It was an intriguing experiment that melded art, nature and youth: ten teenagers
from remote Cardamon Mountain villages were given basic photography equipment and
training and sent out into the wild to capture their own "forest stories."
The result was a photo exhibit that became one of the highlights of the inaugural
Cambodian Environmental Film Festival, held in Phnom Penh the week of June 4. Designed
to complement the screening of the film The Cardamoms: Have Forest, Have Life, the
photo essays displayed their own artistic merit and informed city-dwellers about
life in the deep forest. For the young shutterbugs it was eye-opening as well-eight
of the ten teens had never left their villages before.
"Our objective was to raise awareness in young people about the environment
they live in," said Rachel Salazar, a coordinator of the program. "We didn't
want to feed them the message directly. We wanted them to realize it on their own."
Five communes in the Car-damons participated. The commune chief of each area selected
a boy and girl to represent their families and friends. Beginning March 27, the students
were first trained in photography techniques and then sent back to their villages
to make photo essays.
Coordinators visited each village to offer assistance before the students returned
to compile their stories, which were on display in the French Cultural Center's Café
du Centre. The Pentax cameras were theirs to keep.
Penchampa Dany, 17, chose to depict her family's daily routine of plantation work
- cultivating fruit trees, rice and peanuts.
"The wood from the forest is very important to us for building houses, building
fences to protect our crops, and improving infrastructure," Dany said. "In
our village a community committee is set up to help protect the forest and wildlife."
Thorn Pao explored the connection between the forest and his community's livelihood.
"Our families and the community benefited, not just the students," he said.
"We learned how important it is to help maintain the forest together as a community."
Wayne McCallum of Conservation International, who coordinated the film festival,
said a further aim of the participatory photography program was to gather information
from a local source. Understanding the relationship between locals and their environment
is essential to developing conservation strategies, he told the Post. It also provides
a voice for those who will be directly affected by conservation plans, he added.
"What was really pleasing about the festival was the way it reached out to young
urban Khmer," McCallum said.
"I think many of those who attended would have left the festival with a different
understanding of the scale and value of the Cambodian environment." Still, for
some participants the event was not without some apprehension.
"For me Phnom Penh was very strange," said 17-year-old Tep Deleon. "I
was so excited that everyone would see my pictures -but I also felt very scared."