cambodia

Autoethnographic Photography

After some deliberation on my previous blog posts, This Cambodian Life, and Ellis, Epiphanies and Photography, I decided to complete a personal autoenthographic photo series.

As a result of the Pol Pot regime, where all photographs were destroyed, modern Cambodian photographers have had to re-establish collections of photographs. Here, photographs of day to day life has immense value.

Inspired by Cambodian photographers, specifically, Vandy Rattana, Neak Sophal, Vuth Luyno and Pete Pinh (their works can be viewed here and here) – I photographed my final day of classes at uni.

At first, I thought the task would be simple – it was not. Photographing my life, with the sole purpose being to capture the moment, instead of focusing on making it look aesthetically appealing, required a shift in perspective; I was not looking for a good angle, but to snap it how I see it. The purpose of this task is to collect memories of my every day life. However, when I now look back on the pictures, I do see the beauty in every day actions, especially my morning beach yoga views and mediation incense burnings.

The photo series below consist of 57 individual images. It is not necessarily each individual picture, but the collective impression portrayed when scrolling through that captures the sounds and sights of my day.

“You can hear something a thousand times and not know it; yet if you see it with your eyes just once, you know.” — Khmer proverb.

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

 

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Ellis, Epiphanies and Photography

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno),” – Ellis, Adams and Bocher 2011.

In my previous post, with the benefits of hindsight, I narrated a past cultural experience. This was the beginning of an autoethnographic story. The analysis of both the experience and how I communicate my experience reveals my cultural framework. Once I recognise such frameworks and the related points of epiphanies,  will I be able to see how my cultural framework structures my project investigation.

I begin my previous post sharing a personal feeling. When reading back on my post, I can remember being hesitant in sharing this information. I know that it is normal to feel conscious about sharing feeling on a public space, but the fact that I did not shy away from the core of my project work shows that, when it matters, I am able to use language to openly communicate. The nature of an autoethnographic narrative encourages this emotive storytelling. It was interesting to do this in an academic context where we are usually not encouraged to share our feelings and personal bias.

I then in my previous post discuss how I regard travel. It is obvious from the beginning that I am using travel as both a way to recharge my personal batteries and also as an escape. I mention my passion for travel and that I value my privilege as a white person. This idea of being me describing myself as a ‘white person’ was interesting to read. I am a very brown female with curly black hair, raised in a very brown family. And in my day to day life in Australia I pride myself on being vocal about racism in Australia as I do often notice the differences (both good and not so good) of being a person of colour in a very white costal town. Here I realise that many aspects of my life, for example my medical care and travel access are defined by the constructs of my life as an Australian, not as a migrant in a white country.

I narrate that the first structured activity I do when arriving in a country was a visit to a historical site. Reading my previous post I reflect to recognise I was raised with the idea that to understand, respect and enjoy a culture, I must learn about their history, from their perspective, in their land. This is something that I have always done as a solo traveller, but did not previously recognise it was something that stemmed from familial travel routines.

I have always valued art. I grew up in a house of classical Indian music, foreign films, so much food from different parts of the world and different languages of literature. As a child there were many reasons I disliked travel with my parents – we never went to theme parks or stayed in luxury hotels,, Instead we were focused on history, art and food. I moved out of home at 17 and thought that I had left my parents travel habits behind (I do love rollercoasters and the very occasional night in a fancy hotel), but they had taught me so much about how to travel.

This cultural framework, being primarily my life as a first generation migrant and my rooted familial values, is what has structured my project. My access to travel and style of travel lead me to Cambodia and the S21 Museum. It was here that I was exposed to the nature of photography in Cambodia.

While epiphanies are self-claimed phenomena in which one person may consider an experience transformative while another may not, these epiphanies reveal ways a person could negotiate “intense situations,” – Ellis, Adams and Bocher 2011.

Autoethnography identifies these epiphanies as points of understanding. To put simply, it is only when something stirs or changes that we can recognise a shift. When reading the beginning of my narrative, it is clear that I had one of these epiphanies pushing me to seek something. It was an ‘intense situation’ that demanded reflection and action. At the time, my shift was to travel. In Cambodia I had epiphanies about how strong humanity can be. And about how humanity shares their emotional experience. It is this that inspired me to also use photography as a way to communicate loss.

…writing personal stories can be therapeutic for authors as we write to make sense of ourselves and our experiences,” – Ellis, Adams and Bocher 2011.

Writing and reading the previous post does feel therapeutic. Using photography as therapy is an extension of this autoethnographic expression as a form of therapy.

This TedxTalk by Bryce Evans provides an investing presentation on photography therapy and how it can help a person navigate through their mental health. Bryce Evans says in this video that – “Everyone knows how to take a photo…photos allow you to connect instantly on an uncurious level, without the stigma to of it (‘it’ being mental health),”. HIN both my previous post and the paragraph above, it is clear that I value maintaining a healthy mental health and believe creative outlets can help me achieve this.

My values framed by my family, my experiences as a migrant, unfortunate ‘intense situations’ in life, my love of photography and focus on mental health has evidently structured my DIGC330 final project.

Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

This Cambodian Life

I find that my sense of curiosity and wonder peaks when life takes unexpected turns. One such peak occurred earlier this year, late May. A time that forced me to dig into the dark of my stomach and pull out the reserve of energy and hope I hold within me. And although these few handfuls of memories and aspirations fed me through to the end of semester one, I could feel my tank was emptying. And so, like many other privileged first world citizens, I felt the prick and itch to travel. To a space where no one knows me. Somewhere away. Something new.

I soon found an internship in Cambodia and bought a plane ticket. I love how the soles of my feet buzz when getting on a plane, excited to soon be touching unfamiliar earth. And so while many travellers take the obligatory selfie at the Sydney airport Departures sign, I take a picture of my feet.

After several disappointing airport coffees and a room temperature spinach tart, my plane number is finally called. I have never been able to sleep on planes, so instead I re-read for the umpteenth time my trusted Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia. Like many travel guides, the accompanying photographs are stunning. Tantalising street food stalls. Lush green temples. Rich red dirt roads. Streets that scream colour. Bars that promise fun. I could not wait to be living the photos and take pictures of my own.

Photography, specifically travel photography is a personal interest. It is not the pictures that I value, but the moment that it brings – the ability to take me back to a moment so vividly.

After an eighteen hour journey, I arrive in Phnom Penh. Inside the airport it is hot and the customs officials are not welcoming. Outside the airport the locals are smiles and waves. I leave the buzz of the airport and make my way to the side street to find a tuk tuk. I only have one hour to check into my hostel, shower and be ready for a tour of the S-21 Museum and Killing Fields.

The first photographs I saw of Cambodian life taken by Cambodians was at the S-21 Museum. A place that was first a school – a prison and torture centre during the Pol Pot regime – now a museum sharing the harrowing experience. A stark contrast to the photographs in my travel guide. It was here that I learned how the Pol Pot regime destroyed almost all photographs taken before their reign.

While in country, I started looking for local photographers and photo galleries. I spoke to the artist as often as I could and none of them had photographs pre-1975. If a solider found a photograph during a regular raid someone could be killed – the cost of holing onto the physical photo was too risky.

There are many Cambodian photographers who now dedicate their art to documenting their day to day lives, exploring their personal and community identity.

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Vandy Rattana  photographs the every day life of Cambodians. The photographs capture the rebuilding of physical structures, land waste, poverty, office life, family life and meal times. The photographs have philosophical and historical purpose. The image below is a photo of a construction site.

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Neak Sophal photographs the experience of Cambodian women and poverty post Pol Pot. In the picture above, she frames the colloquial Khmer saying, “No rice for pot,”.

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Vuth Luyno photographs the experience of the modern LGBTQ community in Cambodia. The younger population are more likely to accept LGBTQ individual but there is much discrimination and many elements of taboo. In the picture above, he aims to communicate the normalcy of gay relationships – to the right is Sitha’s family, to the left is a recreation of a memory.

Sitha, pictured on the left , describes the context of the memory she chose to reenact:

“I met my wife during the Pol Pot regime when we were digging a canal opposite each other… During rice transplanting month, I went to ask for some salt from her, but she refused…During harvest month, we met again and started to talk, and we fell in love… This love is difficult, because they didn’t let us meet… After 1979, we didn’t get married properly but we created wedding rituals. I play the role of head of the family, as husband and with her as a wife, and we have adopted three children—two daughters and a son—and have six grandchildren. My children call me dad, and my grandchildren call me granddad.””

 

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Pete Pin has conversations with individuals about their life, then takes a portrait that captures the story and intentionality of the person. In the photo above, he was interviewing his Father.

Cambodia for me was a place of learning and love. It was also a place where I was reminded daily that this is a place of loss. As a field NGO researcher, every conversation I had with a local citizen would inform me of the horrors of their war. Almost every family had lost one or several members to the regime.

Here, I learn that modern photography is important. It documents their lives, shares their experience and the work that needs to be done. There is vulnerability and at the same time strength.

There is no way to measure or compare sadness and suffering. So I would like to begin this paragraph by saying that my personal life can never compare to a genocide. Inspired by these photographers, I would like to create a photography portfolio for my final DIGC330 assessment. As a student in my final semester of uni and a women working through loss, I want to document this section of my life. I am hoping to include both pictures of my day to day life, landscape and portraits to create this portfolio.

Photographs are all the courtesy of the artist and found here. I was not able to write about all the artists, but I highly recommended visiting both the site above and the site here.

Understanding my world through Autoethnography

The idea of Autoethnography is so foreign to me. So far in my academic career I’ve transformed from the high school system “1st person is evil”, to welcoming how your cultural perceptions has shaped how you understand a situation. Ellis et al. defines Autoethnography as:

“An approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)”

Therefore, this incorporates how a person understands a situation or event due to how their personal experiences have shaped their way of thinking. To be an autoethnographer, you must first explain your cultural upbringing to your readers/audience and then critically analyse how this has formed your understanding.

If you read my last blog, I attempted a little autoethnography, by critically analysing how I took meaning from watching Godzilla based on my cultural upbringing. It was a different approach to writing that I haven’t noticed myself using up to this point in my academic career. Yet, it makes sense to use this form of research and writing, because it can be used as a tool for further understanding of yourself and those around you.

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Photo I took of the beach (Otres Beach, Cambodia)

I noticed myself doing this in my recent travels to Cambodia. I was sitting on a beach, and women were walking up and down the beach selling foot rubs, manicures and pedicures to tourists. I was approached by one woman who was driven to make me buy something from her. I noticed the difference between the selling techniques used by advertising company’s in Australia and her persuasion techniques. She rubbed her hand on my legs and said “Oh! So hairy! You need threading”. I realised this must be how they try to persuade tourists to pay for them for a beauty service. Thinking back to how someone would sell me something in Australia compared to how things are sold in Cambodia is very different. This event made me interested in how the media sold products to Cambodians, and noticed a lot of downgrading their own beauty in order to sell their products. Most of the models on the packaging were white, or looked very similar to white people. This sets the standard of “beauty” in Cambodia and tells people that they aren’t beautiful unless they look white.

I think to how the media sells me products, and I notice a lot of the similar sort of advertising techniques. Therefore, I am interested in researching further into how the Asian advertising market sells its products as part of an autoethnographic project.

 

 

References:

Ellis, C, Adams, T.E & Bochner, A.P. 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Vol. 12, No. 1, <http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095&gt;