By The Way
ណារិន សៅបូរា Narin Saobora
Exhibition: 06 - 16 January 2023
Venue: Chocolate Garden (Siem Reap)
Many of the elders I’ve met regard the period of King Sihanouk as one of relative stability and sustainable growth. The “Golden Age”, as it was dubbed, is a period in which we could see the blossoms of Khmer cultural identity and enjoy its fruit. The way in which time passed took on a different rhythm, in which the day to day human experience could be engrossed. In the modern age, all of this has passed us by. Not only is each setting transient, but the whole experience moves along in a vicious speed, which doesn’t allow us to hold onto anything: not the land, our relationships to the land, our relationships to those around us, nor our cultural identity.
During the war, people were sent to the countryside to work. The city of Phnom Penh was empty of people, development stalled, and in settled the peaceful oasis of nature, in its own contradictory way. When the Khmer Rouge fell, we awoke from the “Year Zero” to the eventual reign of Prime Minister Hun Sen. This post-war period came with a construction boom that brought in foreign investment, condos, malls, boreys, and highrises.
Some of those that were banished to the countryside during the Khmer Rouge period refused to come back. And a number of those who did opted for a life more akin to that of the countryside. The government needed to expand Phnom Penh because of the influx. The first places of development were empty and silent. The new development brought on the noise of cars, people, and construction machines: excavators digging, dredges sucking water from the river. Places which were once lush wetlands and lakes were transformed into dry, barren landscapes on which new developments could be built. Momentarily on these landscapes, there were cottages, people, and kids. Eventually these all disappeared too after development.
It was strange to witness this change as a photographer. It brought up many questions about the ever-changing setting, the people, the tools, and the environment. The images reflect the state of a city in hyper development, and the shock I’ve experienced photographing a specific location that never remains the same. It also reflects the life and struggles of the thousand or so families who constantly need to adapt their provincial lifestyle to the absurdities imposed by commercial developers on the natural landscape. Lastly, these photographs remain as a brief souvenir for the families who have been here 20 odd years, and the living rituals which they have created on it, to recognise and remember these final few moments before they are forced to leave.
During one of my photography expeditions to the area, the memory of one photograph stands out the most. Because of the change of water levels, there were a number of cottages that could no longer be inhabited, so the residents moved. As I explored the abandoned cottages, I walked into a particular residence which used to belong to a lotus farmer. Inside, the lotuses grew as tall as human beings, and stood upright, huddled together in a number of rows. Upon seeing them, I felt they were greeting me with a “hello”.
NARIN Saobora is a Cambodian filmmaker, cinematographer and photographer. Born in Kampong Thom province after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he grew up during the civil war in the 1980s. Saobora is a Sundance Institute Fellow with over a decade’s experience in the film industry in Cambodia. He has worked on various documentaries and feature films with Academy Award winning director Rithy Panh and was a cinematographer on Lida Chan’s feature documentary ‘Red Clothes’, which has won several festival awards. For his personal work, Saobora deals with the issues of contemporary society. He is also an Angkor Photo Workshop alumni from 2019.