In an art gallery in Phnom Penh there is a peaceful portrait of an elderly woman with pale skin dressed all in white that has captured the heart of many who’ve seen it, leaving them wondering about her identity and the circumstances of her life.
The 76-year-old grandmother featured in the portrait was born with albinism. Albinism is a genetic disorder that causes a lack of pigmentation in a person’s hair and skin as well as problems with their vision in many cases.
The albino grandmother in the portrait is named Por Seng. She is also known as Yey Sor – which literally translates to White Grandma – in her village of Sre Chea of Kompong Trach district in Kampot province.
Seng has been forced to beg in order to survive since the death of her second husband in early 2020. Her son had to move to Preah Sihanouk province in order to find employment as a construction worker and Seng has been struggling to make ends meet each day along with her daughter-in-law and two young grandchildren.
In the portrait, Seng is holding five eggs in her hand, which represent the five stages of a human life from birth to death while the white mushrooms and white lace head scarf are meant to symbolise respect for the Buddhist religion, according to photographer Tyta Buth, who displayed the portrait – titled Russian Roulife – in the Eternal Exhibition at Sra’ Art.
Tyta Buth – who often works under the name Tytaart – is a talented young photographer. She says that Seng was almost a total stranger at the time that she took the photo, but she felt a strong connection between them the moment they met.
Tyta first encountered Seng begging at the market located in Kampot’s Kampong Trach district.
“I already knew that I needed a person with very light skin for the project and I thought that it would be interesting to do a portrait of a Cambodian with albinism. So I searched online and stumbled across an article that dated back to 1999 about a family with three albino boys and I took a trip to Kampong Trach to look for them,” Tyta recalls.
Tyta was unable to locate the family from the 1999 article, but her search bore unexpected fruit after asking around town if anyone knew of any albino Cambodians.
“We had no luck finding that family but we were told that there was an older woman who often comes to the market to beg for money to buy food. So we searched for her and it happened that a tuk-tuk driver we talked to knew her and had actually just given her a ride that day.
“We found her in the market and she was all covered up from head to toe, only her hands and feet showing and with a krama covering her head,” Tyta tells The Post.
Tyta says she knew right away that this must be the Yey Sor she’d been told about and so she went up to her and introduced herself and asked her how she was doing.
Seng told Tyta that today she had come to the market that day to ask for money. She had gotten 10,000 riel ($2.50) total for her efforts and had spent it on a small piece of pork to share with her family at home.
Tyta explained her portrait project to Seng, who agreed to do the photoshoot and accepted an invitation to have lunch with Tyta and her friends. During the car ride, she told Tyta about her life.
Seng’s first marriage at age 16 was to a soldier on active duty in the military. They had one child together but unfortunately both her child and her first husband died during the war.
After the war, she remarried at the age of 40 and had another child who is now 47. Her second husband passed away in March last year from natural causes related to his age.
After meeting Seng and shooting her portrait, Tyta decided to try and help her and her family to whatever extent she could.
“I gave her 75 per cent of the sales money from the exhibition at Sra’Art Gallery last year, so we were able to help her out some. She was able to fix up her little house and buy some livestock, medicine and food,” Tyta says.
From a young age, Seng has had a hard life. She was able to see well enough in her youth to enable her to work as a merchant selling livestock, wheat, oil and sometimes fish.
Now, however, old age and her poor vision due to albinism have made it nearly impossible for Seng to continue with any kind of regular employment.
“Before Covid, she used to walk for an hour from her home to the market to beg. But now her eyesight is getting worse, her stomach is often aching and old age has weakened her, so things have gone from bad to worse in the time since her husband passed away,” Tyta explains.
Tyta continues: “Her daughter-in-law works around the house and helps her with the cleaning and cooking – as well as looking after her two kids – and her son doesn’t make much as a construction worker. That’s why I’m doing a fundraiser to help her family.”
For the fundraiser Tyta is selling smaller prints (28cm x 42cm) of her Russian Roulife portrait of Seng for $30 each. The photo is printed on high quality matte litho paper and they are all numbered and hand signed.
“Yey Sor is 76-years-old now. It would be nice to see her live the remainder of her life in a more comfortable environment with adequate housing and not having to worry about where her next meal is going to come from,” she says.
Tyta says her goal is to raise $4,000 for Seng. She estimates that $2,500 will go towards the complete restoration of Seng’s house as she is currently only occupying her kitchen shed. Another $900 will pay for livestock – 30 chickens at $10 per head and three Piglets at $100 each – with the remaining $300 for animal feed, a chicken coop and a pig sty. The final $600 will pay for food and other necessities until the livestock become profitable.
“I’d also like to help make it possible for her grandkids to get an education and perhaps a better life than what their grandmother and mother have had to endure,” Tyta says.
Tyta notes that anyone is welcome to donate in any amount they can afford, even if it’s just a dollar. She says she has raised $1,800 so far through her print sales.
Word of Tyta’s fundraiser has reached film producer Len Leng and they’re now discussing a collaborative project related Seng and her family once the money has been raised.
“We aim to document the whole process through her forte as a film producer, from the restoration of the house to the purchase of the livestock,” Tyta says.
They are also connecting the family with people who can teach them the skills necessary for taking care of the animals so they can turn it into a sustainable livelihood.
Tyta says she has received a lot of support from family, friends and fans of her photography work.
“I’m happy to see that our community is keen on helping individuals who are in crisis during this difficult time. They have shown very kind hearts and a sense of unity of purpose,” she says.
Tyta says her experience with Seng has shown her that her role as a photographer could be more helpful to society and those in need than she previously realised.
With her portrait photography, Tyta has a powerful means of telling people’s stories through images and sparking connections between strangers that can help to build community spirit.
“Cambodia has shown such a strong sense of unity during [the Covid-19] crisis. It is wonderful to see that there are many people like me out there who are using their roles and their voices to speak out on behalf of those in need. The next generation of Cambodians will be filled with compassion and empathy for humanity. All together – with love – we can do more good than we can imagine,” she says.
For more information regarding the fundraiser for Seng, contact Tyta via Instagram: Tytaart, her website: www.tytaphotography.com. You can also donate to Seng’s family directly via ABA account: 002 878 012 (Keoinmorokot Buth) with details in the remarks.