The opening night for an exhibition at Tribe Gallery of railway-inspired photos titled ‘One Day One Way’ by the Siem Reap-based Khmer photographer known as Phirom was a buzz – people were looking, people were buying and Phirom was beaming.
“On opening night many came to the gallery to hear my talk, to listen to my story,” he says. “I was nervous, but it was successful and each day I build new pride in myself.
“I have sold many pieces, but I am proud that a collector of Khmer emerging art from Seattle bought a work called ‘A New Beginning’ for a Khmer Community Gallery and permanent collection.”
Phirom’s exhibition is an intriguing collection of photographic scenes taken when he journeyed the length of the new Northern Rail Line which was completed last year and runs from Phnom Penh to Poipet covering 386 kilometres.
The journey normally takes 12-13 hours, but for Phirom it meant getting off at Sisophon, Battambang, Pursat, and Kompong Chhnang to meet the people and take their photos.
Tribe Gallery’s press release says, “Through his adventures, Kak Sokphirom discovered how people overcame their obstacles, helping him melt his own insecurities.”
Phirom says, “When travelling we are all together but with different stories to tell. Meeting people and learning their stories is important to me before I take their photo. We are all coming from somewhere, we are all going somewhere, but the journey connects us all and this connects me with the people.
“For me the train is like life: sometimes busy, full of noise and laughter, sometimes empty and alone, but wait long enough and at the next station someone new with a new story arrives to share the journey.”
One photo in the exhibition, titled ‘A New Beginning,’ simply features an empty carriage. This became a talking point on opening night because the empty carriage resembles a famous photograph of a similar carriage – taken in 1975 or 1976 – but not empty, containing a cadre of Khmer Rouge leaders including Pol Pot, Noun Chea, Vorn Vet and Chhit Choeun aka Ta Mok.
Phirom says that at first he didn’t understand the full impact of the photo.
“When I was travelling and the carriage was empty in the beginning I felt alone,” he says.
“But after a while I knew more people would come and join me. Now I saw each empty carriage as a new beginning, a refresh.
“Only after I had taken the photo was I reminded of a photo of the Khmer Rouge leaders in such a carriage, a very famous photograph, only then did I fully appreciate the significance of ‘a new beginning.”
But Phirom points out that the photo is not his favourite.
“My favorite picture is of a man on a bench,” he says. “I met this man for the first time, one year ago. He was sitting on the low step between carriages and he hid his face.
“We talked for a long time. He told me he rode the trains to escape, the same reason as me, and he rode the low step because he had lost a leg and sitting there made him feel like he was running through the countryside.
“I took his photo and when I returned I looked for him and found him on a station platform. I had printed out the first photo and I gave it to him and asked if I could do his portrait. And this is my favourite photo in this series, this is when I realised that I take photos with my heart and not my finger.”
But while Phirom travels to find stories to take to heart, his own story, of how he became a pro photographer with his own business – FlyToPhoto – is also compelling.
Born in 1988, in ‘Site B’ a Cambodian refugee camp, he is the eldest of 11 siblings. Faced with what he calls the “usual option” to leave home and work in Thailand in the cement factories, he instead became a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in 2007, and then became a tour operator.
But his tour business was handicapped by his inability to speak English.
“I worked hard to learn the language from my customers and from movies,” he says.
“By 2014 I could speak English well and I was able to offer my services as a tour guide. In 2014 I met an American tourist. I took him on a tour of the temples and was able to show him places that the usual tourists did not get to see. He asked me to take some pictures with his camera.
“The American loved my photographs and said I had a natural eye, that I could find “extra in the ordinary” to make the ordinary extraordinary.
“He told me he was a professional photographer. At the time I had no dream of this for myself, but he helped give me confidence and soon I had sold my tuk tuk and bought a camera. He departed Cambodia, but he left me with a dream of new possibilities.”
Then, with a little help from the Angkor Photo Festival, galleries such as Tribe and a New Zealand sponsor, Phirom is firmly in the photo business, working commercially and artistically.
He’s just finished a six week contract in the Northern provinces with the Halo Trust and with his camera he documented his time with villagers.
“Many of them have stories their hard, traumatic and difficult life,” he says. “This body of work will be called, ‘Only the Dead Have Seen the End of the War’.”