Lives on the tip of Chroy Chongvar of Phnom Penh may have nothing extraordinary in the eyes of many. However, for Martin Jacquemin, a landscape and travel photographer, the lives of the people there are subjects of great beauty, especially when combined with the unspoiled environment and traditions. His exhibition, now being held at a small gallery and cafe in the capital, does not only display these aesthetic aspects but also the images he believes will disappear one day in the future, writes Taing Rinith.
Martin Jacquemin, from Saint-Etienne in east-central France, is a mechanical engineer working for the European Patent Office. But since September last year, he took a sabbatical and came to Phnom Penh with his wife, who is working for the United Nations in the country. Martin’s job now is to take care of his 4-year-old daughter, yet he also has enough time to indulge his passion for photography.
“Here, living in the city, it is a different kind of landscape, which is more about the people than nature,” says Martin. “My pictures then turn toward the people, documenting their lives.”
In a hot, sunny afternoon, Martin was travelling on a tuk-tuk in the Cham community on the tip of Chroy Chongvar, carrying his camera. Being in the community for the first time, he was wondering if he could find subjects for his new exhibition project.
It was not long before Martin was captivated by the simple but “peaceful” livelihood the ethnic group that lives on the bank of the Mekong River, a force that urged him to take out his camera and take pictures.
Two children, a boy and a girl, were playing with a ball, chuckling innocently. Nearby, a Cham woman wearing a hijab was salting her fish before drying them under the sun. Inside a hut, made from small pieces of wood and roughly roofed over with corrugated clothes, a man was sleeping soundly because he had been busy last night, fishing on his small boat. There was neither electricity nor running water. At that time, Martin saw and took pictures of a boy, probably 12 or 13 years old, carrying water in two big plastic bottles, from the river to his house.
Martin tried to communicate with the people there, but none of them speaks his language or English. However, at one point, as he was approaching a fishing boat docked on the shallow water near the bank, a toddler girl waved at him with a smile. For Martin, this was the warmest welcome and friendliest communication.
This community was also the part of Phnom Penh that surprised him the most since his arrival in September, Martin says.
“I see all the construction sites, the towers and the cranes, but I also can see that at the same time, people are still living in the old way,” says Martin, pointing to his pictures which are now hanging on the wall of Imag’in Café-Photo-Galerie, where he hosted his solo exhibition ‘Transition’.
“This is very conflicting since the city wants to be modern, but the traditional way of life is still there. The place, for me, is even more impressive, in the sense that it is located just across the river but is very different from the other side.”
Meanwhile, this project brings up the question of whether the Cham people will be able to live in the same way in the future, giving the rapid development of the city.
“There is a very big hotel, and it is really coming on to them,” he says. “I name this exhibition Transition because now it is the transition period, and we won’t know what is going to happen.”
Sos Sei Nop, a middle-aged woman living in Cham community on Chroy Chongvar peninsular, says she is very happy that Martin documents the lives of the people of the community. These pictures will show the next generations the life of people in her community now, which may become a thing in the past decades from now.
“We are not rich, and our lives are quite hard, but we are happy, worshipping Allah,” Nop says. “But, our community is changing rapidly, thanks to the development, and I am not sure it will keep existing in the future.
“Many years ago, we were living in boats on the river, but now we are on land. Who knows where we will be in the next 10 or 20 years?”
When asked whether his pictures have any environmental message for the viewers, Martin says that kind of message does exist, despite not being the main. One picture that he took, called Dry Dock (Cale séche) shows a fishing boat on dry land, filled with plastic bags and other forms of trash.
“There is trash everywhere, most of which are from the river,” Martins says. “It is not the main purpose, but the representation is there.”
Philippe Bataillard, the owner of Imag’in Café-Photo-Galerie and the Formateur Studion Images with the French Institute of Cambodia, refused to comment on the meaning or message of Martin’s pictures, simply saying that they are “beautiful”.
“I love humans as subjects,” Bataillard says. “Korean tourists at Angkor Wat is not for me, Chinese people in Phnom Penh is not for me, but this, the beautiful and peaceful way of Cambodian people, is for me.”
‘Transition’ is being held at Imag’in Café-Photo-Galerie, located at #2A, on Street 93, until the end of May.