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Photographers picture the future


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A midwife, using a fetoscope, listens intently to the heartbeat of an unborn baby while a small group of women, sat on bamboo mats, watch on from a distance. This is just one of many intimate and aesthetically beautiful images taken by photographer Tang Chhin Sothy, yet this one’s particular poignancy saw it win a first-round prize award last Wednesday, August 10, as part of the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) 7 Billion Actions campaign.

Come October 31, 2011, the world’s population will have reached seven billion – a fact that brings with it myriad issues relating to humanity, the challenges and opportunities we’ll be faced with, and how we can all live together in one world.

The Cambodia-based photographic competition, with the theme “maternal and child health”, is just one element of the global 7 Billion Actions movement which was launched this year on July 11 – World Population Day.

Pen Sophanara, a communications associate at the Phnom Penh UNFPA offices, says that statistics collated in 2008 show that 416 out of every 100,000 women die due to childbirth in Cambodia – the highest rate among all developing countries.           

And while donations and on-the-ground support are vital in improving these numbers, Pen Sophanara says the nature of art makes it, too, an important tool in raising social awareness and promoting change.

“Photos can share stories in Cambodia. They can tell various historical stories, so we encourage both professional and non-professional photographers to share their various stories about Cambodia [as part of the 7 Billion Actions campaign],” she says.

Having worked for the news agency Agence France-Presse, or AFP, since 2005, Tang Chhin Sothy is one of the most well-known and prolific photographers working in Cambodia today. To capture his winning image, he travelled to a rural area of Kampong Cham province in 2006 with the non-profit organisation PATH, a group that works to improve global health and well-being.

Emotive and insightful, Tang Chhin Sothy says his photographic work from that trip is a visual exploration of the work PATH does.

“PATH has its own project based on [improving] maternal and child health in the countryside of Kampong Cham. When we reached there, they gathered all the pregnant women in the village to get examined.”

So, when the opportunity came up to submit a photograph that explores issues of health to the UNFPA competition, Tang Chhin Sothy had the perfect entry. And he says the shot captures quite a detailed look into the prescribed maternal and child health theme.

“This photo consists of complete information: a baby inside the belly, pregnant mothers, midwives and health care tools,” he says.  

As his prize, Tang Chhin Sothy received a US$300 dollar award. Second prize went to Wayne McCallum who pocketed $200, while Drew McDowell, who came in third, was rewarded with $150.

Beginning his artistic at the Royal University of Fine Arts and studying sculpture, Tang Chhin Sothy’s passion for photography bubbled to the surface two years before he was set to graduate in 1997. He became determined to master the discipline and became the protégé of a local photographer who taught him many invaluable skills.

Now, through unison in his creative and current affairs work, Tang Chhin Sothy has become an impressively creative photographer, and one who can capture beauty without compromising his subjects and therefore the message intended to be conveyed.

“Sometimes we have to be cautious of victims [of tragedy] or people at risk. If showing their face means they could be victimised, then we should respect that and not show their identity,” he says.

It’s this sensitivity that certain professional artists possess that appeals to the sensibilities of many groups who strive for social change.

Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for

Independent Media, says everybody presenting ideas to the public, especially the media, should do what they can to help raise awareness about maternal and child health, not least because of their ability to reach a wide audience. He says, too, that this particular issue is one that is indiscriminate in its power to change lives for the worse; we can all relate.

“The baby [in the photograph] could be your younger brother or sister, and the mother could be your sister or even you yourself in the future,” he says. “The main health issue that we are confronting [in Cambodia today] is maternal and child health, so we should help to improve it together.”

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