Erika and Vanna pictured together. Photograph: Julius Thiemann/7Days. (Insert) One of Erika’s portraits: Vanna combs her granddaughter’s hair in her stall. Photograph: Erika Pineros
Erika Pineros, 31, is a Colombian freelance graphic designer and photographer living in Phnom Penh. Two years ago she stumbled upon a community living in a graveyard near Monivong Bridge, savaged by illness, malnutrition and lack of access to education. She met Prak Vanna, 49, a widowed mother of six who runs a shop in the graveyard and makes her home in a makeshift wooden hut built over the graves. Since then, Erika has made regular visits to see Vanna, who suffers with illness and debt, and photographed the community. Julius Thiemann talked to both women about their relationship, and the different ways they see each other.
“Two years ago my life got better: that’s when I first met Erika. I had a good feeling about her from the beginning. I think Erika and I understand each other because she comes from a country where there was war and there are very rich and very poor people – I watched a documentary about Colombia on TV.
She is my adviser and makes me feel confident and hopeful for the future. She tells me that my children should all go to school, though only two of my six children go to school because it is too expensive. She encourages me not to close the shop even though business is hard. Every month she comes and visits for lunch. I give her a call when I miss her but very often she is busy. Last Pchun Ben she rented a tuk-tuk and took me to a pagoda. What I really like about her is that she eats our food and adapts to the Khmer style of eating.
She is also my daughter. As her mother I feel sorry for Erika because she lives so far away from her home country, separated from her family. The Pol Pot regime made me an orphan and I know what it feels like to be alone. I would really like to tell her that she should be careful and protect her honour as a woman. She shouldn’t have bad boyfriends that leave her behind alone because then she would be like a widow – like me. If she has a boyfriend, she should bring him here and I can tell if he is a good man.
But I haven’t dared to tell Erika these things because I am uneducated and she is not.”
“Photography is almost an excuse for me to meet people who live amazing lives. I have much respect for them. Very often people that live difficult lives like the ones in the graveyard community feel a little ashamed of their living conditions and it takes time to gain their trust. That was different with Vanna. She was very open from when I first came to the community two years ago. Since then, she has been my focal point there and I entrust her with my camera bag when I make my rounds in the community.
Calling her my friend would be inappropriate. We spend time together, eat, or go to a pagoda but how can you call somebody a friend you cannot really communicate with? There is also a fine line because what I see in the communities can be really contagious. Every time I visit the graveyard community I see this sick and malnourished baby that is probably going to die soon. So many people have diseases here like tuberculosis or HIV. It gets to me and I would be a wreck if I was emotionally too attached.
I always feel offended if people feel pity for the ones they call poor. These people have so much power to adapt to their environment: they use the coffins as tables, to dry clothes, or to play cards on. What you can really learn from the people here represents life in all its simplicity. In my pictures I try to show the people in all their dignity rather than taking it away from them by making them look miserable. I am grateful that Vanna and the people already here understand my taking pictures and creating awareness as help. I hope they will receive help so they can help themselves. Sometimes I give some of the children pictures I took. I hope that in 20 years they will look at them, laugh and say how much better life has become.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at email@example.com