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Finding your way in photography

With so few courses available, sometimes the best education is found outside the classroom

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

Reuters photographer Chor Sokunthea (left) and Heng Sinith, from the rival Associated Press bureau, with a Thai soldier on the front lines during the Preah Vihear temple dispute in October last year.

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YOUNG Cambodians aspiring to a career in photography are facing a long, hard road few have successfully travelled.

While annual events like the Phnom Penh and Angkor photo festivals are raising the profile of photography as an art form and a career, there are few opportunities in Cambodia for regular work in the profession.

Chor Sokunthea, who works for international wire service Reuters, is a rare exception. The photographer started shooting pictures in 1993 when the editor of the Cambodia Times newspaper gave him a small camera and orders to "shoot, shoot". He has since secured one of just four full-time gigs with a wire news agency bureau in Cambodia.

With new camera in hand, his passion for photography quickly grew. He says he built his skills through comparing the work of photographers at the Phnom Penh Post with his own. He attended a free Associated Press training course in 1995 in Cambodia, and followed that up with a training course in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1997 and another with World Press Photo in Jakarta in 2003.

But he says his best training has always been outside the classroom. "I think young photographers need to practise more," he said. "Because news is not like art, you have to catch the picture, you can't set it up."

He says the hardest stories often prove the most satisfying, and counts the riots at the Thai embassy in 2003 and the Preah Vihear conflict of 2008 among his most memorable assignments.

However such challenging work can also bring out the negative side of the job.

"At the Thai embassy I shot a picture of Cambodian people stepping on a portrait of the Thai king, and the next day I got a call from the Reuters boss saying ‘The Thais hate Reuters in Bangkok because of that picture; don't come here for at least two years'."

For those wanting to follow in Chor Sokunthea's footsteps, little help is to be found in the country's schools or universities. None currently offer photography programs.

New arrival Limkokwing University also aborted its inaugural three-year bachelor's degree in photography this year after receiving only five applicants, just half the minimum number. The university's operations manager Azlan Aziz said it hoped to resume the course at the end of this year.

Recent attempts by the Royal University of Fine Arts and Pannasastra University to offer courses have also fallen flat.

But help is at hand, with many working photographers expressing an interest in mentoring young aspirants in photography.

Chor Sokunthea says he and the other wire agency photographers in Phnom Penh are happy to help mentor young photographers, and he has run training courses sponsored by the United Nations Development Program in the past.

Photo by: MARK ROY, TRACEY SHELTON

A sports photographer (left) gets amongst the action at the recent motocross championships while Heng Sinith (right) photographs the rice harvest on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

"We have no photography school in Cambodia, but if these young photographers come to us we can talk about what is a quality picture," he said. "Also, my equipment is so heavy, if someone comes and carries it for me I am so happy."

Sovan Philong, 25, is one of the new generation to succeed. A staff photographer for The Phnom Penh Post, he became interested in photography three years ago when he enrolled in a course run by the European Pressphoto Agency's Cambodia photographer, Mak Remissa.

The course, which cost $700 and taught the basics of photography over 50 hours, set him on a freelance career. After showing his work at the PhotoPhnomPenh festival in late 2008, he decided he wanted to pursue photography full time and secured a job at the Post.

"Now I am very satisfied with my job," he said. "My advice to young photographers is to develop creatively.  A course can't teach you everything -  you must develop the need to create something within yourself. Photography is, after all, a form of art."

While jobs in the news sector are limited, freelance photographer Nathan Horton, who has been based in Phnom Penh for two years, says there are many opportunities for freelance photography work in Cambodia, particularly weddings, business conferences and for NGOs.

"I see many more photographic opportunities arising in Cambodia, but I think it is good advice to keep a close eye on what is happening in the video world," he said. "Not only because multimedia is increasingly better equipped to deal with moving images, but the quality of digital video images are getting so good, and will only get better, that for a lot of purposes if you need a still image you will just be able to grab a still frame from streaming video footage."

Like Chor Sokunthea, Horton advises the best way to crack into the industry is by volunteering to work as a photographer's assistant.

He says most photographers would appreciate a bit of help, and it is a good way to learn the ropes, build contacts, and meet potential clients.

On Photography Cambodia is a new project founded a year ago by Poland-born photographer Maria Stott to help develop Cambodia's photographic industry by offering workshops and mentoring programs to Cambodian photographers. Her group meets twice a month, and is working towards an exhibition at the  Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh later this year.

While enthusiastic about the future of Cambodian photography, Stott acknowledges there are many obstacles to be overcome.

"Photography up until now hasn't really operated as a legitimate profession in Cambodia, outside of wedding and portrait photography," she said. "And the local market needs to be educated about the value of a professional photographer versus images pulled free from the internet."

Stott believes photography aspirants should practise extensively before  deciding to seriously pursue a career in photography, and this can be done without fancy equipment. "I think a local Cambodian photographer has a great advantage over a foreigner with big fancy toys," she said. "Even as a young, inexperienced photographer you might have a different perspective, you have the language, and you have the local knowledge and this is important because it can give you access to more interesting subjects."

Stott advises studying images in magazines and on the internet - Vogue for fashion, Wallpaper for design - and undertaking interesting shooting assignments.

Like most photographers Stott is cagey about revealing rates but said commercial and fashion jobs in Vietnam a few years ago were paying $300 to $500 a day.

"However, that was good money," she said. "If you're a Cambodian photographer one of the first assumptions a client will make is that you will charge less. And possibly one of the reasons you've been considered for the assignment is because they think you'll be cheaper.

"The competition in the market at the moment in Cambodia is not around quality, but who charges the least."

Stott hopes On Photography Cambodia can look more closely at the problem of disparity in wages between foreigners and Cambodian photographers and set about establishing some kind of norm.

"I also think Cambodian photographers should start to argue and demand," she says. "As long as they have the quality of work to back them up."

On Photography Cambodia is currently establishing a partnership with Limkokwing University and talking with other universities in Phnom Penh about reinstating photography degrees or diplomas. Stott hopes either Pannasastra, the Royal University of Fine Arts or Limkokwing will have something up and running by the end of the year.

"Photography is hard work, in Cambodia or anywhere," says Stott. "But its not impossible to succeed."

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