While children squeal with delight as they chase pigeons, their parents enjoying the splendour of the Royal Palace and the cooling breeze from the Tonle Sap, one man’s despondent demeanour is at odds with the backdrop of happy families capturing carefree moments on their smartphones.

Among the throngs of visitors delightedly relaxing along Riverside, one group of people stands out, their hands clasping professional-standard cameras rather than bags of bird seed and snacks.

One, Por Chamroeun, his face cloudy as the rain-threatening grey skies above, is finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living capturing the joyous memories of happy trippers as growing competition and the spread of technology threaten to crowd him out.

“I have been taking pictures here for more than nine years, with my photographs starting at 1,500 riel up to 20,000 riel per photo.

“In the past, there were not many photographers, and on Saturdays and Sundays I could spend just a short time shooting to earn 400,000 to 600,000 riel, getting at least 200,000 riel on most days.

“But now the number of photographers has increased from about 30 to nearly 60, and on public holidays there are photographers everywhere, so it is getting very difficult,” he says.

And while the increase in photographers coupled with a drop in tourist numbers is making his once-steady business suffer, Chamroeun says this is exacerbated by the rise in affordable, high-quality camera phones.

“The growing number of people with smartphones has really affected the photographers working in front of the Royal Palace.

“Increasingly, when we ask a visitor if they would like us to record their happy moments for them, they will show their camera phone and walk away.

“Nowadays, it is mostly people from the provinces who still want me to take photos with my professional camera when they visit here, while those in Phnom Penh mostly use their camera phones to take pictures themselves,” he says.

While his wife sells snacks in front of the Royal Palace, Chamroeun speaks of remaining passionate in giving visitors the perfect memento of their day and demonstrating his skill as an adept lensman.

However, the efforts of the couple from Prey Veng province to earn a living in front of the Royal Palace are increasingly not enough to make their family life comfortable.

“Recent years have been very difficult due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse in tourist numbers, and my wife giving birth to our second child.

“While things were very difficult, they are a bit better now. With my photography, in a good month with a high number of customers, I can maybe save $400 to $500 after expenses, but in others, I can only just survive,” Chamroeun says.

With the noise and bustle of the thriving area threatening to drown out the gentle voice of the father-of-two, he speaks of his love for his life as a photographer.

But while Chamroeun still holds passion for his career, he would not let his two children follow him into it as it is one that can be incredibly demanding.

“Being a photographer, and while it is an enjoyable part of the job interacting with people, you always have to be cheerful and confident and ask visitors to take their photos – even if you don’t feel it!

“If you do not do this, you will not find any customers because there are so many photographers and it is very competitive. It can be a struggle in the middle of a hot day finding a client.

“I would not change my job or where I do it because we started here in front of the Preah Ang Dorngkeu Shrine. It is very sacred, and it will not let us suffer – I am still able to earn enough money to support my wife and children.

“But for my two children, I want them to study and not follow in their father’s footsteps. My wife and I have been doing this for more than nine years, and we are very tired, so I do not want my children to have the same life as us,” Chamroeun says.

A man and young child have their picture taken in front of the Royal Palace. Heng Chivoan

Echoing Chamroeun’s recent experiences is Srey Leak from Kandal province’s Neak Loeung town, who has been working as a photographer for hire in front of the Royal Palace for more than 10 years.

While professional photographers were not yet completely discouraged from plying their trade in front of the palace – 10 of her relatives from Neak Loeung also work as snappers there – she says most visitors to Riverside are now using smartphones to record their memories.

“The biggest problem for a photographer in front of the Royal Palace is the smartphone as many visitors no longer want us to take their pictures for them with our professional cameras.

“In the past, this business was able to provide a decent income to support the family, but now we only survive. However, I do not think I will stop taking pictures here because I can still make some money. It is not completely dead yet.

“But in 10 years, everyone will have high-tech smartphones and they will not use our photography services anymore – in 10 years from now, I will have to do something different,” Srey Leak says.

Demonstrating her point, a group of four young women stands in front of the Royal Palace, happily taking pictures of each other on their smartphones, unaware of the photographers waiting nearby.

Among them, San Sreynith says that while the photographs from a professional camera were of better quality, using her smartphone allowed her to capture moments anywhere and at any time, and for free.

“Professional photographers using professional cameras will provide better photos than we can on our phones, but we want to use our phones because it is fun to take pictures ourselves and it does not cost anything,” the Royal University of Law and Economics fresher says.

A housewife enjoying Riverside on a weekend afternoon says the nature of keeping images has changed as technology advances.

“Before we would have kept physical photographs in albums at home, but nowadays there is no need to print anything as we post our pictures on Facebook and social media.

“In the past, people really needed professional photos taken to record events, but in this digital age, people can do so with their own smartphone, with them easy to use and able to shoot in multiple ways,” she says.

Freelance photographer Meng Kimlong says the challenges faced by the photographers in front of the Royal Palace are those being encountered by professional photographers in general.

“For me, a photographer now has to be ever more creative because people today want to have beautiful eye-catching pictures based on their own personal style, and their phone will have a lot of options with various applications for editing.

“It now more than ever depends on the creativity of the photographer to draw people in. The successful photographer can add something different to attract attention.

“So when people visit the Royal Palace, for example, they will see such creativity and will want to have their pictures taken,” he says.

The young freelance photographer adds that despite all the benefits of the digital realm, traditional printed images still have their appeal and their importance.

“Leaving your images stored on your phone leaves you at great risk of losing them all if the phone gets lost or broken.

“Plus, there is still something special about having physical photographs to be able to pass on for the children to see and handle,” he says.

Additional reporting by Boeur Sophea, Lak Chandara, Hak Edy, Uork Chanthida and Vong Lily.