All through his life, a Cambodian man suffered from a disability that got worse each and every day, eventually reaching a stage in which his entire body became deformed. Yet, this man never gave in because he has people he has to live for: his children. To feed and send them to school, he had to do everything he could, even beg for alms. Chheng Savin, a Cambodian photographer, documented this father’s life and displays it in a new exhibition at the Imag’in Café-Photo-Galerie, writes Taing Rinith.
In 2014, 28-year-old Chheng Savin, a graphic designer and then a photography student at the French Institute of Cambodia was looking for a subject to work on for her final assignment. For a few weeks, she had not decided on what topic she wanted to work on, but her instructor advised her to keep going out for inspiration.
One day, while Savin was taking her chance in Chbar Ampov market, she ran into Duy Vuthy, a disabled man asking for alms from shoppers. At first sight, Savin was shocked by Vuthy’s appearance. Valgus and equinus deformities could be seen on his knees, legs and ankle. In his damaged left hip is a flexion-abduction contracture, making it look like the hip of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.
With a basket hanging on his neck, Vuthy was crawling on his callous knees, shielded by a few plastic sheets, and arms with a pair of trainers protecting his hand. After taking the first snapshot of him, Sovin felt she had found a perfect subject for her project.
Without much hesitation, Savin talked to Vuthy and asked for his permission to take his pictures, to which he agreed. She even went to where he lived, a small rental house in the suburb of Phnom Penh, where she later learned more about Vuthy’s life. To her surprise, Vuthy could even speak English.
Due to polio and lack of medical attention during the civil war, Vuthy had been disabled since he was a young boy, but he told Savin that he used to work with an American “newspaper” and later an NGO until the day his disability eventually prevented him from working. To make things worse, his wife passed away in the previous year, leaving him to take care of their three sons alone.
“He used to make his living by selling postcards on a wheelchair at the Riverside, but he later found out that begging could bring him more money,” Savin told Good Times2 at the opening of her solo exhibition ‘Father Courage’ on Thursday last week, five years after she first met Vuthy, at Imag’in Café-Photo-Galerie, where the photographs of Vuthy are being showcased.
“Despite his hardship, Vuthy still sent his sons to school. His eldest son got a job as a driver and even got married, but he could not earn enough money to support his father and brother. That’s why Vuthy still had to work to earn money.”
Just a few days before the opening, Savin went back to Vuthy’s house in order to invite him to the exhibition. However, the house is already occupied by a new tenant. The neighbour told her that Vuthy already passed away.
“I was very sad with the news,” Savin says. “No one knows what happened to his children, whom he had done everything he could to support and keep in school.”
The 22 black-and-white pictures on display at Father Courage documents the life of Vuthy and his children. It also reveals the harsh reality of disability and deformity, the latter of which people usually describe as “hideous”.
“Yet, the main message of these pictures is the heart of a father who loves his sons, who does whatever he can to have them fed, sheltered, dressed and educated, although it means crawling all over the city and begging,” Savin says.
Philippe Bataillard, the owner of Imag’in Café-Photo-Galerie and the Formateur Studion Images with the French Institute of Cambodia, who usually finds people’s daily lives subjects of great beauty, says Savin’s pictures “are not beautiful but an important documentary”.
“They are not just for decoration,” Bataillard says. “This is history; a history of a father’s struggle and courage.”
Em Riem, a famous multitalented artist who came to the launching of Father Courage, says he is moved by the pictures, especially their “sadistic elements”.
“Begging could be seen by most as humiliating, but if I were him, I might do the same,” Riem says. “If I had known him, I would have helped him and his sons get vocational training and jobs with local NGOs.”
Chheng Savin, the photographer, dedicates her first exhibition to Vuthy’s soul as well as all the parents in the world.
“The children are the heart and soul of a parent,” Savin says. “I perfectly understand that because I am also a mother and I will do anything for my son.”