The inaugural PhotoPhnomPenh will showcase work by renowned
international and local photographers, but organisers say the event is
designed to target Cambodian audiences
© FREDERIC LECLOUX
Photograph shot in Kabul, Afghanistan, featured in the PhotoPhnomPenh exhibition.
THE capital's first festival to focus on the photographic arts, PhotoPhnomPenh, opens to the public on Sunday for one week and promises to exhibit an impressive range of artists, practices and presentations.
Festival director Alain Arnaudet, of the French Cultural Centre, chose Paris-based Christian Caujolle to curate a program that complements and differs from the Angkor Photography Festival in Siem Reap, now in its fourth year.
"Whereas Siem Reap highlights photojournalism and documentary genres, Phnom Penh will lean towards documentary and fine art genres," explained Arnaudet, who has previously directed the major photography festival Recontres d'Arles.
Caujolle seems a fitting talent to create an art-leaning photography festival in Cambodia. Creator of the department of photography at a national French newspaper and a founder of Agence and Galerie Vu, Caujolle also has a long relationship with Cambodia.
Annually or biannually from 1997 to 2001, he has conducted workshops and promoted the careers of Cambodian photographers, some of whom now hold the country's most prominent press positions.
"I [have] curated as if you would see everything but, of course, very few will see everything. The selections are not obvious, but the combinations between the selections are subtle [and] very intentional," Caujolle said.
Together with Arnaudet, Caujolle chose the ratio for national and regional representation of leading photographers from Europe and Asia. Eleven venues will host 13 exhibitions. Ten further venues are on the program's sidelines, showcasing dozens more photographers working in Cambodia.
Relevant and accessible
Caujolle established different strategies for selecting international and Cambodian photographers and works. For the international component, he decided to invite established photographers that, when put in a Cambodian landscape and context, would relate in direct and accessible ways to contemporary Cambodian society.
For example, prostitution and the trafficking of women are explored in the work of two selected artists, French photographer JR and Indian photographer Achinto Bhadra.
Bhadra's photographic interests focus particularly on women, migrants, child labor and urban poverty in India. For the festival, he will exhibit work from a 2005 series titled "Masked Portraits". The portraits depict formerly trafficked Indian women posing in a mythical, traditional or fictional costume of their choice.
JR uses a different approach to depicting women. His exhibit will reveal the third stage of his ongoing project using a 28 millimetrelens, "Women Are Heroes". JR asked women around the world working as prostitutes to look directly into his camera.
The Cambodian component
When it came to the Cambodian component of the festival, Caujolle decided to exhibit work that avoided any kind of comparison to the other selections or work whose concept and technique transcended a commitment to an established photographic genre.
The Cambodian photographers chosen include Khvay Samnang, Chhin Thangcchhea and Heng Ravuth.
The exhibition venues are also integral to the curator's concept and in many cases tend to complement and extend the conceptual goals of the photographer.
For example, Khvay Samnang's passport-standard portraits of high school students in uniforms, and wearing their name tags, immediately recall the photographic archive from S-21, or Tuol Sleng, a former high-school-turned-torture-centre under the Khmer Rouge.
Khvay Samnang's work will be exhibited at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, which aims to preserve memories and whose name, "Bophana", is inspired by the story of a young woman killed at S-21.
The Chinese House, a newly renovated building on Sisowath Quay, will host Chinese photographer Wang Gang's work on Chinese ethnic tribes.
"I wanted to show an artist who works classically in black and white with a traditional subject matter. I want Cambodian photographers to think about their disappearing tribes, about visiting them, about making a classical record of their current lifestyle."
Both Arnaudet and Caujolle stressed that the festival has been designed with the Cambodian audience in mind.
"The main goal is to show [the work of the professionals from abroad] to young Cambodian artists," Caujolle said.
Arnaudet admits that it is easier to involve Cambodian audiences in performance art programming because it is a continuation of their traditions. "There is no museum or gallery-going tradition, so there is, naturally, hesitation to enter an exhibition room."
It is for this reason that PhotoPhnomPenh is also using public spaces. The closing celebration, Nuit de l'annee, or Night of the Year, is a technically ambitious event that will take place in the popular Wat Botum park off Sothearos boulevard. The French Cultural Centre team is preparing to install 12 large-scale screens that will carry simultaneous projections on photography.