Once an award-winning photographer at the Phnom Penh Post, Sovan Philong has left newspaper photography in order to pursue a more artful approach to reportage in Phnom Penh
Sovan Philong is a night crawler. By day, he teaches photography and works on freelance assignments to pay the bills. Come sundown, he trawls the quiet suburbs of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on his moto.
Staying up until as late as 4am, he searches out the small pockets of human activity that continue into the quiet of the night.
When he finds them, he parks his moto so that the beam from his headlight illuminates the subject, and he takes their portrait.
Philong has been honing his approach for the past five years. It first arose following a brainstorming session during the Angkor Photo workshop in 2010: an event held annually in conjunction with the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap.
Philong, whose work went on to win that year’s Best Reportage Award, was looking for a new way of photographing the city to ensure his work stood out.
“Many people participating had never been [to Siem Reap] before, so they’d take photos of tuk-tuks or temples, but for me, it was so well known,” he explained over coffee last week. “I needed really to find something new.”
The dramatic portraits that Philong has amassed since that first sleepless week in Siem Reap will have their first solo showing at Java Cafe in the exhibition The City at Night from this Wednesday.
Having attended the Phnom Penh opening, Philong will then fly to France to attend the opening of Renaissance in Lille, an exhibition of works by contemporary Cambodian artists that includes photographs from Philong’s night time series.
Philong’s present success is more than justified. The dramatic illumination of his subjects from a single light source, combined with his precise eye for composition, serves up arrestingly cinematographic vistas.
One striking photograph shows two children playing in the street. A woman cradling a baby stands spotlighted in the beam of the headlight against a wall behind them. “People think that maybe she is a ghost,” Philong said, laughing, as he observed the image.
But he insists that despite the dramatic composition of the photographs, his subjects are never posed: in the case of the ghostly woman, he had been photographing the children in front of her when she happened to wander out into the alley behind them.
“It looks like it must be set up in studios with a lot of work, but it is real,” he said.
“It just takes a lot of time.”Philong cites his main artistic influence as Henri Cartier-Bresson – the canonical French photographer considered to be the father of modern photojournalism, and the master of “candid” street photography.
“I respect him for the perspective, the composition – I love it. He’s got such a good eye.”
But unlike Cartier-Bresson, whose best photos take fast-moving people and objects and make them stand still in time, Philong’s compositions are quiet and careful.
In his images, the city becomes softer and strangely romantic.
In one photograph, three workers sit contemplatively atop tall stacks of chairs, having paused construction on a wedding tent because the street is submerged by flooding.
Their reflections are cast with mirror-like precision in the water below.
Often, he takes mundane subject matter and imbues it with an almost classical quality.
Seen through his lens, a naked child lazing on its mother’s lap becomes an image reminiscent of the Madonna and child: the headlight picks out their faces in the dark, and their placement behind a clothes rail sets them apart from the darkness around them.
“When the light comes on, you see they’re kind of framed by the structure that dries the clothes in front of them,” Philong explained, clearly enthused by the composition.
Philong has refined his approach over time. Back in 2010, he would simply turn on his headlight and shoot, but the technique proved unpopular.
“They’ll get embarrassed when you take out the camera,” he said of his subjects. “Whenever I can now, I explain about my project and myself and communicate with them. It permits me to be part of them.”
He says he often spends hours cultivating a relationship with people before he takes out his camera, or will return at nighttime to photograph people he met during the day.
Philong began his career as a successful newspaper photographer, but decided it wasn’t for him. “I always broke the rules,” he said, laughing. “I wanted to change a little bit the way the photographer is looking at the image, but still to keep the information.”
As an artistic photographer, his rise has been impressive. His work has shown in several local and international exhibitions, and won him a year-long scholarship in Paris, which he completed in 2013.
In the Renaissance exhibition later this month, his photographs will be showing alongside work by Cambodia’s artistic elite, including the sculptor Sopheap Pich and the painter Leang Seckon.
He’s proud of the achievement, and has no intention of calling an end to his night time wanderings any time soon.
“I’m always looking for something that isn’t interesting to the eye except when the headlight spots it,” he said. “During the day you cannot find these kinds of images because everything is moving.”