For Phnom Penh’s answer to Humans of New York, a young photography collective is documenting the city’s residents, one story at a time. Emily Wight reports.
What does Kim, an 11-year-old student at the School of Fine Arts, have in common with a boy who picks up litter during the night? How would you compare Heng Chamnan from Kampong Chhnang, who wants to be an English teacher, with a knife sharpener who earns, on average, 5,000 riel per day?
Each of them is part of the capital’s patchwork, put under the spotlight in a new project set up by young artists in the White Building.
Humans of Phnom Penh, a photoblog that launched in February, gives an insight into the daily lives of the capital’s residents through photography and short interviews. It was created by the White Building Collective, a group of 10 young people who live both in and outside the apartment block, which was built during the 1960s as low income housing for the Kingdom’s civil servants.
The group all share one camera, and take it in turns to go out every day to photograph a different Phnom Penh inhabitant. Every Sunday, they meet to share and discuss their findings and publish work.
According to Kourn Lyna, a 24-year-old social worker who is part of the collective, she and her friends have always been intrigued by the diversity of the metropolis. “Who are the people of Phnom Penh? Where do they come from? What are their dreams, and how do they know each other? We have a lot of questions,” she said, sitting in the White Building’s SaSa Art Gallery earlier this week.
Lyna and her friend Seng Simouy, a 20-year-old sociology student, hope that the project will make the city’s residents feel more connected. “I know I live in Phnom Penh, and that they also live in Phnom Penh, but people only know the people around them. With this, they can be exposed to others; they can see how other people live,” Simouy said.
According to Lyna, the project is an attempt to counter the fragmentation of Cambodian society caused by decades of war, corruption and political instability. “People aren’t connected to each other. Somebody outside the White Building might say that people who live inside are no good, they are sex workers, drug addicts, thieves. They don’t know people inside, but they’ve heard bad things,” she said.
The project is inspired by a similar photoblog, Humans of New York, which was created by photographer Brandon Stanton in 2010 and has since turned into a book of the same name. According to Simouy, they heard about it through Damien Rayuela, a French expatriate who teaches them film, photography and audiovisual storytelling during workshops at the White Building’s Aziza School every Sunday.
“We saw what they’re doing, and we thought about Phnom Penh – okay, we can try this project with Cambodian people as well, because we have many interesting things to show,” she said.
And it’s not just Cambodians who are captured on lens and displayed online. All kinds of people are featured: young and old, rich and poor, Cambodian and foreign. Lyna said: “We try to include barang too, because we want to know how they feel about life in Phnom Penh. Why did they come? Do they like it here?” she explained.
It’s up to each photographer who they choose to photograph, said Lyna – and because there are 10 people in the team, they get a very diverse range of subjects. “Everyone has different ideas, for example, I want to get to know people I don’t know already – mainly poor people. One guy in our team likes to take photos of sellers: fruit sellers, knife sellers, anyone selling things in the street.”
Humans of Phnom Penh only launched a month ago, but Lyna and Simouy are enthusiastic about the people they’ve met so far. For Lyna, the most interesting person was a young boy who picks up litter outside the White Building every night, whose story became the first to be published on the photoblog. “I wanted to get to know this boy, his mission, his goal,” she said.
The boy told her that he picks up litter to help his family survive, but he has big plans for the future. He wants to be manager of a company, he said, and to be rich so that he can donate a large chunk of money to helping disadvantaged children attend school. Lyna said: “I asked the boy, ‘what are you doing at the moment to work towards your goal?’ and he said, ‘I study at school and out of 48 students, I always come second in my class.’ This makes me very happy, and makes me think this little boy is going to become a big guy some day.”
She added: “We really want people to see each other differently. So people who drive a car see people on the street, and they don’t say ‘yuck’, because they know what their lives are like. That’s my dream.”