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Border war, point-blank

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This untitled image of a soldier at Preah Vihear, taken by Siem Reap photographer Eric de Vries, illustrates his personal and evocative shooting style. The image is one of a series of 20 on display from tonight at the Chinese House in Phnom Penh.

Photographer Eric de Vries gets up close and personal photographing the daily lives of Preah Vihear-based soldiers in a country he has grown to love.

As tourists begin to trickle back to visit the Preah Vihear temple, Siem Reap-based photographer Eric De Vries is presenting a series of images depicting a day in the life of a Khmer soldier.

The images, shot in the final weeks before the joint agreement to withdraw troops from the site, form his new series Khmer Standoff (at Preah Vihear).

Preferring to get up close and personal with his subjects, rather than shoot from a distance, the Dutch photographer has created a collection that provides an insight into the situation at a very timely moment.

“I wanted to do a series about the Khmer soldiers who have been there for more than one year now, and how they kill time all day during this standoff,” de Vries says.

“I heard that the tension between the Thais and the Khmer was almost history and, prior to both sides’ pulling back troops, I felt I had to go up there before it was too late.”

De Vries’ exhibition reveals a surprising side to soldiering.

To keep boredom at bay between scheduled postings, Khmer soldiers grew vegetables next to sandbag bunkers and even turned their hand to amateur hairdressing to make sure they looked the part, de Vries reveals.

Prasat Preah Vihear is located atop a cliff in the Dangrek mountain range in the far north of Cambodia; an adventurous journey from Siem Reap, particularly by motorbike during the rainy season.

De Vries and his two assistants stayed in Kor Muy, at the foot of the mountains, before making their way to the top the next morning.

“I was really hoping that we, my assistant and brother-in-law included, could stay on top of the mountain overnight with the soldiers,” he said.

“However, the military police didn’t give us permission to do so, which is completely understandable, really.”

When asked about the experience, de Vries claims the soldiers were far from camera shy; all trying their best to be in the series and even going so far as to have a wardrobe change between shots.

Though not permitted to photograph the huge guns facing Thailand, the intrepid trio were taken on a jungle tour by four soldiers, which followed a path through a minefield to the caves underneath the temple.

The only other visitors they encountered were Khmer delegations on official visits and one Japanese tourist, but by the end of the day, de Vries said, he had captured everything he wanted and more.

Much of de Vries’s work is in black and white, which, he says, is simply a personal choice. But for the Khmer Standoff series, he has added a sepia tint, much like he did for his previous series Behind the Tree, Into the Light.

De Vries says he has been captivated by Cambodia since he first travelled to Southeast Asia in 2000. He visited four countries in almost three months, but it was the two weeks he spent in Cambodia that had the biggest impact.

“The people, the countryside and the temples; I was surprised by its beauty and all the smiling Khmer,” he says.

“From then on, I visited Cambodia almost every year to explore and take photographs, before I eventually settled down in Phnom Penh in late 2007,” de Vries says.

Apart from the “photographic heaven” that is Cambodia, de Vries says his family is also an important tie to the country now. His wife is Khmer and recently gave birth to their daughter, C’moon.

As well as working as a photographer, de Vries is co-owner of 4FACES cafe and gallery in Siem Reap, where he exhibits and sells his own work and that of other photographers.

De Vries’s Khmer Standoff series was presented at the International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France, just two weeks after the photo shoot for Asia Motion, de Vries’s Phnom Penh-based photo agency.

The collection will also be showing at the Chinese House lounge bar and gallery in Phnom Penh today through September 30, with the exhibition opening tonight at 7pm.

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