Exhibition relates history of The Building and its people

Exhibition relates history of The Building and its people

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’The Building - An Urban Story of Cambodia’ uses photos, documents and films to depict the Bassac apartments as an organic microcosm of Phnom Penh’s life

Photo by:

Mark Roy

Maria Stott stands in front of Phnom Penh's Bassac apartments, known simply as The Building.

OVER the past 50 years, the municipal apartments on the Bassac riverfront have metamorphosed into an organic microcosm of Phnom Penh life.

Built in the '60s, the apartments - known as the The Building - were part of an ambitious planning scheme by New Khmer architects such as Vann Molyvann, under the patronage of Norodom Sihanouk.

But its venerable origins stand in stark contrast to what The Building has become.

A symbol for the city's social issues - development, dispossession and landlessness - The Building is also a hive of activity for community members and artists.

Long scrutinised by photographers and filmmakers, The Building has been photographed inside-out and upside-down, and has been the subject of at least four documentary films.

"I was mesmerized by The Building when I first came here seven years ago," said photographer Maria Stott.

"When I arrived back here, I tried to find a way of working with young Cambodian photographers. After looking closely at The Building, personally as a photographer I thought I had nothing to add - it has been photographed and documented many times," she said. "I was more interested in analyzing the different functions and potentials of photography."

Since early 2008, participants in the On Photography Cambodia (OPC) project, founded by Stott, have been collecting images, historical documents and personal histories around the apartments.

Tracing history

The resulting collective exhibition, "The Building: An  Urban Story of Cambodia", captures The Building's history from its 1960s heyday through the post-Khmer Rouge reconstruction period to the present day.

More than 100 images - augmented by archival documents, personal testimonials and photographic films - not only depict the vibrant history of The Building, but tell the stories of its residents' past and present.

"Photography itself doesn't exist in a vacuum," Stott said. "If you want to be a good architect or photographer or journalist, you should be contemplating and researching. You have to analyse things from different perspectives."

The images were drawn from four primary sources - historical, family album, participatory and professional photographs - resulting in a multi-perspectival view of a complex community.

"With documentaries, I really don't believe any more that a photograph is worth a thousand words - it is just an introduction to a story," Stott said.

The process

As part of this storytelling process, participants were trained in research, photography and archiving, and exposed to the themes addressed by the project.

"When we started discussing the project, I was very strict on the kids to get permissions," Stott explained. "They said, ‘Don't be ridiculous. Nobody asks us for permission when they are photographing us.' I suggested that maybe they should point out to these photographers that they should at least ask."

Stott said OPC had tried to avoid what she termed the standard "voyeuristic" form of travel photography.

"There is no reason why we shouldn't apply some of the rules of decency here. Just because you have crossed some geographic boundaries, it doesn't mean you can give up ethics and respect for your subject," she said.

"Respect comes from being interested in the subject and engaging the subject in the shooting."

And it seems the residents were eager to engage in the project.

"The response to the project was absolutely amazing," Stott said. "In the end, all of them have produced an amazing body of work."

Operating without any funding, the OPC project has received great support from Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre, Khmer Architecture Tours, Cambodian Living Arts, The Phnom Penh Post and the Aziza School, Stott said.

"The Building: An Urban Story of Cambodia" opens  June 11 at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre.

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