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Apsara Dancer

Apsara Dancer. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 2015.

One year ago.

One of the things most amazing about Cambodian culture is that women do this apsara dance so frequently, almost casually. My Cambodian friends would bend their fingers back constantly so that they could do the dance better – and anyone I asked would be able to bend their index finger back far enough that it touches their wrist. Try it – it’s really hard.

This woman by the river had almost no idea I was there. She was I think on drugs, dancing to herself, wrapped in a carpet. It’s really sad, but in black and white it becomes this very elegant scene showing a bunch of contradictions from modern Cambodia.

Tonle Sap River

In Cambodia people catch and release birds to celebrate religious holidays. I live in Phnom Penh fairly close to the Tonle Sap river, and down in a pagoda by that river there’s been a ceremony going on.

Boys who’ve recently finished bathing in the Tonle Sap river.

Woman cleaning bird cages by the Tonle Sap river. These birds are caught and repeatedly released.

The Tonle Sap is magical river. Around the end of the rainy season the river entirely changes direction. If you go stand along the banks you’ll see masses of aquatic vegetation flowing downstream — they were torn up as the water switched course.

A woman and her husband showing me their fishing nets and boats by the Tonle Sap River.

Cambodians celebrate the changing of the river’s flow with an annual water festival. What’s important to understand is that this isn’t a bunch of simple people worshipping an aquatic force. Having watched it and learned about it, I’d probably be worship the Tonle Sap too.

A man showing me how he uses collected chewing gum to patch holes in his boat on the Tonle Sap river.

As the rainy season overwhelms the Tonle Sap river it flows north and fills Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap. Wikipedia says that the lake fills from one meter deep to nine meters deep. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Back in may I visited the Kompong Khleang floating village near Siem Reap. At the time the water was so low that our tour was was given in a small longtail boat which frequently ran aground.

In December I went back to Kompong Khleang and barely recognized the town at all. What had been an entire town, spanning many acres of land, was reduced to a small isthmus jetting out into the lake. My motorbike bounced along the dusty road. Crowds of people gathered to see me go by, alternating between signing happy children screaming “alo” in French and older adults viewing me skeptically.

The Tonle Sap Lake fills up so much in the rainy season and empties so much in the dry season that it leaves behind a massive patch of well fertilized land. This fertile land was the driving force behind the Angkor civilization and Angkor Wat.

The same couple and their two boats on the Tonle Sap.

I try to keep this in mind when I’m down on the river watching all the mystery happening. Boys kicking off their clothes to swim naked in the water, women carrying huge cages full of birds, shirtless men crawling into the water with nets and well dressed men standing on the short with fishing rods.

There’s a skeptical side of expats in Cambodia to think that the Khmer people are lazy or incompetent. I live here, I interact with Khmer people every day, and it’s a hard impression to shake.

What I try to think of now is that the Cambodian civilization is the perfect civilization to interact with this river. Seventy percent of their protein comes from the river, rich fertile land makes growing rice easy, and they do what I think I’d do myself if I lived on top of such a natural resource: relax often, pray to it, and not worry too much about the future.

The same couple and their two boats on the Tonle Sap.

S21 / Tuol Sleng

S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, is a converted school in Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed political prisoners.

There are hundreds of pictures on the walls. I didn’t visit S21 for my first four months living here. Now that I’ve lived here and assimilated a bit, the faces look just like the faces I see every day. Some of the photos like this one are very well done and life-like. It was gut wrenching to see this. Change the shirt and this could be any of the kids I pass every day on the street.

Shooting for Milk

My friend Jeremiah Overman (confusing, right?) asked me to replicate this photo from Milk zine as a prank.

Overman brought all the clothes and met me outside the Phnom Penh Royal Palace for the shoot. He went off to an alley to change and then we got to work.

What follows are not typical pictures for me. It’s my first time working with a “model” and my first time trying to replicate a picture.

In the image at the top from Milk the background of the scene is compressed. This makes me think it was shot with a 100mm or longer lens. I had a only 35mm, far wider, and so we had to compensate with the angle.

At first I tried to get the same angle as the Milk picture. This just doesn’t work at all for 35mm. I was too far away and the picture was boring.

Later we adjusted, I got far closer, and we found an angle where the palace in the background matched up to the top of Jeremiah’s head.

In the end this is a silly picture but I’m happy with it. It uses the 35mm frame well. Aside from the bottom left the frame is entirely full. The relevant parts of Jeremiah are stretched from top to bottom.

These were all shot on a digital Leica ME with 35mm f2 lens from 1974. They could have been shot on any camera.

Final image, which might go in Milk zine.

Comparison of the two pictures.

Photo Project at Orussey market: Day Three

Street photography is a difficult discipline. At first I thought it was all about cameras and lurking, now I’m realizing that as much of it is about being social, interacting with people, and seeing images quickly and trying to frame them. Right now I’m enamored with the work of Alex Webb and Tao Liu.

I realize that I’m super far from where these men are. I’m not good as good at this as I want. One thing that is of value for growing is discipline. So I’m sharing my latest pictures often, having them professionally criticized, and growing every few days.

A major challenge has been getting closer to people. These last few days that’s been my main challenge. I have rules: no pictures of children, no pictures of backs of heads, and no cropping. Making images right in camera isn’t about hating post-processing, it’s about learning to use the camera to record what I see. If someday I need an image I’ll go back and edit it into something usable. If I capture something stunning and want to show it to my friends I’ll crop later, but the discipline of “correct in camera” is hard to deny for the advancements it’s giving me.

None of these images were cropped. All of them were edited for greater dynamic range.