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Exhibition chronicles meth’s hold on Kingdom

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One of Haselberger’s photographs, of a meth user in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

Exhibition chronicles meth’s hold on Kingdom

Bangkok-based German photojournalist Benjamin Haselberger spent last year documenting meth abuse across Southeast Asia, with a particular emphasis on Cambodia. He spoke with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon this week before an exhibition of his work, Into the Dark, goes on display at Meta House.

Q: You are a career photojournalist. Are these photos meant to be photojournalistic in nature?
A: I would say yes, [it’s] photojournalism. It’s closest to photojournalism but it’s in between that and portrait photography.

Q: Why did you decide to cover this topic?
A: I actually didn’t choose it. It just came across me when I was hanging around in sleazy bars in Phnom Penh [on streets 130, 136, 104 and 51] and everybody was talking about ice [crystal meth] – if I wanted ice, if they took ice – and it was all over the place and more so than in Thailand. In Thailand, it’s more under the surface; in Phnom Penh, it’s taken openly and everybody takes it. And the young teenagers that once sniffed glue now switched to ice. But it’s really something that is affecting all levels of society.

Q: Is there a narrative you wanted to capture?
A: I wanted to show the individuals behind that drug. That’s why I concentrated [in part] on those portraits where they’re not smoking or not always smoking. When there are reports about drugs in the [local papers] you have statistics, you have numbers of arrests, number of pills seized or whatever. We don’t see the individuals in the stories. My goal was really to show the individuals behind the tragedy.

Q: Tell me about your choice in subjects. You say meth is a problem on every level of society but your photographs seem bounded to a lower class.
A: To be perfectly honest, the lower levels of society are just more accessible. It’s going to be very, very hard to get a VIP in front of the camera smoking ice. It won’t happen, actually, whether it’s in Cambodia or Thailand or whatever.

Q: Can you tell us about your methodology? How did you set up some of these photographs, such as those with sex workers?
A: It really depends if it was [with] a prostitute or not. I went to all those sleazy bars, hanging around there for hours and hours and hours, talking to them for a long time without a camera, and then meeting them the next day; they would open up a little bit and they would talk [about the fact] that they would take it. I could convince some to go on camera, but most of them didn’t want to. It took me a long time to convince those few that I had. When it comes to the prostitutes, I have to be honest, they got money: they got the same amount of money a customer would pay them. But nothing is staged; I just spent time with them. This was not the case in other places where we did not have to pay anything, such as at the White Building or in Poipet.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Into the Dark opens on Tuesday at 6pm, with an expert panel discussion on meth abuse at 8pm, at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard, and runs through February 25.

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