On first arriving in Cambodia’s ever-expanding capital Phnom Penh, one is struck by the rubbish lying on the sides of the street; order noodle soup to go, and it comes in a plastic bowl with a plastic spoon – in a plastic bag. In a country seemingly in love with plastic, the only people recycling waste are the echchay – collectors that pass by rubbish heaps to pick up items for recycling, including plastic, glass, metals and anything else salvageable.
Miguel Jeronimo, a Portuguese photographer based in Phnom Penh, finds himself drawn to photographing these people, and this attraction is the inspiration behind the new exhibition he is curating, titled Plastic Kingdom – different views on waste and ecology in Cambodia.
“I was quite interested in the fact that [the echchay] are the only ones in a country like Cambodia that do something for the environment, even if they do it for livelihood, for survival. But then they are kind of discriminated [against] by society; it is a very low-income job,” Jeronimo told Southeast Asia Globe ahead of the exhibition opening.
He added, “I got inspired by that and wanted to do something at least to change the perception [of the echchay], so that people should look at them like ‘whoa, you are the ones cleaning our environment, and we don’t appreciate you enough.’”
Twenty artists, the majority of whom are Cambodian, will have their work featured at the exhibition, including the Battambang-based Bor Hak, who will create a sculpture from complementary soap that is given to guests at hotels. The soap for the sculpture was donated by an NGO called Eco-soap Bank, which collects the complementary soap bars from hotels, recycles them, and delivers them to rural schools.
Elsewhere, artist Khun Gechsoun will feature her wood carving techniques that she learned from indigenous communities in the mountains of Mondulkiri, eastern Cambodia. Limhay Chhum will present illustrations imagining the future of Phnom Penh and Nina Clayton will show a painting decked in plastics that were all collected in the sea off the Cambodian coast.
Jeronimo explained that he wanted the exhibition to have a wide variety of artistic mediums, even vehicles: “For instance, this artist from Battambang called Touch made a motorbike that she uses every day. She made a huge sidecar with a lot of plants… because she felt the need to always be surrounded by plants. So I was curious about this relationship with nature. And in the sidecar there’s a little chair that she uses to pick up her daughter form school. So it’s almost like a jungle queen surrounded by plants,” he said.
Jeronimo described how plastic waste clogs the draining system during the rainy season and causes floods. He hopes the visibility of this growing problem will create more awareness among Cambodians of the issue of plastic waste in the city, as well as of the plastic thrown away on beaches and in the jungle.
He said: “It’s quite interesting here in Southeast Asia because they are used to just throwing the trash away, because in [Southeast Asian] culture they used to buy [things] in little packages [such as] banana leaves, or stuff made of bamboo. It was kind of a [consequence] of this modern, urban lifestyle that brought [in] the plastics, so it’s just a case of behaviour not changing as quickly as the technology.
“So the idea is to raise questions and make people discuss and put different artists together to play around with these different ideas and simple solutions we can all implement in our lives…you put the triggers for people to reflect. It’s not only to show the solutions, but it’s more to raise questions. It’s kind of the role of art.”