Returning to Siem Reap for the 13th year, the Angkor Photo Festival remains committed to supporting Asia’s emerging photographers
Established by photo enthusiasts Jean-Yves Navel and Gary Knight in a bid to bring world-class photography training and resources to those unable to afford it, the Angkor Photo Festival has come a long way since its inception in 2005. But while it has undergone a series of incremental changes over the years, its core mission has remained the same: showcase Asia’s best photography talent and nurture the region’s next generation of professional photographers.
“It’s about sharing. It’s never been a big festival, but it’s about photographers coming from all over the world to share with the community,” says programme director Françoise Callier. “We are perhaps the only festival in the world to have multiple workshops [going on] at the festival. It’s fantastic to have so many professional photographers volunteering their time and expertise.”
This year, 32 photographers from across Asia were selected to take part in the festival’s main workshop, which runs over five days leading up to the festival. Under the supervision of seven internationally renowned photographers offering guidance and advice free of charge, the participants use their photography to tell a story of local significance.
Coupled with the enduring connections the festival affords, the practical experience gained through the workshops has had a big impact on Cambodia’s budding photographers, says Callier.
“When we started it was a brand-new media for Cambodia. There were only three or four photographers. Now, some are working for magazines and agencies,” she says. “[The photographers] are more interested in their own country than before. They have more imagination in terms of the stories that they choose to shoot. Before, it was focused on kids in trash, prostitutes and so on. Now there is much more variety.”
Neak Sophal’s work provides an example of the explosion in creativity described by Callier. The 28-year-old graduate of Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts took part in one of the workshops in 2013 and exhibited her work at the same festival. Her striking portraits of Cambodians with their faces covered by various items – an attempt to shine a light on the hidden, everyday problems experienced in Cambodia – went on to beat international competition to that year’s top prize.
The experience taught her new techniques and gave her the confidence to test out her ideas, she says.
“Before the workshop, I had the idea of the hidden face portraits, but I wasn’t sure about it. After I did the workshop it gave me a lot of confidence and direction to follow my idea,” she says. “The festival taught me to adapt my work to the story, not to adapt the story to my photography.”
Neak, who says she spends between one and two months developing a concept before picking up her camera, has continued to focus on social issues since her festival success four years ago. She created her most recent exhibition, Flower, to challenge Cambodian ideals of feminine beauty, to force people to reconsider the belief that women, like flowers, are spoiled when touched.
“I try to see problems around me that most people don’t think are issues… to take photographs that raise awareness of these hidden problems,” she says.
Testament to the festival’s continued efforts to build a long-lasting community of photographers willing to share what they have learned through their professional careers, Neak returns to the festival this year – not as a student, but as a teacher.