these portraits. I tried to keep the lighting fairly minimal - just enough to add some direction and shape to the otherwise flat ambient light. I figured that anyone can show up and shoot using ambient, however it takes a determined fool to schlep lighting around and then set it up with the locals wondering what the hell I’m doing. In fact, most of my subjects would look at the light instead of at me since they were confused as to which was the camera.

The next phrase I need to learn in Cambodian is “Look here!”


2 Responses to “Portraits from the Cambodian Countryside”

  1. Ashley DuChene Says:

    Very interesting pictures and text.

  2. Inga Intriago Says:

    Beautiful shots John! My favorite is the girl and her bicycle. These are all beautiful :)

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