Great photography is “photography that lasts, becomes alive, and walks off the wall”, said Roger Ballen in his wonderfully poetic address to the crowd that came to see the closing night of the Angkor Photo Festival at the FCC Angkor on Saturday night.
The evening was dedicated to the 27 young Asian photographers who took part in the workshops that have been quietly taking place all week, largely unseen by the public yet at the heart of what the festival is all about.
The highlight of the nights was the announcement of the winners for the best photo stories from the participants.
Singaporean Carrie Lam, 25, won the first prize for her photo-story Cure, a stunning series of self-portraits in which she confronts her own fears and discomfort at the ugliness of a scar that runs down her spine, the result of scoliosis.
She won a Canon Ixus 1000 and €€1500 (US$1,986), courtesy of Paris Match, and her work will also be soon published in an issue of Paris Match magazine.
“We didn’t really hesitate at all when we saw her photos,” said festival program director Françoise Callier who was also on the jury panel. “We were looking for photographers who are really in their story, and of course you can’t get more in than Carrie was. Hers was a very soft story that moved me a lot, even before I knew what had happened to her.”
Lam, an art teacher trainee, blended a documentary approach with an artistic vision.
But the first and second runner-up prizes were awarded to photographers who delved more into straight reportage. First runner-up was Adli Ghazali from Malaysia for his examination of leadership within the Cham community, Insha’allah. He won a Canon Legria FS305 camera.
Second runner-up was Vietnam’s Pham Ngoc Lan for Vietnamese Chronicle, winning a $100 book publishing voucher from Blurb. The evening marked the end of a week in which the work of 110 international photographers was showcased in a series of exhibitions and evening slideshows in galleries throughout the town.
Among them were 30 graduates of workshops from past years, including last year’s winner Sovan Philong whose exhibition Crickets is on show at the Hotel de la Paix until mid-December.
“We are so happy,” said Callier, “We have a small team, but a good one,” she said. “They worked very hard, with lots of passion and heart, that’s what made this happen.”
Since the festival’s debut in 2005, 30 young photographers have benefitted each year from the guidance of experienced photographers who come to Siem Reap and give their time for free.
“There are very few workshops like this,” said the coordinator Roland Neveu, the French photojournalist who made his name in the region in the 1970s, and was one of the few journalists to witness the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.
Alongside Neveu, the workshops were led by Magnum photographer Antoine d’Agata, who has been with the festival since its inception, Patrick de Noirmont, Paula Bronstein from Getty Images, Justin Mott, Olivier Nilsson and Siem Reap-based Carolyn O’Neill.
“It’s unusual to have free workshops with festivals like this,” said Neveu, adding with a smile, “but there is a catch. We make them work really, really hard while they are here”.
Selected from a field of 250 applicants, the participants were required to have done their research before arriving in Siem Reap and have their story ideas ready to roll when they got here.
That didn’t work out so well for all of them though. “My story idea was rejected on the first day,” said winner Carrie Lam with a laugh. “I had to go out and find something new really quickly. It was a bit of a panic.”
The workshops are not strictly about the techniques of photography. “Most of the participants are already working on newspapers and magazines, or freelancing,” said Neveu, “and understand their camera. The workshops are more about coaching their minds and their aspirations. They must come out of themselves and understand what it is to be a photographer.”
In the audience John McDermott, the Siem Reap-based American photographer whose images of Angkor are still considered definitive, appreciated the outcome.
“The work shown this year was really exceptional,” he said. “Last year was already better than I expected, and this year held up that standard. I’d love to see more photographers go for the happier stories that can be found in Cambodia as well, though.”