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Portraits of workers were superimposed against flowery backdrops. William Ropp/French Institute

High-flying snapper’s airport portrait exhibition

Photographic students get a chance to learn from one of the best during workshops sponsored by Cambodia Airports

Cambodia’s airports became photographic studios in preparation for a new exhibition of portraiture at Phnom Penh’s French Institute.

Sponsored by Cambodia Airports, French photographer William Ropp spent about a month teaching 10 students from the institute’s photography school the finer points of the photographic style as they took portraits of workers at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports.

Ropp – whose collections are featured around the world from the New York Public Library to Paris’s Maison Européenne pour la Photographie – said for the exhibition, The Mysterious Art of the Portrait, the workers were digitally superimposed against flowery backdrops to “counter” the subjects’ “sadness”.

“It’s a very hard job, and I could perceive this sadness, so I countered it,” he said.

Student Soun Sayon, a 29-year-old civil engineer, said it was a challenge to get the employees to open up for the cameras.

“We thought we disturbed them a lot, but we tried to engage with them. We tried to get close to them and talk nicely to them,” he said, adding that the subjects felt more comfortable as time went on.

Ropp said he had never shot in an airport before, but years of commissioned work had conditioned him to working in strange conditions.

An old friend from art school who had gone into the potato business had once asked him to join an exhibition highlighting the starchy vegetable.

“When he told me to [take photos of] potatoes, I had no idea. It was a funny one,” he said.

The result was a potato attached to a fish, which is now one of Ropp’s photographic calling cards.

While Ropp said the workshops at the airports had been successful, he wished he had time for a personal project.

The workshops were only meant to run over three days, but Ropp ended up spending the whole month helping the students get ready for the exhibition.

“Every time I arrive in a country I escape from the capital because it’s not the right place for me to photograph people,” said the portrait specialist.

“I try to really be the cocoon to make a picture, and it is really impossible in a city because they are stressed and always rushed,” he said.

The Mysterious Art of the Portrait launches at the French Institute on September 3 at 6:30pm.

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