Transitioning Cambodia is designed as a coffee table book, but the dark social juxtapositions its images and texts present make it into something more than casual browsing material
Flicking through the glossy pages of Transitioning Cambodia is like ricocheting back and forth between two parallel universes.
One is shiny and full of money: pristine new tower blocks, smartly dressed sales executives, and fashion shoots in boutique hotels. The other is nightmarish: bleeding protesters clashing with riot police, or running away from bulldozers that are demolishing their homes.
That the images appear to be at odds with one another is intentional. Transitioning Cambodia, a 96-page picture book from journalists Nicolas Axelrod and Denise Hruby, explores economic development in the Kingdom: the rising prosperity of some and the fate of those left behind.
“We did want this to be a book that works as a so-called coffee table book,” said Hruby, who provided the book’s text. “But it’s more than that: the content, both the pictures and text, goes into depth about current issues Cambodia is facing, and how rapidly the country and the society are changing.”
Transitioning Cambodia is a crowdfunded project, but Hruby is quick to emphasise that they were never asking for charity. “The idea of crowdfunding the book was more a way of pre-selling the book, much like you can order a book on Amazon before it’s officially released,” she explained. “If you simply set up a campaign and think the money will flow in, you’re bound to fail.”
Over 100 copies of the book had already been claimed as “rewards” on Indie-gogo before going to print.
Between the two journalists, Hruby and Axelrod have 12 years’ experience reporting in Cambodia. Axelrod, an Australian photojournalist and co-founder of the Cambodia-based Ruom journalist collective, first came to the Kingdom to document the 2008 general elections for Reuters.
Hruby, an Austrian writer who arrived in 2010, worked for both The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily before going freelance and joining Ruom in 2014. Last year she was named the Young Environmental Journalist of the Year at the Asian Environmental Journalism Awards.
Axelrod, who took the photos for the book, said the project was initially born out of his desire to document evictions and the status of land rights in Cambodia. Gradually, his work evolved to encompass different facets of the development that displaced his initial subjects.
“I wanted to report on the eviction process but also on the relocation of communities, what the situation was like and how people adapted to the changes,” he said, adding that he was equally curious to see what happened to the land following evictions: “the so called ‘development’ process.”
“As the country was rapidly developing, I wanted to see who are the people who have the money to afford to move into these new housing estates and/or to eat and shop at the new malls and restaurants.”
Hruby said that as journalists, it was important to avoid taking any stances: development was to be portrayed, she said, in all its mixed blessings.
“The majority of the country is better off than five or 10 years ago – overall the health system is better, incomes are higher, and there’s better access to education. But at the same time, thousands have suffered under the name of development,” she said.
Axelrod said that the book was made to be accessible to newcomers in the Kingdom. The four chapters – family, land, wealth and politics – include photos of crowds mourning the death of King Norodom Sihanouk and other images designed to offer a lay of the land.
Individuals’ stories of strength and resilience, said Axelrod, are weaved throughout the book to put human faces on development. Some subjects, such as a Phnom Penh woman named Kunthea who works as a cleaner for expats, demonstrated courageous confrontations with tradition.
“Kunthea ... is raising her son as a single mother, who is truly happy despite living in a society that would typically not approve of her unconventional life choices,” he said.
Another subject, a young woman named Sam, impressed Axelrod with her artistic innovations.
“Sam went against traditions and became a lead singer in a metal band playing in clubs, festivals and on Cambodian TV. In a country that loves K-pop and its own Cambodian pop music, Sam pushed boundaries to bring something new to the scene,” he said.
Ultimately, the book serves as a nuanced exploration of a concept often treated as a mere buzzword.
“There’s no question that Cambodia needs to develop,” Hruby said.
“But the question is: how has this development benefited the population overall, and what has happened to individuals, some of whom, especially in the case of land evictions, had to pay a tremendous price?”
The launch of Transitioning Cambodia will take place at 8pm on May 28 at MetaHouse, #37 Sothearos Boulevard