Dissolving borders

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 11 Jan 2014

The Twins by Cuong Do Manh. It was one of the works featured in the slideshows.

The 9th Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia, highlighted promising talents from this region while promoting compelling photography.

FOR the last eight days of November last year, the elegant FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) Angkor, on the banks of Siem Reap River, Cambodia, was the setting for the Angkor Photo Festival’s nightly slideshows.

The French colonial property, once a stomping ground for foreign correspondents, had been taken over by photographers showcasing their beautiful, haunting and powerful visual tales of the world around us.

On opening night, works from 23 photographers were featured, among them images of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk’s funeral, sombre photographs of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh (when a garment factory collapsed) and surreal shots of post Soviet high-rises. The night air was balmy with star-studded skies above as viewers sprawled on the grass or lounged on chairs, some chatting quietly, most gazing contemplatively at the screen. It was this magic of place and spirit that beckoned Che’ Ahmad Azhar to return to the festival for the second time.

“It is an amazing experience, you can hang out in the open air while looking at great photography. The environment is so beautiful and relaxed,” said the Malaysian photographer and lecturer.

The Angkor Photo Festival exhibitions and slideshows were free, so anyone could wander over to the lush Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor Gardens in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Over about one week, the Angkor Photo Festival presented a visual feast. It had eight exhibitions and seven slideshow presentations featuring 130 photographers, over half of whom are from Asia.

The exhibitions and slideshows were free and open to the public, so anyone could wander over to the lush Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor Gardens and view Liu Jie’s portraits of rural Chinese families torn apart by emigration. Or take in Herbie Yamaguchi’s quiet reflection on Japan during its post-war recovery at the McDermott Gallery. Over at The Loft, the festival’s current headquarters and meeting point, festival-goers gathered and mingled beside temporary corrugated walls displaying images of the Palestine struggle.

On several nights, everyone gathered at the FCC Angkor for the slideshows, curated by programme director Francoise Callier. There were two guest curators in 2013, Shahidul Alam, director of the biennial Chobi Mela festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Jean-Francois Leroy, director of Visa pour l’image in Perpignan, France.

Shahidul presented Taking Humour Seriously for a lighter-hearted take on photography, while Leroy curated a series of photojournalistic and social documentary works, which included David Guttenfelder’s inside view of North Korea and Fausto Podavini’s compelling series on Alzheimer’s, which won him a World Press Photo award.

The Angkor Photo Fesival was founded by Jean-Yves Navel, Gary Knight of the VII Agency and a group of photographer friends in 2005 to support the emerging photography scene in the region. Navel is the festival director, and Francoise Callier came on board in 2006 as the festival’s programme director. The festival has grown in its nine years, attracting increasing numbers of participants and attendees to become the longest running and arguably the most important (photography) festival in the South-East Asian region.

“Asian photographers sometimes have difficulty crossing borders, so this festival helps to bridge that by giving them exposure. We try to be a bridge between the continents and the work showcased here often travels around the world to countries like Japan, China and France,” explained Callier.

Nightly slideshows were held at the lush FCC Angkor venue. — OYEN RODRIGUEZ

“It is not a very big festival, but it is an important one for discoveries and to showcase young photographers. We are always looking for unknown stories and emerging talents that nobody knows,” she continued.

One of the biggest draws of the festival has always been the Angkor Photo Workshops, a critical scholarship to recognise and train promising emerging photographers from Asia. Each year, young photographers below the age of 28 are chosen to undergo an intense workshop under the tutelage of prominent photographers like Patrick de Noirmont, Kosuke Okahara and Antoine D’Agata.

In 2013, the festival committee had over 250 applications and 30 candidates were picked for the programme, including one from Malaysia. “We chose the participants based on quality and their dedication,” said Jessica Lim, the festival coordinator.

The workshops culminated in a screening of the young photographers’ projects on closing night at the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor with a winner for the best photo story prize. The 2013 winner was Neak Sophal, a graduate from Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts. Her entry, Hang On, is an intriguing portrayal of the hardships of Cambodian daily lives.

“Out of the 30 students, some will go on to success. They have talent, of course, but the festival gives them a foot in the door,” said Callier.

She remembered discovering Sean Lee, then a quiet 21-year-old Singaporean who had presented a series of 12 photographs of his family in his application. The images’ quietude and sense of alienation impressed her and she signed him up for the workshop.

Lee has since embarked on a successful photography career, winning awards and accolades, as well as exhibiting widely in Singapore and around the region; he currently has a solo exhibition at the Singapore Biennale with a new work entitled Gardens (the biennale is on at various locations in Singapore until Feb 16; visit singaporebiennale.org).

One of Japanese photographer Herbie Yamaguchi’s monochromatic photos (taken during the late 1960s/early 1970s) featured at the Angkor Photo Festival.

Other alumni have gone on to carve a name for themselves, too. Anshika Varma Kohli has photographed for her local edition of National Geographic in India, while Kuala Lumpur-based Rahman Roslan is a photojournalist who has worked for Getty Images, Bloomberg and The New York Times. The participants remain involved with the festival, returning as tutors in the Anjali Photo Workshops.

“I was a workshop participant three years ago, and when I came back this time, I wasn’t sure if anyone would remember me. But as I walked into The Loft, there was such a warm welcome. It was really nice. It’s like belonging to a family and a community, which I think is really important to us. We learn and grown from each other,” said Kohli, a freelance photographer based in New Delhi, India.

“The festival is like a big family and we try to make it accessible. It is extremely important we keep the festival informal,” said Callier.

The informality and easy-going nature of the festival is what makes it special. It gives promising young photographers the rare opportunity to rub shoulders and seek advice from the likes of John Vink and Antoine D’Agata, both from renowned Magnum Photos, whether it is at the nightly social gatherings or during portfolio reviews.

“Free portfolio reviews for five days is a dream come true for many emerging and even established photographers,” said visitor Ryan Libre, a photographer, filmmaker and founder of the Chiang Mai Documentary Arts Festival. “This was my second time here and I enjoyed it even more than the first, and will be back next year for sure.”

With some sectors heralding the death of professional photography in the face of camera phones and increasingly accessible technology, a festival such as Angkor Photo Festival reaffirmed its importance while lending support to the regional community.

Callier summed it up: “The Liberation in France published an issue with no photographs, and it had a huge impact. With photography, you can sometimes take it for granted. But once you see something powerful, it remains with you forever.”

More info at www.angkor-photo.com.

Related story:

Connecting through workshops

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Dissolving borders


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