A travelling photo exhibition opening today in Phnom Penh focuses on the life of a Cambodian bride in China, featuring images taken over the course of nearly two years by Chinese documentary photographer Yan Cong.
When Cong, who is based in Beijing, first travelled to Jiangxi province, in China’s southeast, it was to fill a gap she saw in photo reportage: images of Cambodian women who migrate to China to marry Chinese men – and balance the uneven gender ratio created by China’s one-child policy.
In the exhibition, High Expectations, Hard Realities, Cong seeks to show a perspective never before seen. “The story in China was never told in Cambodia,” she said yesterday. “It’s always the story of women who had escaped the most extreme cases.”
In the village she sought out – a new home to many Cambodian women – Cong struck a friendship with one in particular, Buntha, who became the sole subject of her exhibition.
Buntha had travelled to China a year earlier to marry after a visit from marriage brokers to her village in Kampong Cham. At the time Cong met her in October 2014, the 35-year-old had just given birth to a son and was preparing to move to a larger city to follow her husband’s work.
Cong persuaded Zou, the husband, to let her tag along on their bus. And so she began to intimately document Buntha’s life. She often slept on the floor of their new home in southern China. “We became like family,” she said.
The resulting set of images, 19 in total, features portraits of Buntha in her new home; in her husband’s home village; and with her husband and now 18-month-old son.
The photographs often focus on daily struggle: in China, women face extreme pressure to bear their husband a son, and to care for him, Cong explained. “In rural China, it’s very hard to change this kind of traditional thinking,” she said. “And it’s very hard to be a housewife.”
And for Cambodian brides, the struggle is compounded by the challenge of living in a foreign place. Buntha has never returned to her family in Kampong Cham – though Cong has now visited them. She carried little with her on the flight from Cambodia aside from a few photographs.
After a week in Phnom Penh, the exhibition will move to Kampong Cham, and then on to Siem Reap, Cong said. She hopes to better inform communities where women are vulnerable to false promises of the reality of life in China. “It’s not so different from here,” she said.
A memorandum of understanding to crack down on human trafficking between Cambodia and China is in the works – 82 women were repatriated to the Kingdom from China in 2015. But many more women remain in China. “I personally met a lot of women who were happy – or had chosen to stay anyway,” Cong said.
For Cong, focusing on the individual changed her perspective. “As soon as I got to know [the family], I knew the focus would be Buntha, the woman who travelled to a country she barely knows to marry a stranger and start a family,” she said.
“These women are risking everything to go to China just to give birth to a boy.”
The photo exhibition High Expectations, Hard Realities opens today at The Royal University of Economics (RULE), #93 Monivong Boulevard, and runs through May 8. The exhibition is presented with the support of Winrock International and USAID’s Countering Trafficking-in-Persons program.