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Tuk tuk driver turns snapper

A Siem Reap tuk tuk driver is well on the way to becoming a professional photographer, thanks to a kind helping hand from a Canadian tourist.

The intensity of Cambodia’s impact upon the senses has made it a popular destination for photographers since the country opened up again after the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the early 90s.

In the past few years, a local scene is finally beginning to develop, and 32-year-old Kimleng Sang is a shining example.

Kimleng Sang moved from Takeo province to Siem Reap in 2001 and after a couple of years was able to buy a tuk tuk and set up his own business.

This is how he came to meet David Bibbing, an enthusiastic photographer. Bibbing engaged Kimleng Sang’s tuk tuk service and the two got to talking about photography while Kimleng Sang ferried the Canadian around town.

Bibbing, spotting his talent and dedicated soul, bought Kimleng Sang a digital camera and supported some of his training.

Kimleng Sang’s images strongly reference Khmer culture because, he says, he is very proud of his country. Many people remark on the almost spiritual feeling of Kimleng Sang’s photos, yet the humble photographer insists he’s ultimately a recorder of people. Even when he is photographing ancient temples, it is the people in the images that bring the photos to life.

“I like to walk past the people and click when they don’t know,” he says, adding: “It gives a more natural feeling, like I can see the real person.”

Kimleng Sang is essentially self-taught, and has benefited a great deal from the photography tours he leads with his tuk tuk, taking visiting photographers to sites around Siem Reap that he chooses for their lighting rather than their history.

He says: “At first I thought the camera was the most important part of photography. But I soon realised that it’s really your eye, and then it’s the light.”

But it hasn’t been an easy process for Kimleng Sang, trying to learn without formal training or expensive equipment. “I learned by myself, but I learned a lot from visiting tourists and guest photographers,” he says.

He’s still driving his tuk tuk, and is looking forward to the day when he can commit himself wholly to his art.

But he’s also giving back and helping to train a new generation of young Khmer photographers at the Cambodian Poor Children Support Centre. “There are not many Cambodians taking photographs yet, so I’m trying to get there first,” he says with a grin.

Which is an interesting comment given the recent comments from the organisers of the annual Angkor Photo Festival, who lamented an obvious paucity of young Khmer photographers.

Among Kimleng Sang’s most powerful photos are images of a monk standing in front of a window, winding his saffron robe around his body. The morning sunlight blares through the window, softened as it pours though the unfolding cloth.

Though perfectly decent, the scene feels almost profanely intimate. And maybe it would be something akin to blasphemy were it taken by a barang – but it wasn’t.

And Kimleng Sang admitted that the monk in the photo never knew it was being taken, which explains its intimate, natural feeling. “Maybe one day I’ll go to Wat Attweya and tell him,” he says.

Kimleng Sang’s photos can be viewed at La Noria hotel and the Art Deli café-bar. Copies of his work can be found on redbubble.com

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