Montana Rakz taps the ice in his drink with his straw. He’s nervous. Tomorrow the young photographer will shoot Kouy Chandanich, the doll-like waif with eyes like saucers who is without a doubt the most famous model in Cambodia. A few months ago, the two met by chance at Phnom Penh International Airport, and she asked him to take her picture. It’s a shoot he’s wanted to do ever since he first saw her in the Cambodia-set flick Same Same But Different.
At 21, Rakz has garnered a big reputation within the industry. He’s been running his own business, Rakz Photography – which arranges everything from pre-wedding shots to high fashion shoots and adverts for an international client base – for nearly two years.
He decided to start the business at just 19, after freelancing work proved successful. His first public project came a year later, inspired by a period of severe illness, which he doesn’t like to talk about. “The doctor gave me 98 pills to take, one each day. I felt like I should do something as a documentary for my friends, so I started to take one picture every day and write about it, like a diary.”
In December, the resulting work, 98 days, a series of snapshots from his daily life – from a dropped, melting ice-cream cone to a ghostly black-and-white image of his mother’s hand gently placed on top of his own, shortly after his father’s death – showed at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Institut Français as part of Phnom Penh Photo Festival 2012.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I always dreamed to exhibit there. When I was a kid, every day I would ride across, because my primary school was along the way. I saw they had a big banner for exhibition . . . and I told myself one day I’m gonna be there. At the time, I was just a kid; I didn’t know anything about photography.”
It is people like Montana who the international camera industry has its, er, focus on. Photography in the Kingdom is catching on, and increasingly young people in Cambodia – just like the rest of the world – are snapping social shots but also turning pro.
Earlier this month, at Asia’s largest camera festival, the CP Plus Camera and Photo Imaging Show in the Japanese city Yokohama, Masaya Maeda, managing director and chief executive of image communication products operations at Canon, stressed the importance of Southeast Asian nations to the growth of the company.
“All the emerging markets are our targets . . . Russia, India, South America and Southeast Asia.”
In 2005, Asia net sales were just 10 per cent. In 2011, they were 31 per cent, equivalent to North America and Europe, according to Ken Ichi Shimboro, director and group executive of Photo Products Group.
“Canon has high hopes for Asia. Without the growth of Asia, there’s no growth of Canon,” he said.
As for Cambodia, camera sales are steadily increasing: Canon reported a 251 per cent growth for 2012..
The rise is partly due to a marketing push in the country, but other retailers have also reported increased sales.
Young people – whether beginners, young couples or amateurs on the verge of turning pro – made up the biggest proportion of the customers last year, according to Timothy Kho, regional manager for Canon Cambodia, the country’s market leader in the camera sector.
“I have seen a growth in popularity from the younger generation, where owning a camera is also a prestige of getting good photos up on their social media, sharing with their social network of friends,” he said.
“Of course, there is still a good number coming from the young adults as well and matured adults, who have traditionally been our core customers.”
HGB Group, an import company that had not previously entered the camera market, became Cambodia’s only authorised Nikon distributor in November.
“We see more people who want to buy,” said HGB Group Supervisor Heang Rina, who added that most customers were Cambodians.
Rina said that although shoppers came from all age groups, many were young professionals and students. The D3200 and B5200 models are among the most popular, but the high-end D800 is popular among those who can afford it.
For Canon, the most popular models are from their cheaper Powershot series, compact cameras bought mostly by beginners and young couples, but also the high-end DSLR models like 5D Mark III, which retails for around $4,590, and 60D, for around $1,000.
Of the Cambodian photographers who attend iQlick’s Photography Club, 20 per cent have upgraded from an amateur model to a professional in the last two years.
The increase in professionals means more competition for Rakz. “I’m a bit tired sometimes when my clients come to me and they say, ‘This guy is doing this and it costs this’,” he says.
Still, he won’t discourage people from taking pictures for a living if they’re passionate. “When I started, I was rejected by a couple of famous photographers here. I asked them, how do I become a famous photographer, what should I do? They said a lot of s— and told me to forget it. Now, they want to be my friend. They even bought one of my pictures – for $3000.”
It’s not long before Rakz has to rush to the next assignment – he runs Rakz Photography alongside pursuing a degree in IT.
“I have so many things in my head. I’m 21, I have a business to run, I have school, I have a French class, I have to meet my friends, I have to deal with my family, lots of things. Life is amazing.”
The writer was a guest of Canon at the CP+ Camera and Photo Imaging Show.