Photo project gives kids chance for expression

Photo project gives kids chance for expression


Former scavengers at the Stung Meanchey rubbish dump capture candid shots of Cambodia in photographs to be exhibited Saturday at Gasolina

Photo by: Michelle Kemp

Project Smile participants pose for a photograph. Their exhibition opens this Saturday at Gasolina.

Stung MeanChey Municipal dump
Stung Meanchey municipal dump covers six hectares and is located in southern outskirts of Phnom Penh in the industrial part of the city with low-income neighbourhoods and slums. It is surrounded by private property on which rubbish pickers build makeshift huts and are charged rent by landowners. Approximately 1,400 adults and 600 children live and scavenge the city’s daily refuse for recyclables, risking injuries and disease from sharp needles, glass and metal, as well as fumes emitted by the burning garbage. Children as young as seven accompany their parents to the dump, becoming scavengers to help support their families.

APHOTOGRAPHY exhibition by 10 Cambodian children aged between 10 and 17, all former residents of the Stung Meanchey rubbish dump, will open at Gasolina at 7pm on Saturday.

The exhibition marks the culmination of "Project Smile", a 10-week program created by Michelle Harrison-James, a British freelance photographer and former lawyer who currently lives in Cambodia.

Giving a voice

"Many of the children involved have been subjects of photos. I wanted to turn this around and give them a chance to find a voice as well as a passion and possible vocational skill," Harrison-James said.

The 10 children all live at the Center for Children's Happiness (CCH), a residential centre for children who have previously lived and worked at Phnom Penh's largest rubbish tip, took to the streets to capture the essence of Cambodia.

The young photographers were instructed on how to use simple point-and-shoot cameras, and how to compose good images.

"Each day I held a 20-minute discussion on the basics of photography, including composition and looking for different colours, lines and shapes to try to give the kids a focus and tackle a particular issue in their work," Harrison-James said.

"At least three of the children became proficient at using an SLR camera at the end of the project," she added.

And the lessons have paid off. Many of the children are now confident in the basics of photography.

"I remember to go close to the person that I want to [photograph] and not use the zoom because zoom is not good," said 13-year-old Sambath, who had to work at the dump after his family sold their cows to pay for his parent's medical expenses.

"Don't use flash and do not take pictures when the sun is shining," he added.

Creating impressions

The photographs were taken at a wide range of locations chosen by both the children and Harrison-James.

"It was interesting to see the children recording their impressions of the environment around them," she said.

I hope my photos will show the people about beautiful places in phnom penh.

"I hope my photos will show the people about beautiful places in Phnom Penh," said Piset, 15, who used to scavenge aluminum and other scrap metal at Stung Meanchey to sell to trash collectors in order to buy food for his siblings.
For many of the children, who have known little beyond the hardships of Stung Meanchey, Project Smile provided them with their first encounter with some of Phnom Penh's most familiar sites - the Central Market, the riverside promenade, Wat Phnom and  the Olympic Stadium - as well as an opportunity to explore corners of the city that are further off the beaten truck.

"In the first week of the project the children went to the Central Market and some of them had never even been there before even though they come from the area," Harrison-James said. "It was nice to have the opportunity to show them where they come from and to see how they view  [their world] through looking at their photos."

"Once the children found their feet, markets provided a great opportunity for photos," she said. "Initially they were a bit frightened that people would not want their photos taken but they quickly gained confidence," she added.

"The difficult thing about taking photographs of strangers is that some people are happy but some people are not happy," said 16-year-old Thavery, who used to scavenge barefoot at the dump and often got injured by broken glass, needles, wood and rusty nails.

Stung Meanchey dump

During the project the children had the opportunity to go back to and take photographs of the dump where they once used to work.

"In Cambodia we have lots of poor children who live in the dump and a lot of them don't have clothes, food or a home to live in. They cannot go to school because they don't have money to pay for school fees. All of them go to pick up garbage every day," said Raksmey, 13, who worked at Stung Meanchey, earning around 2,000 riels each day that helped her mother buy rice for the impoverished family.

Many of the photographs feature subjects candidly captured in public places such as streets and markets, and provide an insight into the children's very personal and unique view of the society around them.

The exhibition

"Almost 11,000 photos were taken by the children during the 10-week period and approximately 30 photos will be showcased in the exhibition," Harrison-James said, adding, that the children have been granted an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni on Sunday.

All profits from the sale of the photographs will go towards setting up a vocational training centre for youth and to the young photographers themselves.

Gasolina is located at #56-58, Street 57.


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