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From 1,300 entrants to 140 exhibits

One series focuses on bedtimes of Syrian kids. Magnus Wennman
One series focuses on bedtimes of Syrian kids. Magnus Wennman

From 1,300 entrants to 140 exhibits

The region’s longest-running, highly selective photography festival is back, with what just might be some of its most impactful work yet

The Angkor Photo Festival, now in its 11th year, is the longest-running photo festival in Southeast Asia, and this year will showcase the work of 140 photographers from 45 countries around the world. It’s set to be a photographic marathon, with evening projections, exhibitions, workshops for 30 young Asian photographers, workshops for the students at local NGO Anjali House, and photographers’ collaborative sessions in the afternoons. Yet with just one week to go before tonight’s opening of the festival, a relaxed and at-ease program coordinator and curator, Francoise Callier, sat down with Post Weekend for a chat on what to expect this year. 

“I’ve been tense all year,” she said with a smile. “But now everything feels fine. It’s ready to go.” 

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Skateistan is an international NGO in Cambodia that teaches skateboarding to disadvantaged youth. Sam Jam

Putting it all together has taken almost a year for the core team of just four coordinators, and includes attending other festivals to promote the work of past participants. In a very lean operation, only two draw a salary. Everyone else, including a group of helpers who step in during the last few weeks, is a volunteer, including committee members who provide ongoing support throughout the year.

This year, 1,300 photographers submitted work for consideration, with portfolios of between 15 and 200 images, all of which must be reviewed before acceptance, or rejection. Callier also went through more than 26,500 images for the Ecole Français d’Extrême Orient archive exhibition. Callier shrugs it off with a kind of “you know”. 

The exhibitions and projections encompass a broad range of stories from around the world, but that they should tell a story is one of the primary requirements that Callier imposes. It can be a challenge to get the message across though. 

“A lot of photographers now are taking photographs so that they can win prizes. So they examine what won before and replicate that. I must have received 200 submissions this year that were all the same. It’s very boring,” she said. 

It can be rough though, trawling through thousands of images, many of which explore the darker sides of humanity and nature. This is why she created the Impact Project last year, to create a platform for a more positive view of the world. 

“Emotionally, it becomes a bit hard. All these catastrophes falling on my head, and it can be terrible,” she said. So The Impact Project highlights groups or individuals who are making a positive impact on social or environmental issues. 

Among the photographers whose work will be profiled is Sophal Try, a graduate of the Anjali Workshops who now works for demining NGO The Halo Trust. Siem Reap-based photographer George Nickels’ series looking at rats who have been trained to sniff out landmines has been published all over the world this year.

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Remissa’s black and white series focuses on his family’s experiences under the Khmer Rouge. Mak Remissa

And with Skateistan, Phnom Penh-based photographer Sam Jam is among those highlighting the work of an NGO that uses skateboarding to connect young people in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa with life-changing opportunities. 

Night Time Is Horrible made international headlines this year when Swedish photographer, Magnus Wennman, took a look at how Syrian refugee children sleep, or don’t sleep, after being separated from their homes, their lives and families. His work is part of the projection at the FCC Angkor on December 11. 

The Anjali House Workshops will have their own outing on Children’s Day, being hosted at Phare Cambodian Circus this year. Anjali House was established by the festival, and provides medical, educational and social support for former street children in Siem Reap. The arts, and photography, are a fundamental element of building the children’s confidence and abilities. The workshops are supported by the Swedish Agency for Development and Cooperation. 

Another landmark exhibition is the Greenlight series, which will feature the work of internationally recognised photographer James Whitlow Delano. Renowned for his fine art photography as much as his reportage, with Scorched Earth, he takes a hard look at China’s worsening pollution. 

Only two photographers feature in this year’s Greenlight series, a consequence of how difficult it can be to secure funding, which has affected other elements of the festival, too. “We tried to expand the workshops so that we could support more photographers, but it just hasn’t been possible yet,” said Callier. 

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This year has a showcase of work from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Tou-Yun Fei

A new development this year is the IPA Hong Kong & Taiwan Showcase, guest curated by Kevin Wy Lee, which will showcase the work of 18 photographers from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

However, Callier said supporting Asian photographers was what this festival was really all about.  

“Our goal is to help young photographers. That’s why we don’t want to grow. We want to continue to help them get better – it wouldn’t work if we were bigger. We have a very family atmosphere here. Everyone is accessible. We keep it small and intimate.

“That’s why it works so well in Siem Reap as well. Festivals are always better in small towns, and the photographers love this place.” 

Mak Remissa – back for the third time with a haunting black and white exhibition examining his family’s experience of the Khmer Rouge – would agree. “I see many young Cambodians who like to take photographs, but it’s still hard for them to build a career. The Angkor Festival helps a lot, as it gives them the opportunity to show their work, meet photographers from outside, and to share ideas and experiences,” he said.  

The exposure that photographers get doesn’t end here. Callier attended 12 festivals around the world this year, bringing with her the work of selected photographers from 2014’s event. Plenty of agents come because APF has by now developed a reputation for selecting quality work.  

Isabelle Lesser, the founder of Asia Motion photo agency, has been coming for years and is here for that reason.

“The festival discovers and highlights some amazing new Asian talents, and exposes them to the world,” she said. “I’ll be there to search for new talents, and am doing portfolio reviews since last year. I’m really impressed.”

The Angkor Photo Festival runs for seven days from Saturday, December 5 until the night of Saturday, December 12. For a full line-up of festival exhibitions and workshops check out: angkor-photo.com.

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