It is 8.40pm on a sultry evening in Phnom Penh. As I write this I am watching a little boy, perhaps three years old, naked, playing on the busy road beside the conjunction of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers amongst passing cars, tuk-tuks, motor scooters, cycles and motor bikes. This is where he lives with his two sisters, one older and the other just a baby, no more than eight months old. They are naked too. Their young mother sits on the corner of the street through the heat of the day and the dangers of the night, begging. I passed this family last night too sleeping on a dirty square of cloth.
This is a country of once splendid grandeur. I have journeyed to the sites of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon and watched the sun rise from a hot air balloon over the majestic Khmer temples even as the lotuses that carpet Angkor’s moat in a sea of pink open to the warming rays of the new dawn. I’ve wondered too at the monumental frieze that wraps its outer walls, Churning the Ocean Milk, depicting the epic battle between good and evil to possess eternity and the beguiling dancing Apsaras, the heavenly maidens that adorn its ramparts. Everywhere there is something to photograph.
But, I have also walked the Killing Fields and stood in the rooms of torture in S21 and wept under a tree beside the place of execution inside its walls. Once it was a high school, turned into an evil place of unspeakable horror. Again, I have recorded these with my camera.
Watching this little boy, who seems already streetwise and certainly traffic aware, playing, his bare feet in a gutter running with dirty water and refuse I am tempted to take photographs here too but something stops me and I refrain. This young mother despite her circumstances and her surroundings is proud and she still has great dignity and integrity. I want to leave her with her pride and decide not take her photograph but the image of her and her little family in the street in Phnom Penh remains fixed in my thoughts.
Churning the Ocean Milk – the battle between good and evil