Photographer Revives Homage to Water for Latest Exhibition

The swirls of color in water make for images of subtle beauty. But photographer Mak Remissa’s series “Water Is Life” is also a plea to address Cambodia’s environmental degradation.

“In Cambodia, [we] have a lot [of] rivers, canals, lakes, but the people still need the water,” the 47-year-old artist said on Tuesday.

A photograph from Mak Remissa's series 'Water Is Life'
A photograph from Mak Remissa’s series ‘Water Is Life’

But, he added, “The people don’t think water is very important: sometimes they don’t care.”

An exhibition of Mr. Remissa’s series opens at The Plantation hotel in Phnom Penh tonight. Produced in 2009, the images draw viewers’ attention to the significance of water to both plant and animal life.

The photographer said he was frustrated by how readily many Cambodians pollute or waste the precious resource. “They just throw something in the water, river, lake,” he said. “They need water for agriculture, but they let the water go away,” he said.

Mr. Remissa created the series of 18 photographs in a village in Kandal province, where he created a contained environment of fresh water and used oil paint to add splashes of color. He then populated the water with crabs or frogs or shadows of people whose silhouetted figures anchor the fluid hues.

“It looks like painting, but not painting—with a camera, not with a brush,” he said.

The photographer chose oil paint primarily for its chemical properties. “The color floats on water,” he explained.

A photograph from Mak Remissa's series 'Water Is Life'
A photograph from Mak Remissa’s series ‘Water Is Life’

But the effect carries another layer, as the curls of near-translucent color are reminiscent of filmy sheets of oil seen in polluted water.

“Water Is Life” was first exhibited in 2010 as part of the Photo Phnom Penh festival. Since then, it has been shown in Siem Reap City and abroad, including in Singapore and Burma.

But five years later, Mr. Remissa said, he wanted to re-showcase the photographs, in part because Cambodians’ concern for the environment remained minimal.

“I saw nothing much changed,” he said. “I want many people to see this. That’s why we have to reshow it.”

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