Guest post: Down under in Phnom Penh (Dave)

Note:  This post is written and all photos by Dave Grady who came from Australia for one of our Hong Kong workshops then travelled to Cambodia with us.  Dave shoots with a combination of Leica M9P, Sony NEX 7, Nikon V1 and Canon 5D Mk III rigs.  This is his story.

(Boat boy crossing the Mekong)

In July 2012 I was fortunate enough to attend F8 Photography's documentary photography workshop in Hong Kong.  Just prior to attending the workshop I was also invited to go along with Gary, Giles & Steve to Cambodia directly after the workshop to practice some new found skills, an offer I couldn't refuse.

After attending the documentary workshop which broadened my mind and the way one can approach photography (picking a theme and shooting a series of shots rather than just looking for  one shot), and then spending my last day in Hong Kong with Gary while he shot editorial work on a 1 million dollar yacht, I barely had time to pack and we made our way to Phnom Penh on the early morning flight direct from Hong Kong equipped with an Leica M9, Sony Nex 7 and  Nikon V1.

Having just been to remote areas of mainland China, some of the scenes I'm seeing are familiar but in general it's very different to what I'm used to seeing in Sydney.  The traffic is chaotic yet flowing at the same time, People walking all over the place carrying who knows what, families cramping up on one scooter (up to 6 people on 1 small scooter) and the little shops on the side of the road and the mobile street vendors all made for a very interesting drive to our hotel. It was evident very early in Phnom Penh that Cambodia is not a wealthy country but was amazed at how friendly and happy people were.

We arrived at our hotel that Gary had organised for us which was really nice, we dropped off our gear and jumped on a tuk tuk (my first tuk tuk experience) and made our way to the riverside bistro which became our regular watering hole for the rest of the trip, after a brief nap and swim at the hotel pool (which was great for mid/late afternoons after shooting all day) we made our way out for a walk along the riverside were we came across what i'm guessing is a daily ritual where people go to a small temple to pray with people around selling flowers, candles and birds which I believe are offerings to the Gods. This event made for good photography with lots of people around to shoot and lot's of stuff happening everywhere.   This was my first real chance to shoot in Cambodia and was really surprised and taken back by peoples willingness to have there photo's taken especially with kids which is a big no no in many western countries.

(Nikon V1, 10mm)

The next morning we met up with Gary's translator and our tour guide/tuk tuk driver Sammy (Samedy) and off we went to Mekong Island, after a short ferry ride across the Mekong river we arrived and stopped at a small shop to get supplies for the day and pick up a few Krama's (traditional Cambodian scarves).

(Dave modelling his new Camodian scarf on route to Mekong Island)

Mekong Island is a small remote area across the river from Phnom Penh, it's not an area tourists would normally visit and the same goes for Phnom Penh locals many hadn't even heard of the place let alone been there.  What I saw of Mekong Island consisted of 1 small dirt road with houses on 1 side and the Mekong river on the other, It was however full of photo opportunities.

(Leica M9P)

We met lot's of nice people alongside the road who were more than willing to have there picture taken, A little girl who waved at us even motioned for us to go into her families yard where we spoke to her mother and took photo's of them both. The one person who will stay with me for a long time was a blind man in a small shack who allowed us to take pictures of him, after which Steve got out a $20 note (usually we would give a $1 or $2) and gave it to him, after finding out the value through Sammy who translated for us just seeing his reaction was truly priceless he was so gracious and had many nice things to say.

(Blind villager)

(At the female monastery)

(Dave (right) and others from the team offering rice to the Nuns on our arrival)

Moving on we then arrived at a Women's monastery which was in the middle of nowhere and you would never know it was there unless you were with someone who knew about it. This place was very peaceful and had some amazing statues all throughout the monastery. We spent around an hour just wondering around just taking everything in and taking photos of the many statues and Monks who were more than happy to have there photo's taken. After we had all finished walking around it was mid afternoon and we were all hot and hungry so back we went to the hotel for a swim and lunch.

The next day we had a few different options but we decided on going to a temple complex about 45 minutes from Phnom Penh, It was quite a long ride on the tuk tuk and when we finally arrived.  As we walked around and looked at the temple you could easily be mistaken and think you were in Angkor Wat.

(Temple complex outside Phnom Penh)

This place made for some great landscape, texture and portrait shots, 1 old lady we found between the 4 of us we must have shot 3-4 rolls of film and a couple hundred digital shots, she just had this amazing face to shoot close up portraits, it had so much detail from all the wrinkles & damage from the sun over many years.

(102 year old Temple Minder)

This place was also very peaceful and was very nice just walking around taking a photo here and there.  While it was a long way out and back it was well worth it, everybody who I mentioned that I'm going to Cambodia all asked if I was going to Angkor Wat and everyone was shocked when I replied 'no', but at Angkor we would have been competing with thousands of other tourists to walk around and take photos whereas here it was just us and a few locals. It may not have been as grand as the temples at Angkor but it gave us a taste of what they are like and we were able to get shots we'd never get at Angkor.

On our final day we decided to visit a slum on the railway a place Gary has been before and suggested as a place to check out to get a real view of some of the poverty that exists here. When laying eyes on this place it hits you pretty quick how poor this place is, It's an old abandoned train yard with many old carriages just sitting there rotting and being used to dump trash and all sorts in.  Making matters worse this huge state of the art Cambodian government building can be seen right behind within 1km from this train yard. I was a little worried how people will react to us showing up there and taking photos, but everyone seemed really nice and friendly and it turned out to be a very interesting and humbling experience.

(The entrance to the railroad slum)

(The modern government buildings just a few hundred meters behind the slum...)

(Railroad families)

Hearing stories from the locals like the lady who was sewing making shirts and how she gets 2 cents for every shirt she makes and seeing the conditions that they lived in were really eye opening especially for myself who hasn't seen this sort of thing before, yet they all seemed happy and the kids were over the moon when Steve bought them all Ice blocks.

(Our team at Mekong Island (L to R: Steve, Gary (F8), Giles and myself) 

In conclusion I had an amazing time and it was a great experience. I was able to get some great photos which I'm very happy with. Phnom Penh was very much a culture shock for me, a lot of it I have touched on but the things that will really stick with me is how chaotic yet organised it is,  I was blown away by how friendly everyone is and there willingness to have there photo taken especially kids. Also just seeing people living in dire conditions yet seemed to be happy and got on with life. This especially hit me hard and really made me think about the way I live and work on certain ways to improve certain aspects of it.


(Me relaxing at our watering hole on the riverside)

 Lastly I'd like to thank Gary for organising the trip he got us a great hotel and took us to some great places, Steve & Giles it was a pleasure hanging out and shooting with you guys & Sammy and Kanja for taking us around and translating for us.

Final note from F8:

Gary, the Director of F8 has also written a blog post about his experience, that can be seen by clicking here.

Guest blog posts written by Steve who also came along can be seen here:

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F8 Photography provides commercial photography and training across Asia, with workshops on Street Photography and other photography and video training courses, more details can be found via the ‘courses and workshops’ link and upcoming events via the front page of our website.