In search of meaning part 1

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Return to Cambodia, May 2018

The year is 2018, and in the meantime I have taken up photography again. I’ve gotten myself a good camera, and am finding it increasingly easy to photograph people – on my travels, on city streets. Simply making contact with them, and capturing a nice image. It brings together my creative side and my experience of working with people.

I’m on the lookout for a nice project. My fascination for Cambodia leads me back to that country, back to my experiences with Vann. And thus, a project is born:

Mr. Vann, Tuk-Tuk Driver in Phnom Penh.

At that point, Vann, his family and I have already known each other for seven years.

I don’t really have a concrete plan. There is no script to my story. Just images floating through my mind. Images of Vann at work, and of him with his children, his pride and joy. Of his house in Phnom Penh, and his birthplace Bosthlan Village. I am eager to pay another visit to his mother, Khun Ann.

Without exchanging too many words, we set out. He takes me to his house, to the schools his son Chulesa goes to, to the university that his daughter Kolabsor attends, to the market to see his wife Sophea.

We rent a car and embark on a tour through Cambodia. To begin with, we go from Phnom Penh to Bosthlan Village, the place where Vann was born. I am very keen on capturing some images of his mother Khun Ann, and of life in the village.

Vann has his own ideas for this book about his life. A different vision of what it should truly be about. But he doesn’t tell me. He follows my lead, obediently.

What should it be about?

Still assuming that the project will focus on the tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh – though perhaps with some more background information thrown in here and there – we stop at the Night Market, which is deserted in daytime. We come past Skuon once again. Not so many spiders this time, as it isn’t the right season.

On towards Bosthlan Village.

We are given a warm welcome by Vann’s sisters, Oun and Ry, and their mother Khun Ann. They unwrap their presents. Vann is the only one who speaks English and, as he chats away to Khun Ann and his sisters, he is too busy to really be able to translate for me. I’ve left my camera in the car, on purpose. Oun’s husband joins us as well. He lies down in the hammock, playing some games on his phone.

Feeling growingly awkward, I want something to do.

I ask Vann to show me around the yard, and together we go on a walk through the village. Camera in hand, this time. I mess around a bit, and start to feel more at ease.

The village is going through changes. Along what is still a dirt road, a gas station has appeared. There is electricity, and waterworks are also in the making. I see a large sign too, stating that the area is now landmine-free. We stroll along the road that consists of red earth, the area’s fertile ground. We head to the Buddhist temple, around which pagodas for the dead can be found. Vann’s father has a beautiful grave. He lies here alone.

School is out, and a throng of schoolchildren flocks towards us. We enter the school grounds, where the younger kids are spending recess. Vann chats to the children, who are curious about the gray lady with her camera.

Bosthlan Village

Vann is rather silent to me. He doesn’t tell me much, doesn’t clarify things. His father, alone in the pagoda? He remains vague about it. Did he go to school here himself? Yes, yes, a long time ago. He wants to have his picture taken with some schoolgirls, to show off? He seems indifferent.

Back to the house. On the way there, I get to meet several other villagers. His mother is sitting out front, and I take just a couple of shots. We’ll be back tomorrow anyway.

We then get in the car and drive to the hotel in Kompong Cham, 25 miles away.

A little later, I find myself on the bank of the Mekong, where the locals are strutting around in the cool of the evening, having a bite to eat, meeting others. I walk around with my camera, taking pictures of the people I meet. I also need to think about tomorrow, about what I want to do with Vann’s family when we return to the farm, and Khun Ann especially.

Vann picks me up at the hotel. We have breakfast together, though he is rather absent. I’m used to him being this way, introverted and staring into the distance as he eats his noodle soup. We drive to the village in silence. Over the roads of red earth, through endless farmlands where rubber trees grow, as well as cashew, cassava and corn. People are working away. The sun is already too high up in the sky, preventing me from capturing the scene.

Woman among themselves

We are back in the yard, hanging around. Khun Ann is dozing in her hammock, Oun and Vann are having a chat. Oun’s daughter makes an appearance as well. Together with her mother, she disappears into the outdoor kitchen. It’s time to prepare lunch.

I grab my camera from the car and follow the women. Here together in the kitchen, I feel comfortable. Oun is happy to be photographed. The daughter makes the V-sign, something that all young people here do when having their picture taken – no matter who by. Khun Ann also joins us.

She doesn’t have a hand in the kitchen work. Sitting at a low table, she looks on as Oun places the wok on the gas burner.

Women among themselves.

When I leave the kitchen, Khun Ann follows with slight hesitation. A beautiful image of her in the doorway, staring out into the yard. And then, she is resolute. She calls over to Vann, walks to the hammock, and sits down.

Vann indicates that his mother wants to speak about the war, you know, about a certain bombing raid. In the meantime, I take a few more portraits. Looking at my screen, I am contented with the images. The first that I capture is of Khun Ann with an open, friendly expression. In each image that follows, she withdraws further into herself. I am touched by the fact that she is really letting me in.

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