Dying trade: The last of the portrait snappers

Lav Sopha has been shooting portraits outside the Royal Palace for 27 years.
Lav Sopha has been shooting portraits outside the Royal Palace for 27 years. Charlotte Pert

Dying trade: The last of the portrait snappers

For decades, photographers have made a living taking visitors’ photographs outside the Royal Palace, but new technology is making them obsolete

For the past 27 years, Lav Sopha has worked as a portrait photographer in front of the Royal Palace.

From the early morning until dusk, wearing a big smile and a wide-brimmed grey hat, Sopha approaches visitors to see if they want to have their photo taken as a memento.

Once a solid source of income, he now makes little from the job.

“Before, each day I could take from 40 to 100 pictures for visitors, but now I take less than 10 pictures per day,” the 60-year-old recalled, his Canon digital camera hanging from his shoulder.

Since the advent of digital photography, demand for the souvenirs, printed out for 2,000 riel, has dramatically declined.

On a recent afternoon, the lawn was crowded with visitors taking their own snaps as a gaggle of professional photographers – more than 10 – stood by.

A pair of friends take a selfie.
A pair of friends take a selfie. Charlotte Pert

When Sopha started in 1988 – he had just finished school, was unemployed and needed the money – he used an analogue camera and had to take his film to a lab to be developed.

“I first started with an old Canon camera in front of the Royal Palace and loved photography,” he said.

“I was happy to earn more money for my family. It was an art and an exercise that I enjoyed.”

He made a good living – particularly during special occasions such as Khmer New Year, Pchum Ben and Water Festival, when many people came to the city – and was able to comfortably support his wife and five children.

“Back then, there were not many photographers doing this job and it was easy to make money,” he said.

“Everyone liked having their photo taken because they didn’t have their own camera.”

It only takes a few minutes for Sopha to print digital photos for customers on a portable printer, but most people take their happy snaps with their own cameras or phones.

“All this new technology has made it difficult for us photographers,” said Sopha.

“I think it is changed a lot for the next generation.”

Nearby with his own camera stood So Phea, a 23-year-old who started taking portraits only two years ago.

Photographer Lav Sopha has a photo printed out.
Photographer Lav Sopha has a photo printed out. Charlotte Pert

“I started to work as a photographer because I was unemployed and I knew people working here already doing it for money,” Phea said.

The young snapper never studied photography and picked up the trade from the older photographers.

“I came to work as a photographer almost two years ago now, and I think this is the best job that I could get – but it’s harder to make money than before.”

“When I first arrived to work as a photographer here, I earned 10,000 to 20,000 riel per day, but now I can earn less than 10,000 riel and it just pays for my food,” he added.

Sopha, the veteran photographer, said he’s not worried about not making money from the job. “I’m old and I just come because being a photographer is what I’ve done for so long,” he said.

It’s the younger photographers he feels sorry for.

“The ones who just started this career are doing it because they have no choice – they’re unemployed and uneducated,” he said.

“I see more and more coming from the provinces to be photographers around the Royal Palace, parks and riverside, but they can’t earn much because there are so few customers.

“It won’t be long before you can’t earn a living being a photographer at all.”

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