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Photographer captures the 'disappearing' Cambodia

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There are many quintessential images of Cambodia; the dawn reflection of Angkor Wat in the lily pond out front; the umbrella-in-hand  silhouette of a monk taking a stroll; or the amputee, a modern reminder of the country’s doleful and destructive history.

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Scenes of everyday life in Cambodia, captured by photographer Peter Oxley (below).

But ask anyone who’s spent time in the Kingdom what image has struck them most and they’ll say it's the people; their charm, their courage, their attitude and their smiles. This is the image photographer Peter Oxley wants the world to see.

He’s the snapper behind Days of Light, a semi-permanent exhibition at the Angkor National Museum. The exhibit, which is free to the public, features 80 snapshots of what Peter says is “an often overlooked aspect of Cambodia” –  everyday life.

“I think these are very heart-felt images,” reflects the photographer. “I see a lot of exhibitions filled with despair, alienation, misery. These people are poor, but you don’t have to make them look poor because they have a natural dignity and a natural happiness.”

Peter describes the images as bucolic, capturing candid moments of Cambodian country life. The ubiquitous naked babies, the elderly men with years of hard living etched in their faces, beautifully-clothed Cham Muslims, and the universal grandmother, kroma-clad, looking over her lot with pride.

“I find the country people in Asia are very welcoming, generous, even if they have absolutely nothing they want to share something with you,” says Peter, who previously lived in Japan for 30 years. “I try not to get them to pose, but we’d chat away and I’d snap. I’d show them their pictures afterwards. Cambodians love getting their picture taken.”

Peter says while the museum tends to attract mostly overseas visitors, he hopes Khmer people will visit the exhibition. “I’m trying to encourage Cambodians to come. This is totally free, so I want to share it. We had some Khmer at the opening – many of them looked at the pictures and said, ‘That was me 20 years ago.’”

It’s that idea of capturing a moment in time that has Peter so intrigued in his subjects.

“In a way this is also a documentary of the disappearing Cambodia.  Like the roadside barbers, the oxcarts. The gasoline you buy in the Johnnie Walker bottles, that’s going, it’s all Sokimex or Caltex now. It’s in transition.”

While many of the pictures were taken on Peter’s tuk tuk trips around the Siem Reap countryside, the exhibition also features locals from as far off as Battambang, Kratie, Kampot and Kampong Cham.

The exhibition, which runs until the end of March,  was curated by Peter’s long-term business partner Virgil Calaguian. The pair came to Cambodia originally in 2006 as a writer and photographer team to report on the temples. They now run The Cockatoo Resort in Wat Damnak.

But Peter is more of an accidental hotelier than part-time photographer. He has previously exhibited his work in The Philippines and throughout Japan and has a book, Matsuri – Call of the Gods, a collection of images of the wild side of Japanese Festivals.

He says he intends to collate Days of Light and other Cambodian images into a hardback too.

And judging by the guestbook at the exhibition – crammed with scribblings of great acclaim in a multitude of languages and scripts – he may just be on to a best seller.

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