Cambodia's lensmen

Local photojournalists have gradually replaced foreign professionalsand are now enjoying greater exposure on the international market

Southeast Asia Globe editorial
November 10, 2009

Local photojournalists have gradually replaced foreign professionalsand are now enjoying greater exposure on the international market

The profession of photojournalism may well be on its last legs as the print media’s moguls battle a shortfall in advertising and the emergence of news websites. Costs have to be cut somewhere, and at the end of the perilous newsprint food chain are press photographers. Many face replacement by much cheaper methods of photo coverage. Another nail in the coffin is that the frenzied battle for readers includes inviting amateurs to send in their pictures using cameras or camera phones. Why pay a professional when a gadget loving housewife can capture an adequate shot?

Wonder wall: children watching a helicopter in Kandal after a plane crash (Mak Remissa)
Wonder wall: children watching a helicopter in Kandal after a plane crash (Mak Remissa)

But that’s not the case, it seems, in Cambodia, according to Mak Remissa, a Cambodian snapper with the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA): “Cambodian photojournalists are faring better now than ever before. There are Cambodian photographers working at The Phnom Penh Post, The Cambodia Daily, Cambodge Soir and the major wire services. This wasn’t the case 10 or even five years ago.” 

While Cambodia provided the lush backdrop and many searing images from the Vietnam war, it was foreign photographers rather than locals who flew on missions to the front line. In the years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, few Cambodians with photographic training saw a future in press work, preferring the big bucks of commercial commissions. 

Heng Sineth, a contemporary of Remissa who works for Associated Press, started taking pictures in 1993 as a tourist photographer. Capturing  travellers in front of the Royal Palace and the Independence Monument, he made a living selling the prints. Although distinguished photographers from abroad shared the same streets, there was no meeting of minds or technique. As Remissa recalls: “We [the locals] couldn’t communicate with the foreign photojournalists. We didn’t understand each other. Even if we wanted to learn, the language barrier made it very challenging.”

His chance came in 1993 when Arts Cambodge, a French association, launched the first photography course at the Royal University of Fine Arts. Taught by Thierry Diwo, a French photographer, it also provided cameras and film to class members. Remissa says he enrolled out of curiosity. 

In a class of 21 students he was not only the youngest but also, after a few months, the only student. As “the sole survivor” he went on to become Diwo’s assistant. Travelling with his mentor around Cambodia was a productive learning curve during which time Remissa honed his nascent technical skills and made the contacts that secured him a job at the local French newspaper Cambodge Soir. He nevertheless also recognised that he had a lot to learn. 

One of his first assignments was to produce a photograph representative of Phnom Penh then. “I shot the streets of Phnom Penh,” he says, “but they lacked local colour and focus. My editors wanted detail. At that time I felt I needed to learn more about what went into photojournalism.” 

Fishermen on the Tonle Sap near Phnom Penh (Heng Sinith)
Fishermen on the Tonle Sap near Phnom Penh (Heng Sinith)


Soon afterwards he joined a training course in photography hosted by the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation (IMMF) in Bangkok, an organisation founded in 1991 by British photojournalist Tim Page.  It was there that he met photographers from all over Southeast Asia. One month later, he says, he was bristling with confidence, given a healthy boost by winning first and third place in a photojournalism competition.

Foreign photographers based in Cambodia and courses offered by international organisations such as the IMMF proved an invaluable source of education for emerging photographers such as Remissa. Tang Chhin Sothy and Heng Sinith also rose to their current status as leading photojournalists (for Agence France-Press and the Associated Press, respectively) by first participating in the IMMF photography training course and in classes hosted by Phnom Penh’s Centre Culturel Français (CCF). They absorbed knowledge about their craft, gained exposure and valuable contacts and as they exhibited more of their work they received freelance assignments and job offers. 

Yet in the late 1990s, even with the help of expatriate photographers and cultural associations, Cambodian snappers found it tough to compete in the foreign-dominated job market. The cost of camera equipment, film, printing and travelling were further obstacles. Not willing to give in, they banded together and created a support network so they could exchange ideas. As Sothy recalls, during one water festival Cambodian photojournalists came together and pooled their talent. “We all went out, shot many rolls, selected the best prints of the group and sent them off to the press.” The method worked, and the next day their photos were in all the Phnom Penh papers.

Over time, most of the foreign photojournalists left the country to be replaced by home-grown talent that knew the lay of the land and had the Khmer language skills that gave them a competitive advantage when it came to pursuing a story. 

Today the major news wires in Cambodia (AP, EPA, AFP, Reuters) and national newspapers such as The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily employ local photographers. As Sinith says, the payment for a freelance photograph has been halved while a saleable image is getting more and more difficult to find. “Ten years ago we always had ‘breaking news’ to cover – we could shoot demonstrations, go to hospitals and there would always be activity. These days you must be shrewd. The same stories reappear, but with new developments. You have to get more creative each time,” he says.

Horse riding in Cambodia (Taing Chhin Sothy)
Horse riding in Cambodia (Taing Chhin Sothy)


Perhaps the most pressing challenge for local photographers today is to promote their work and market themselves. “Establishing links with structures abroad will be more and more important,” advises Christian Caujolle, the founder of VU Agency and a mentor to several Cambodian photographers. For the time being, no Cambodian photojournalist runs a  professional website. According to Sovan Philong, 24, who works for The Phnom Penh Post, photographers and photo editors learn of each other as they always did, “through word of mouth and mutual friends”. Philong subscribes to Flickr, an online photo-sharing community, but claims a professional website would have more impact. 


The opportunities for exposure and creative development are also on the rise. Last March saw the opening of Sa Sa, the first Cambodian-run art gallery now located in the heart of Phnom Penh. This year will also mark the second annual PhotoPhnomPenh festival, a nine-day affair from November 28 that features exhibitions and screenings by European and Asian photographers, four of whom are Cambodian. 

According to Caujolle, the festival’s artistic curator, Cambodian photojournalists previously had very few possibilities for discussing their work and for finding the time to reflect and experiment. He believes PhotoPhnomPenh will help bridge the gap between European and Asian photographers and promote “fruitful exchanges” between the participating artists. 

Recently, the CCF joined Melon Rouge the photographic agency to offer a series of workshops entitled Studio Image – “a photographers think tank” says director Alain Arnaudet – that draws together young Cambodian photographers todiscuss “visual storytelling”. The intention is for photographers of different nationalities to be paired off for a week before the opening of PhotoPhnomPenh to collaborate on different projects. The culmination of their work will be displayed at the festival. 

The A-Team: (left to right) Sovan Philong (Phnom Penh Post, more of his work can be found on page 66), Heng Sinith (AP), Mak Remissa (EPA) and Tang Chhin Sothy (AFP)

Occasional courses and workshops aside, however, there still exists no photography school and no formal training ground for the young. Cambodian photojournalists may be making a name for themselves in their professional field, but who will be responsible for teaching photography to the next generation? Most likely it’ll be the leading Cambodian photojournalists of today, all of whom are eager to pass on their hard-earned knowledge and offer support. 

Philong, a former student of Remissa, is already teaching photography to two boys from the provinces. When asked about his students’ lack of photographic equipment the 24-year-old remains confident. “The camera isn’t of paramount importance. It’s just a tool,” he says. “The willingness to learn, to experiment and to commit is everything.”

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