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Photographer finds inspiration in urban poor

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Stung Meanchey dump. ©TONE ULLAND

THE intense heat radiated from the smouldering garbage below her, and the fetid smell permeated the air all around her. Amidst the refuse, a little girl climbed onto the lap of her mother whenever she stopped working: a strong mother-daughter bond clearly evident.

This is how photographer Tone Ulland spends her days in Phnom Penh: following the urban poor.

In her exhibition "Dignity", on display at Cafe Living Room, Ulland explores the daily lives of marginalised Cambodians in beautifully composed, but often graphic, pictures from her wanderings in the Stung Meanchey  dump, and along the streets of the capital.

The photos capture the people who make up Phnom Penh's lower class: from street children to the middle aged and the elderly, to garbage collectors and street cleaners.

Last year, when walking the streets of Phnom Penh, a street cleaner caught her eye.

"Sometimes you just stop and stare deep into the eyes of someone and have so many questions," she said.

In this case, it was a woman and her daughter, picking up garbage. Enthralled, Ulland wondered: "We're both the same age, both mothers. Do you feel the same about your children as I do? Do you have the same hopes and dreams?"

She quickly realised that the only way to find an answer to this question was to spend numerous days following these "down and out" Cambodians.  And the more she learned, the more she admired and respected these people.

She developed a deeper connection with a few of the children and was further inspired to write a children's book The One-Eyed Teddy of Stung Meanchey.

The book was co-written and authored by two of the children she photographed, Narath Un and Naran.

The book is filled with photographs of a girl and her teddy bear and follows the story of how her teddy bear loses its eye and the quest through the dump for a suitable replacement.

"Dignity" runs at Cafe Living Room until May 24.

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