Photo series captures personal joys and struggles in the capital

Mark Tilly / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Vireak (right) and Chanra live above a garage with their six other family members. Astrid Schulz

A photograph at Meta House shows Srey Ny holding a bowl of food in her hand after a meal in the kitchen of the Boeung Keng Kang I home that her family has been living in for the past eight months.
Due to the rise in rent in the affluent area, her family cannot afford to live there and so she attempts to supplement her income by running a laundry service and selling drinks on the ground floor of her apartment, relying on her daughter to help support her income.
While it is a seemingly mundane photograph, there is an element of sadness in Ny’s eyes. German photographer Astrid Schulz does not reveal the reason for it; she only hints that she has experienced something she should not have.  
Ny’s story is but one that Schulz captured for the urban development chapter of a photo book, “Phnom Penh – Capital City,” photos from which will be on display tonight at Meta House.  
While most of the book deals with the growth of the city’s concrete jungle, Schulz’s chapter consists of photographs of families – all photographed in their own homes, providing a glimpse into their lives and the contrasts and similarities that define them.
Some were the first to return after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, picking up the pieces and dealing with grief, others are young and optimistic, hopeful for the future in photographs Schulz hopes provide a human element to the book.
“Rather than having the whole book having photos of buildings and roads and development of concrete, you also need the people who make that city a city,” she said yesterday.
“My approach to it was going into people’s houses and asking about their own impression how it is to live in Phnom Penh.”
Schulz took three weeks to interview 55 people in roughly 35 houses, changing accommodation three times, in an attempt to capture life in the capital.
“What you can see is obviously only a very, very small selection of worlds that we would possibly be able to show here in this city, but I hope to create a cross section,” she said.
While at first glance the most striking things one notices is the extreme wealth disparity that exists between the rich and the poor, Schulz says many of the complaints people had about the city were the same.
“I started with a questionnaire with their name, their age, social background etcetera, along with a questions about Phnom Penh, and after a while they all say the same,” she said.
“They all say ‘yes we’re catching up with the West but there’s so much pollution in the street, there’s always a traffic jam’ – it’s the same answers,” she said.
Despite this, land evictions were one of the most common causes of anxiety that people faced, for a range of reasons, according to Schulz.
“I had people on both sides, who had voluntarily sold their house because it was worth so much and they bought a house in a boray somewhere outside…however, they feel so far away from their community and they face an hour and a half of driving to come back,” she said.
“But there were also some people that said that there was a possibility that someone [developers] would come – it’s very fearful to lose your home and for many people it has been a home to them for 30 years.”
However, Shulz said she wanted to keep things personal and intimate and was surprised with the level of warmth she and her translators were welcomed with by the families she talked to – the old doing it in a sense of national pride, while the young being used to having their picture taken.
“People were quite willing and interested in having a dialogue with me, some people said ‘I am doing this for my country, I am proud of my country, I want to show the world that we are overcoming burdens of the past,’” she said.
“The younger generation – this is very easy nowadays because everyone has Facebook and posting themselves to death.”
Despite the contrasts of the old and young, rich and poor, Schulz said she hoped the universality of the photographs would shine through and it would show it is the common joys and struggles of everyday people that make Phnom Penh what it is.
“We are all the same, we have the same concerns if you look deeper,” she said.
‘People in the City’ opens tonight at 6pm before the book launch of ‘Phnom Penh – Capital City’ at 7pm featuring a talk by the book’s editor, Michael Waibel, at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard.

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