Recently, I was asked to explain my photography, which made me realize an essential truth about this art: I lie with my camera. In service to the picture of My Khmer I crop out the trash, hype-up the color, and enlarge the details. I’m creating a story that comes as much from my imagination as from the neighborhood.
There are moments when I am aesthetically wounded just walking through the litter of my town. If I gave you the true picture of Cambodia you’d see a great pile of plastic bottles and little else at first. But, I am not reporting news from the front lines here—this is My Khmer. This where I live now, in a fever dream, inarticulate and longing, unable to communicate completely. So, I show you the picture that I want to see.
This is not an apology, although it sounds like a confession. To those who have asked, “Is everything as marvelous as you make it look?” the answer is yes. And no. The picture exists, but I’ve probably gussied it up and put a sprig of parsley on the plate before serving.
As an example, here are two photos of a boy with flowers. During our Pre-Service Training this kid came every afternoon for a week to decorate our bikes with yellow and orange blooms he pulled from the trees around the school. He was so sweetly sincere. Look at those dark soulful eyes. Limpid. When I took the photo the afternoon light cast a shadow over his face, but I liked the freckled grey wall behind him, so took a chance the light could be adjusted later. I cropped out the scabby background so the picture would be all about the boy and his gift.
Often, I shoot from the hip, trying to catch a natural moment before the person see me and does that Facebook two-fingered-V-thing. Looking through the lens also gives me enough distance to be able to appreciate form and design, rather than consciously note that I am looking at a plastic bowl of full of snakes or live bugs that my host mother is about to fry. This tiny bit of distance actually allows me to get closer to my subject before all those cultural norms come crashing through the door.
My Khmer photos are a way for me to try to make sense of what I see in my village through my barang perspective. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have been schooled in the Khmer language and Cambodian customs, but I am still a Westerner culturally. My point of view naturally shapes how I see The Kingdom of Wonder.
I take my iPad with me wherever I go, looking for a picture to develop in front of me. Some days I get lucky. It could be the color of a woman’s vividly patterned pajamas at the morning market that catches my eye. Or the scale of a small blue truck stacked to the heavens with green bags of rice. It might be the look of concentration on a student’s face as she bends to her work, the morning light illuminating the page.
So who are you going to believe? Something the newspaper tells you—or my lying eyes?