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Photographer rediscovers his roots

Remedy Man, from Serey Siv’s series of photos taken while walking along Highway 6. Photo supplied
Remedy Man, from Serey Siv’s series of photos taken while walking along Highway 6. Photo supplied

Photographer rediscovers his roots

Canadian-born Serey Siv, 31, took an unlikely path to Cambodia, going from being an English teacher and J-pop recording artist in Tokyo to owning a café in Siem Reap, by way of Seoul and Montreal. Once here he picked up his camera and used it as a tool to connect with his Khmer heritage. Yesterday, he spoke with The Post’s Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon about his third exhibition, La Balade de Serey, which opens this evening in Siem Reap.

Are these photographs from a single series?
One series is street photography/documentary photos that I shot over about a year walking along Highway 6. I walked from where I used to live about 5 kilometres on the highway every day. The other series is portraits from all over Cambodia, like Kampot, Kep and more remote places in Siem Reap.

What motivated you to take these walks and shoot?
I studied photography about a decade ago at [Concordia] university [in Montreal], but actually I didn’t really shoot. I got myself a camera before leaving Canada and I was just kind of bored, but eventually it became something more personal. Seeing the interactions between Khmer people gave me a chance to see myself as a Khmer person.

Fishwife by Serey Siv, who would try to approach subjects without speaking to them while taking portraits. Photo supplied
Fishwife by Serey Siv, who would try to approach subjects without speaking to them while taking portraits. Photo supplied

What was your approach for the portrait series?
Initially I wanted to get as close as I could and interact with the people. Usually I don’t even talk to them ...  It’s kind of my rule in street photography. For me it was a way to get as close as I could. It seems like I’m talking to them but I’m not. It’s them talking to someone else and I just happen to be there. I work in levels: I take a photo from afar, and if they let me take more photos, I get closer and closer and if they ever feel uncomfortable I either walk away or I smile and try to get closer. Sometimes because I didn’t ask for permission verbally I ran into trouble, but not that often.

What do your parents think about your decision to ‘return’ to Cambodia, and are you achieving the goals of rediscovery that you’ve set for yourself?
They were confused, but personally, I was confused. Something here was attractive to me and I wanted to discover more about myself. First of all, through those photos, through meeting people, through the interactions ... how family is very important, I’ve learned a lot. I learned how Cambodians live. It made me want to learn Khmer more ... I can’t really speak perfectly – I can understand most of it – but it made me fall in love with my own culture and history.

So what’s next?
I’m done walking now. My ongoing project is documenting the drug rehab centre in Siem Reap, and I’ve been going there almost every week for the past four or five months. Walking on Highway 6 was more of an opener, so I want to go a bit deeper, a bit darker, [to] the not-so-happy side of Cambodia, but I still want to shoot it in a way where I still respect my subjects. That’s what I aim for. The intimacy is important to me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
La Balade de Serey will feature 15 photographs by Serey Siv and opens at 6pm tonight at the Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa in Siem Reap and runs through July 2. Free entry.

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