Environmental Activism Captured at Angkor Photo Festival

When Kim Hak began photographing Cambodian landscapes in 2012, he was driven by the desire to prove that his country was more than just a Unesco World Heritage hotspot and a land once ruled by Pol Pot.

Mr. Hak, originally from Battambang province, spent seven years working in the tourism industry before stepping into photography full-time in 2009, a career that has allowed him to travel the world. He has heard plenty about what foreigners think of his homeland.

A photograph by Kim Hak from his series ‘My Beloved,’ to be displayed at the 12th Angkor Film Festival beginning on Saturday in Siem Reap.
A photograph by Kim Hak from his series ‘My Beloved,’ to be displayed at the 12th Angkor Film Festival beginning on Saturday in Siem Reap.

“Mostly, people only know Cambodia from Angkor Wat or the Khmer Rouge,” Mr. Hak said in an interview on Tuesday. “I decided I wanted to change the perspective of what Cambodia was about.”

So, armed with rolls of film, he set out along the coastal provinces to capture their “diverse, simple landscapes” on an analog camera. But when he started returning to the places featured in his photographs, he found many of those natural sites had been destroyed and replaced with concrete or pavement.

His project took on a new dimension: environmental activism.

One site in Kep province was previously covered in ancient trees and flowers of all different colors, he said, but then the road running through the area was expanded to a highway and the natural beauty was lost.

“When I show this image to people, they say, ‘Where is that?’” he said. “I say, ‘It’s gone now.’”

The photographs form an ongoing series titled “My Beloved,” and will eventually be developed into a photo book. A selection of 20—from the “untouched” phase of the project—will be on display at the 12th Angkor Photo Festival beginning this Saturday in Siem Reap.

It is one of only two Cambodia-based photo series at the festival, but he joins many in his theme of environmentalism.

The “GreenLight Exhibition Series” continues for a third year, while guest curator Claudia Hinterseer will showcase 15 documentary photo stories as part of “We Alter Nature.”

“My point is to show that the way and the speed at which we’re altering the world’s flora and fauna is stunning and unsustainable,” Ms. Hinterseer, a senior multimedia producer at China Daily Asia, is quoted as saying in the event’s program.

A photograph by Chantal Stoman from the series ‘Phnom Penh, a City by Night,’ to be displayed at the Angkor Film Festival.
A photograph by Chantal Stoman from the series ‘Phnom Penh, a City by Night,’ to be displayed at the Angkor Film Festival.

The second Cambodia-related photo series, “Phnom Penh, a City by Night,” is the result of a workshop hosted in Phnom Penh by Paris-based photographer Chantal Stoman, who tutored local photographers and students as an artist-in-residence at the Institut Francais.

The festival, marketed as the longest-running photography event in Southeast Asia, will showcase the work of over 130 photographers from 45 countries until December 10.

The event is also an educational resource for emerging photographers in the region, and tuition-free professional workshops will run alongside the festival from Friday until the following Thursday. Six international professional photographers will tutor 30 photographers, who were selected earlier this year, with the resulting photo essays shown on the festival’s closing night.

The festival’s program coordinator, Francoise Callier, said that although Cambodia’s photography scene was still fledgling, the increase in Cambodian participation was promising.

“When I started to work here in the beginning, there were four or five photographers, and now there are more and more,” said Ms. Callier, who has been living between France and Cambodia as the event’s curator for the past 10 years.

In the first few years after the workshops began in 2005, she said, “we didn’t have many Cambodians —which was surprising, because they were free—but this year, there were many more applicants.”

Unlike the foreigners that Mr. Hak encountered in the tourism industry and then as a globetrotting photographer, those in the local art scene are not fixated on the Khmer Rouge, Ms. Callier said.

“The young generation, they don’t really know about all that,” she said. “So, some [artists] are absolutely not concerned with that—but they should be.”

Filmmaker Rithy Panh, who is in his mid-50s, and photographer Mak Remissa, in his mid-40s, have each contributed stirring artistic works based on their haunting memories of the Khmer Rouge. Mr. Hak’s 2014 exhibition “Alive” featured items that people managed to hold on to during the regime, set against a black background.

“They couldn’t talk for such a long time, and now they can,” Ms. Callier said.

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