They have staked out almost every town in the country and line many of Phnom Penh's
streets, often in tight groups of twos and threes. If you take a picture of an urban
Cambodian street, the odds are pretty good a film shop will turn up in the background.
An informal survey by the Post of distributors selling film, paper, chemicals and
processing equipment revealed there are over 400 photo shops in Cambodia, roughly
240 of them in Phnom Penh. That's well up on 12 years ago.
"In 1990 there was only one film shop [in Phnom Penh]," said Dum Noeun,
25, a photographer in the city. Noeun has been taking pictures for ten years, using
two rolls of film a week. He snaps people who cannot afford their own cameras, usually
tourists visiting from the provinces or garment workers on a day off.
Suppliers reckon Cambodians use around 12 million rolls of film a year, around one
per person. While Noeun is mystified at the sheer number of film shops, the suppliers
have their own theories.
"In the summer the market is quite good," said Sam Tine, marketing manager
for AncoJel, which supplies Konica products to around 250 shops countrywide. "And
after farmers earn money in the market from their harvests, many of them celebrate
and take pictures."
Another factor, Tine said, was the city's garment workers, many of whom live outside
the capital, and who buy photos to show their families. The best two business periods
are unsurprisingly the annual Water Festival and Khmer New Year. Other numerous private
and public ceremonies that punctuate the year also keep the shops going.
Charles Vann, who distributes Kodak products to 74 stores, says there is now only
"nominal" room for growth. Tourists coming to Angkor Wat create some demand,
and much of rest comes from Khmer weddings, he said.
Kodak and Fuji have each brought one digital processor to Cambodia, but Vann said
the technology was probably too expensive right now. In the short term he would like
to expand by getting other shops to change over to Kodak. Meanwhile, Konica plans
to import digital processing gear in the coming months.
So how many shops does the region's poorest country need? Some believe the market
is oversaturated. There are more than 100 processing machines. A new one costs around
$80,000, while a used machine costs $30,000.
And considering the largest Fuji store in the capital develops around 70 rolls a
day, where does that leave the remaining 69 Fuji stores? The situation is no different
at the other big brand shops.
"There are so many [film shops] that business is not good," said a gloomy
Chun Hong. Agfa has a small presence here: its eight shops have only three machines
between them, while another is languishing in a warehouse.
Hong would like to see regulations restricting the number of film shops. He also
fears the rise of digital cameras will force some stores to close. "They are
just not very profitable," he said.