They were not born on dry land but rafts and boats. They see only a vast water reservoir and the endless sky.
They are likely destined to become fisher-folk because they live in floating communities where the people make a living through fishing.
Now, their lives have been captured through the eyes of professional photographer Zalmai, 55, who has launched his exhibition, Between the lake and the stars, not in a concrete building, but uniquely on fishing boats.
The photographs are also being exhibited on The Lake Clinic’s (TLC) boat clinic that provides basic healthcare to the floating communities that are unable to travel to the nearest town for much needed medical care.
Zalmai, who has won several prestigious awards across Europe for his photography, says he is captivated by the lives of those who live in floating communities.
“They were born between the lake and the stars and grew up between them. What I mean is, their lives are conjoined with the sea,” says Zalmai.
His exhibition is primarily being held at the Moat Klas Floating Clinic run by TLCalong the Tonle Sap, in Anlong Samnor commune, Chi Kraeng district, Siem Reap province.
Zalmai, who started his project on the Tonle Sap lake about a year ago, tells The Post that “the exhibition is not about me”.
“It is about the lake residents. I will film a short documentary about them after they see the exhibition. I want to record what they have to say to the land-dwelling world,” he says.
Zalmai wants to provide a broader perspective and visibility to people who rarely have the opportunity to see and fully understand what is happening in Cambodia’s rural waterfront environments, and the lives of the communities and people who live there.
“Focused on the region’s floating communities, my photographic project captures their difficulties, concerns, and ongoing struggles,” he says.
It also documents, he says, the devastating consequences of global warming and seeks to empower the communities that are being celebrated through the collection of photographs.
“During my stay at the lake, I met a lot of people who opened their hearts, doors, and their pain and joy which allowed me to capture intimate moments in their lives,” said Zalmai, who spent most of his life between Afghanistan, Europe, the US and Asia.
Zalmai decided to exhibit his photographs to other floating communities who themselves live similar lives.
“Some people asked me why I was taking their pictures. I tried to explain my approach to them and promised to show them the pictures.
“The goal is to know what they think and how they perceive the images I had captured, especially the messages they convey about life in their floating communities,” he says.
Zalmai says the purpose of his work is to draw attention to the people and give them a voice, and a sense of pride by providing them an opportunity to express their points of view as they reflect on the problems they face as individuals in floating communities.
“Interviews with local visitors and residents will be recorded during the lake exhibition, which will then be shared widely with the public,” he says.
Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Zalmai and his family fled the country after the Soviet invasion in 1980 and immigrated to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he has since become a citizen.
Being a passionate photographer, he pursued his studies at the School of Photography in Lausanne and the Professional Photography Training Center of Yverdon, Switzerland.
Back in his native country in 2001, he devoted his work to documenting the decades-long war and plight of the Afghan people caught in the midst of a global power struggle.
His work has been exhibited at museums, galleries, universities and cultural centres around the world.
Several newspapers and magazines have also published his work. They include the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, Harper’s Magazine, Newsweek and La Republica.
Zalmai worked with TLC for several months in the most remote places of the lake.
His exhibition, Zalmai says, will be held at the TLC clinic which will travel to several floating villages where photographs of the communities were taken.
Besides the photographs at The Lake Clinic, three smaller boats containing his photographs have also visited some of the smaller communities that TLC serves.
“The exhibition aims to empower and strengthen vulnerable communities while contributing towards their sustainable economic and social empowerment.
“It also seeks to create a line of communication to the outside world, to better understand the needs and concerns of Cambodia’s floating communities,” he says.
Zalmai appreciates TLC’s mission for the floating communities who now have access to basic healthcare, which is a service that is very important to them.
He says that “without TLC, it would be very difficult for the people to get some basic healthcare on the lake. The trip will also be very expensive for them, which is why most of the time they don’t go to doctors”.
The exhibition itself is dedicated to Joshua Angkea Martin who is the adopted son of one of TLC’s patrons in the US. Sadly, Angkea Martin died recently.
Between the lake and the stars exhibition runs from December 15-20. It will be extended if there is wide interest from visitors.
For more information, visit Zalmai’s website: zalmai.com or his Instagram@Zalmai.