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Local issues, through the lens of an outsider

A multi-ethnic group of villagers who will be affected by a dam scheduled to be built on the Sesan river.
A multi-ethnic group of villagers who will be affected by a dam scheduled to be built on the Sesan river. JOHN VINK

Local issues, through the lens of an outsider

The 9th Angkor Photo Festival (APF) will bring together many talented local and international photographers for a week in Siem Reap. One of the photographers featured in this year’s festival, however, blurs the line between “international” and “local”.

Based in Cambodia for 13 years, Belgian photojournalist John Vink has taken photos of major events and everyday life in the Kingdom for international media clients. He first visited the Kingdom in 1989 and came back in 1991 to witness the return of King Sihanouk from exile. Vink said he was hooked on Cambodia immediately.

Much of Cambodia’s dense jungle landscape has been cleared for agriculture.
Much of Cambodia’s dense jungle landscape has been cleared for agriculture. JOHN VINK

Before deciding to make the Kingdom his home in 2000, the 65-year-old Vink had worked in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, among other places. His work has generally focused on social and environmental issues in the developing world.

After joining Agence Vu in 1986 he won the Eugene Smith Award for his work Water in the Sahel, a photo essay on the management of water south of the Sahara. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Vink compiled photographs of refugees around the world and published the collection Refugiés in 1994. In 1993 he started working on Peuples d’en Haut, a series of chronicles about communities living in mountainous areas, published in 2004. Vink became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1997. His work Avoir 20 Ans à Phnom Penh was published in 2000. Last year he published Quest for Land, a compilation of 11 years of photography about land issues in Cambodia, for tablet computers.

A villager jumps across a deep trench that has been dug by a private company working on the land it obtained through a government concession.
A villager jumps across a deep trench that has been dug by a private company working on the land it obtained through a government concession. JOHN VINK

This year at APF, Vink’s photos documenting controversial plans to dam three rivers in northeastern Cambodia will be shown in a slideshow on Monday, November 25. Vink took photos along the Sekong, Srepok and Sesan rivers in Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces, chronicling the interaction between the people and these vital rivers.

“All 35 of the photos I took explore multiple aspects of the region, including views of the areas that will be dammed, local villages and their residents and daily life among the different ethnic groups living along the rivers,” Vink said. The plight of villagers who will be displaced by the dam captured his interest, he added.

Vink’s photos from the area (one of which is on the cover of this supplement) also highlight the protests by villagers who do not wish to be forced from their traditional homes. These peoples include Khmer, Lao, Phnong, Karen and Stieng, among others.

In addition to losing their homes, the villagers will also lose their fields and their ancient communities will be destroyed.

“Cambodia certainly needs electricity for the country’s development, but it should choose smart development,” Vink said. “Relocating people may be a necessity, but compensating them properly and providing comfortable new homes for affected residents is essential.”

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