Sunday, 18 September 2011

Cambodia beyond the temples

Guest blog and images by by Kelly Morgan

I love trawling through photos of past travels, no matter how well composed or exposed, they’re my memories. My few brief trips to Asia have left me with a deep admiration for the people and a longing to experience more. How could I possibly turn down the opportunity to see Cambodia under the tutelage of Bluedog photographers?

After some solo time in Phnom Penh I joined the other eager participants and set off to capture what guide books consider the essence of Cambodia ­– the temples of Siem Reap. They are as awe-inspiring as I expected, and a challenge in light metering and exposure.

Day one we explored Tonle Sap and a floating village, Augustine challenged me to go beyond “P” so off I went, over and under exposing. Day two was learning more about light and how to control it. I can’t imagine a better place to learn about 18% grey than outside Bayon temple. 

By now we were all mulling over ideas for our assignment, a photo essay on “restitution”. Day one I met Mr Douk, a landmine amputee selling books around Siem Reap and a long term friend of Danielle's. He had lost both of his arms, but not his pride or sense of humour. How does a man with no arms bathe? How does he earn enough to give his kids an education? In a country with poor healthcare and no social security, how does he keep smiling?

Mr Douk with two of his children and grand child.

Danielle encouraged me to follow his day and tell his story. Was I nervous? Absolutely! I still felt clumsy with the camera and while I was honoured to be invited into Mr Douk’s home, I was worried my photos wouldn’t be good enough to capture his story with the respect it deserved.

But jumping in the deep end is the best way to learn – no time to over-think it. Waving the group off for their Angkor Wat sunrise shoot, I stayed behind. An hour late for our pre-dawn meeting (this is Cambodia!) Mr Douk and his gorgeous kids arrived to walk me to their home. It was heartbreaking to see how they lived; a small timber shanty with a communal water pump, and neighbours dying of Aids. It was heart warming to be welcomed and to share their intimate moments. It was going to be a long, confronting day.

I tried to capture Mr Douk’s ups and downs as he carried his heavy basket of books. People rebuff him, ignore him, disrespect him. But just when it seems too hard, someone buys a book. His smile is broad and genuine; his kids have an English tutor again this week.

 Mr Douk makes a sale - on average he makes 0.50 US cents per book.

Seeing Mr Douk in Ta Prohm’s dappled light and otherworldly settings was strangely moving, and a test in exposure compensation! At the end of the day we had a big hug, he went home to his family, I joined the group for curry and $1.50 mojitos, different lives that intersected for a brief time. I couldn’t leave it at that and sought him out each day for a hug and chat.

I learnt a lot in a week; photographically I went from P to full manual mode, personally I fell in love with a country and its people. My biggest lesson: lower the camera, look beyond the view finder, see the people, hear the story. 

Bluedog Photography will be returning to Cambodia for another tour in 2012. For further details visit:

End note from Danielle:
Kelly's journey on our tour to Cambodia this year was one of great pleasure for me. Not only seeing her progress so quickly and confidently in her photography but how she approached a hard subject choice for her assignment and pushed herself both emotionally and photographically to capture Mr Douk's day.

This is a only a small selection of some of the images Kelly shot - all of them are dramatic and to many may cause a little flinch at the ugliness of war. I encourage you to look deeper, as Kelly did, to the man and his dignity and his willingness to get up and move on and do the best he can. His smile says everything.

Thank you Kelly for telling Mr Douk's story, I know everyone else in the group was appreciative of it as well. We all learnt something from it.
Kelly has since written a longer article on Mr Douk and I look forward to seeing it printed in the future. Well done Kelly!


Holly Stewart said...

Great work Kel, you make me appreciate that even tho a country is in 'peace time' there is a great price that continues to be paid by its people. I hope that tourists and visitors are respectful of this.

Louise Hughes said...

That's an amazing experience to have and to share... how marvellous. Your photos and your tale really do offer inspiration on a variety of levels to all who see and hear them.

Z said...

Casey forwarded me your blog. It's a moving story. I like the photos as well-- very impressed with your newly acquired photography skills. But best of all, love the conclusion, your biggest lesson learned... to look beyond the view finder. Thanks for sharing and good to hear from you again.