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A new view of vulnerable children

A new view of vulnerable children

Anratxa Cedillo’s diptych portrait of “Chan”, a young boy in the care of the children’s charity Mith Samlanh.
Siv Cheng focuses on documentary style

Roth Meas
SIV Cheng, 31, one of the documentary-style photographers taking part in the ‘‘Bamboo Shoots’’ exhibition, profiles four poor families in Cambodia for the show. Two live on the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, one in a suburb of Phnom Penh and the other in Kandal province.

“I spend a day with each family, researching, before I start shooting pictures. I introduce the family to myself and the project and make them understand my purpose, so they don’t doubt me anymore,” Siv Cheng said.

After she gains permission, Siv Cheng stays two days with each family observing their day-to-day activities.

“Even if they live in a ruined hut, I stay with them,” she said.
“I eat the same food as them, and sleep next to them.
While they are going about their activities, I take pictures, so they are more natural.”

One of the families taught Siv Cheng about the life of the poor people. She said the family was miserable because the mother suffered a stroke and was now paralysed. The father is also disabled, and their 10-year-old daughter must cross the border to beg for money to feed the whole family.

“The girl has a big burden,” Siv Cheng said. “She has to earn money for family on one hand, and on the other she also has to cook for her disabled parents. It stops her from getting an education, and her health is not great, either.”

Siv Cheng is a photography student at the French Cultural Centre, and a relatively new addition to the On Photography Cambodia family.

AT a glance, it looks like a child floating in the protective cavern of its mother’s womb: the backlit shadowy outline of a foetus against a swirl of blues, reds and what appears to be a cloudy amniotic fluid.

But as your eyes fix on the image, the contradictions emerge. The foetus is a full-grown child, and among the swirls of colour, you begin to make out the crisp letters, “ast Mix”. Realisation hits: It becomes apparent that the amniotic fluid is an amalgamation of plastic bags.

The photograph is one of many powerful images of children on display at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts this month as part of the exhibition “Bamboo Shoots: Cambodian Children at Risk”.

The subject of vulnerable children is not new, says Arantxa Cedillo, a photographer and the organiser of the exhibition, but “Bamboo Shoots” takes it in a different direction, moving away from the traditional representation of vulnerable children and bringing a more nuanced view of their situation into perspective.

“Usually, you see all these pitiful pictures of needy children,” Cedillo said, mimicking the begging gesture and doe-eyed sadness in many pictures used to elicit donor sympathy. “That’s not what we wanted to do.”

The Madrid native teamed up with Remissa Mak, Pha Lina and Siv Cheng – three local photographers who are part of On Photography
Cambodia, a professional photographic education programme and association – to document their subjects and their lives without revealing their identities.

“You cannot see any of their faces,” Cedillo said. “They’re obscured some way. We also do not use their real names or show any identifiable locations.”

Sebastien Le Mouellic, the technical adviser for Damnok Toek, one of the local NGOs whose kids are featured in the project, said the children’s identities were hidden to protect them.

“Many of these kids have gone through traumatic experiences,” Le Mouellic said. He emphasised that the measure was about respect for the children. “In France, in England, they wouldn’t show images of rape victims out there for all the world to see.”

The limitation was also in part because of an agreement with their sponsors, the International Organisation for Migration. The photographers must follow a voluntary code of ethics from Italy called the Carta di Treviso, which sets about regulating the media exposure of children and minors.

They also have to use consent forms and obtain permission from all the children before photographing them. Protecting the children is more important than the story. And great photographs must be abandoned if they can harm the children.

The IOM, in commissioning the project, sought to show photographers it was possible to tell the stories of vulnerable children effectively without exposing them. The restrictions proved to be a challenge for the photographers, but Cedillo said that instead of creating limits, it made their projects more dynamic and creative.

Pha Lina’s works became more abstract and interpretive. As he put it: “Because of the haziness of my pictures, people are forced to look longer and think more deeply about the issues.” Each photograph gives off a feeling, but it takes a while to make out the narrative.

In one, a menacing shadow-man lit by orange flames bears down on a young child; his alcohol-fuelled state of mind is echoed by the dizzying blur of the photograph. In another, US$10 bills overcome the image of a young boy in a transparent sludge of sickly green and purple goop.

Pha Lina’s photographs highlight the causes of vulnerability and show scenes of domestic violence and trafficking, but they are all blurred or cast in shadows both to disguise faces and effectively evoke the emotions of children in vulnerable situations.

Cedillo, on the other hand, uses pencils, baskets and other objects that tell the viewer something about the children and their stories, while at the same time artfully obscuring their faces. Her diptychs include a portrait on one side and a photograph of a place representing a part of the child’s story on the other.

A boy crouches, head shrouded by the hood of a white sports jacket, football in hand. He sits at the corner of what looks like the white markings of a grassless football pitch. He faces to the right, towards the second photograph, which shows the corner of a dirt-floor room. Bottles, cigarettes and straws litter the ground, partially eclipsed by the shadow of a child. There’s something about it that makes you feel caged and uneasy, blocked and unsure.

This is Cedillo’s diptych portrait of “Chan”, a young boy in the care of Mith Samlanh, a children’s charity. Chan and his brothers were sent to Phnom Penh by his mother to beg after his father died when he fell out of a palm tree. He became addicted to the drug yama, a form of methamphetamine, after a gangster stole his money and forced him to try the drug.

Reading the boy’s story, the sense of being caged begins to make sense. This dawning comprehension is true of many of Cedillo’s photographs, and of the exhibition as a whole. Though some of the photographers’ techniques are raw, the impact is there. We are made to see and feel what the children do, possibly made even stronger because the children themselves are part of the artistic process, helping Cedillo choose photographs.

Cheng Siv and Remissa Mak employ a more documentary style, but even these works have some kind of obstruction in them. None of the subjects look directly at the camera. Cheng Siv documents the family life of the children, and Remissa Mak focuses on the different landscapes where vulnerability can occur.

Despite the veil of secrecy, the exhibition achieves its purpose. “The photographs allow a connection to the subject,” said Caroline Guilbert, a microfinance specialist at the opening of the show last week. “It doesn’t matter that the faces aren’t shown; each one represents kids in similar situations. They also let foreigners like me have access to places we would never normally see.”

Her companion, Nicolas Corlin added: “It will change my way of photographing. I’ll try to learn a bit more about the people I photograph, learn their stories.”

Bamboo Shoots: Cambodian Children at Risk is on display at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (12 Street 178) through July 11.


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