To see the photos in the French Cultural Center’s current exhibition, visitors must venture over uneven gangways and peek into makeshift huts built of wood and straw, fabric and corrugated metal.
Flowers and empty bottles float on stagnant water pooled under the huts, and merchandise hangs on the outside wall of the occasional store.
Organizers have built a realistic squatter village inside the center to display the photos of squatter communities, some of which are taken by the squatters themselves.
The exhibit, titled “Territories to build,” aims to give visitors a glimpse of life and conditions in squatter communities, but also to make them better understand the people who live there.
“We want to show that [squatters] can take their place in society,” said Roland Celette, the center’s deputy director. Squatters work in all fields, and don’t live in those communities out of choice, he said.
When the exhibition opened on March 23, squatters helped serve as hosts; those who earn a living cooking and selling food prepared their specialties for the crowd of nearly 200 people.
Musicians with the Sopheak Dantrey band played for the guests; the group, comprised of physically handicapped musicians, usually performs at Wat Botum Park, said band manager Tek Sent.
Community leader Khuth Nary gave a speech in French after French Ambassador Andre-Jean Libourel and Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara. “I was so nervous that I forgot all the French words,” she said afterward. Khuth Nary lives in Tuol Kokar Koh, the village being built to relocate squatters evicted from the Bassac River banks.
Studying the exhibit, she pointed out a Buddhist altar in a hut, a food shop—“they sell at regular prices,” she said—and a barber advertising haircuts for 1,000 riel. The exhibit, she said, “shows the development and activities in the community.”
The 50 photos on exhibit were taken at squatters’ villages along the Bassac River and Boeng Kak Lake. Ten were winning entries in a contest set up by the NGO Action Nord Sud in squatter communities; 21 were taken by photo students at the French Cultural Center; and the others were taken by professional photographers.
They illustrate daily life—a man weaving a straw wall, the village after heavy rain, people walking planks made of narrow and slippery tree trunks, fish cooking in a pan.
The exhibit is an initiative of Action Nord Sud, said Jacques Gerard, cooperation and cultural project consultant for the French Embassy.
The NGO, which works to improve living conditions in squatter communities, held a photo contest in the villages to help boost residents’ self-esteem, said Sandrine Capelle Manuel, the NGO’s coordinator for urban projects.
She said Action Nord Sud wanted to give squatters an opportunity to use photography, which Cambodians love, to express themselves and their communities. About 200 photos were submitted, and the 10 best were selected by a squatter-village committee.
Looking for a way to give winners recognition, Action Nord Sud contacted Gerald with the idea of an exhibition. He said he agreed to the idea since this would show support to the NGO and reflect France’s urban-development activities in Phnom Penh.
It took about a month to assemble the photos and construct the village inside the French Cultural Center, Celette said. Squatter-community leaders served as consultants to make sure the village was accurate.
There came a time when veracity got in the way of organizers’ goals. They intended to have ducks and a pig near the huts. But they dropped the idea, Celette said.
“We removed many things not to make this theatrical.” Also, objects were removed from huts and walls not to distract visitors from grasping the reality portrayed, he said.
The exhibition runs through Saturday. Village representatives are on hand to show visitors around; and proceeds from postcards on sale will go toward the communities’ funds.
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