“We took a highway flyover in the middle of the city . . . the highway passed close to the buildings and I was so close to the people I could see them watch TV and eat at their tables.”
That moment in Tokyo nearly a decade ago, says photographer Chantal Stoman, sparked her fascination with capturing the urban night.
“Night is particular because it shows the differences [between people] but also what we do together: eat, sleep, have sex . . . It doesn’t depend on borders or ethnicity at night; this is something I feel very strongly,” she says.
That night in Japan she saw that “every window is a life”, each telling a different story. But in Phnom Penh, she says “there is life on the balcony”.
“And the people who close their shop, and park their car in it and have dinner and live in their shop – I have never seen this before,” she says. “This fascinates me.”
Between Portrait de Ville: Jerusalem (Portrait of a City: Jerusalem), a photo book due in September, and over six years of work on Lost Highways, a project that spanned the globe, from the Minhocão freeway – named after a mythical earthworm – in São Paolo, Brazil, to the highways of Hong Kong, Stoman is no stranger to photographing cities.
That she has followed that path during her residency with Studio Images at the French Institute in Phnom Penh, then, is little surprise.
What is unusual is that it marks the first time in her two decades as a professional photographer that she will exhibit her work alongside students.
Une Ville la Nuit (A City by Night) features a series of black-and-white photographs taken with a group of Cambodian amateur photographers over the course of a month.
“My role was to teach street photography, because it’s the basis of photography,” she says of the project. “It is to learn to look around yourself.”
The fourth artist-in-residence at Studio Images at the French Institute, Stoman worked with a group of student photographers – all hobbyists – some of whom picked up a camera for the first time less than a year ago.
Their challenge was to photograph the capital at night, and in black and white.
Twenty-seven-year-old banker Im Sarun, who tried her hand at photography only eight months ago, says that beyond shooting in monochrome for the first time, she had never been out in the city at night to such an extent. She relished the experience.
“At night, it’s really great,” she says. “I never did something like that before . . . It made my imagination new, too.”
“Night is very inspiring,” Stoman explains. “When we work at night with no flash, we are looking for the light.”
The philosophy in Stoman’s approach is to teach how to “think before, shoot after”, a mindset that harks back to the days of film photography in which every shot counted. For that reason, the training involved no Photoshop and no technical aspects.
“It’s not just [about taking] one beautiful picture that doesn’t mean anything . . . Those are pictures that are just decoration,” she says. For Stoman, the goal was to have pictures “with meaning, telling us something”, and a focus on the particular cultural and aesthetic elements that define Phnom Penh.
Thirty-one-year-old Cheng Yongsreng, whose day job is at a human rights NGO, found that meaning photographing vendors at O’Russey market. “We photographed there the night before the Chinese celebration [Sen Kbal Toek] . . . so we saw the pigs and the fruit being sold,” he says.
For Sann Meanith, 36, it was Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building, where “a lot of things happen there that show [us] about life”, he says.
The photographers were also granted access to Phnom Penh’s airport, which co-sponsored the program, and they were allowed to take pictures from the control tower and the tarmac.
Other locations were chosen by the students after discussion with Stoman. The relative strengths of each photographer became clearer as the month went on. Meanith found he was good at street photography.
“For me,” says Yongsreng, “it’s people talking to each other, standing on balconies.”
But in the end, the biggest challenge was not dealing with the peculiarities of night photography, it was the fact that, out of hundreds of images, each student could choose only five to submit for consideration. When Post Weekend spoke with them, many were still trying to select their shots.
“In an exhibition, you show your work,” says Stoman. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the Institut Français or the Musée du Louvre – you have to be very rigorous with your choices and your selection.”
Une Ville La Nuit opens at the French Institute, #218 Street 184, on September 1 at 6:30pm with a reception, and runs through September 29.