When I got on the China Eastern airlines flight that would take me out of Cambodia after living and working in the Kingdom for nearly three years, my emotions were predictably volatile. Cambodia had fostered me when I had been lacking direction and adrift in the beginnings of a new career, and as time progressed and I started traveling more and more on assignments, had given me a safe harbour to return to between trips. Cambodia allowed me to call it home even though I had little to offer in exchange.
I met hundreds of people – both Khmers and foreigners alike – who had welcomed, taught, and inspired me at different times and in different ways. From a portfolio review on my third week in the country by the prolific Magnum photographer and long-time Cambodia hand John Vink to my last assignment photographing anti-logging activist Ouch Leng for The New York Times almost three years later, Cambodia helped me to develop as a photographer faster than I ever thought possible.
It was in Cambodia that I learned, through Ruom Collective, that working in a team can often result stronger work than any one individual, no matter how dedicated, could accomplish. It was also there that I met photographer Gareth Bright, who would become my chief partner in crime for nearly two years of exploring the Mekong river and who taught me more about the style and art of photography than any formal education could have. Without a doubt I left Cambodia in better form than when I’d arrived.
But what about the Cambodians themselves? Populated by some of the kindest and most peaceful people I’ve ever encountered after nearly a decade of international travel, had Cambodia become a better place for its own people to live?
Admittedly this is a much more complex question than I am temporally and intellectually capable of answering (for one of the best overviews of modern Cambodia, try Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio), but I can draw conclusions based on my time interacting with Cambodians across all sectors of society. And unfortunately, what I saw was not, for the most part, positive.
In his farewell address to Southeast Asia after a decade of reporting from the region, New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller said “I came to see Southeast Asia as a land of great people and bad governments, of remarkable graciousness but distressing levels of impunity.” This sentiment matches perfectly with my own experiences in Cambodia, and it makes me fear for the future of the country and its people.
Despite a protracted period of widespread protests and sporadic-yet-savage violence in 2014, the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party maintained its grip on power and steadily continued its attack on any organization or person who threatened its authority. The gap between rich and poor widened to ever more ludicrous distances and corruption spread deeper throughout the nation’s governmental and bureaucratic institutions. Public servants with tiny salaries bought $15 million houses in Phnom Penh while working class families, both in the cities and countryside, were evicted from their homes to make way for luxury condominiums and hydropower dams.
The community of Borei Keila is a microcosm of a trend that has been happening throughout Cambodia since before I arrived, and is likely to continue long after I have left. The images that appear throughout this article were all taken in Borei Keila over a period of several months, and were the last serious subject matter I documented for any length of time before leaving the country. The process of making these photographs, therefore, greatly influenced my final impressions of a country I called home for three years.
In 2003, the property development conglomerate Phanimex was awarded development rights to the area and promptly evicted the hundreds of families who lived there. While some were provided with new housing, many hundreds more were offered no compensation and were forced to remain in the site, living in squalid slums without basic infrastructure, such as plumbing. Waste removal services were unreliable, and over time a two meter tall mound of festering garbage rose behind the squatter shacks, bringing thick swarms of flies.
More than 10 years later in January of 2016, the issue was supposedly resolved and a formal ceremony was held in Borei Keila, replete with representatives from City Hall. Yet the final “resolution” (either a new apartment, a small plot of land in the countryside, or a cash payment for remaining Borei Keila residents), beyond being offered more than a decade too late, still neglected to offer anything 35 families. What will happen to these people I have no idea. Based on the past, it seems unlikely that either the government or Phanimex does either.
One is left with the distinct impression that no one in a position of power cares what happens.
In the climate of mega-tycoons and oligarchs that has taken nearly complete control of the power mechanisms of Cambodia, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the consequences of such neglect. These are the “distressing levels of impunity” that Fuller refers to, and they have come to define both the Kingdom as well as much of the wider region.
As I leave Cambodia for Latin America I am acutely aware of how much I benefitted from my time in the country, both personally and professionally, which in turn makes me conscious of how few of the same benefits are available to the average Cambodian.
There are, it should be said, noteworthy examples of an emerging young middle class who are thriving despite the challenges they face. My good friend and colleague Kimlong Meng, for example, who has built himself a thriving local media empire on the back of his own hard work and creativity. A team of five under-30 independent Khmer entrepreneurs founded Brown, a chain of modern cafes that have come to dominate Phnom Penh’s coffee culture. There are others.
Yet as I sat on the tarmac waiting for my flight to take me out of Cambodia, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for most Cambodians things were going to get harder. It brings no pleasure to project negativity onto a people and culture that is so deserving of prosperity, and I sincerely wish the best for the country that treated me with such incredible kindness. But until some significant changes take place at the highest levels, I can’t help but fear that more Borei Keilas will be created by the decisions of those with impunity.
Until the majority of Cambodians can thrive in their own country as I was able to, it will be hard to remember my time in the Kingdom without a tinge of sadness.
Farewell for now Cambodia, and good luck.
For more images of Borei Keila, have a look at my personal edit of 20 pictures, or this even longer archival edit of nearly 30 pictures.