Category Archives: Poverty

Farewell, Cambodia

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

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.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work.

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.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling.

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.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children's mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children’s mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh.

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.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila.

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.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.

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

Also posted in Black and White, Blog, Cambodia Tagged , , , , , , |

Family in San Andres

Only four years old, this boy has been left in the care of his 85-year-old grandmother.

I’ve been working on a project documenting the squatters communities around Manila, and came across this boy and his family in San Andres. This boy, four years old, and his sister, 5 years old, have been left in the care of their 85-year-old grandmother. Their father is currently in jail and in desperation the mother dropped the kids with their grandmother and returned to the provinces. No one knows where she is now.

Though a caring woman, the grandmother is getting too old to properly look after the children, often leaving them on their own for hours at a time while she wanders the neighbourhood. They rely on the charity of the San Andres community to eat, and some church groups who provide vitamins for the kids.

If anyone is interested in contributing $5 to help these kids, use the paypal “donate” button on the right-hand column of this blog page, and add the note “for San Andres family”. I will give whatever money is raised to the local community representative to organize a support program.

 

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Matao Salajendo in Eight Frames

Matao Salajendo, 29, is an unemployed construction worker living under the seawall along the Ermita Boulevard in Manila, Philippines.

He sleeps underneath a piece of bubble wrap paper and must remain in a sitting position all night due to the cramped conditions under the wall. He searches the rocks along the bay for found objects which he either keeps to use for himself, or sells for whatever money he can get.

For three years Matao was a construction worker on a fifty-story skyscraper project in metro Manila, but when the job was done he found himself out of work. Now homeless as well as jobless, Matao cannot gather enough money to renew his medical certification, which is mandatory for work on building sites. Neither can he afford to travel back to his home province, where the rest of his family lives on a coconut farm.

I met Matao a few days ago and spent most of a day with him. This series is a look at one day of his life in eight frames.

Matao sits under the seawall along the Ermita Boulevard in Manila. He sleeps here in a sitting position due to the cramped conditions.

The seawall is constantly wet, and Matao uses only a piece of bubble wrap paper as a shelter

Matao struggles in the wind to unwrap his bubble wrap shelter as heavy rain begins to fall.

Since Matao lost his job he has little to do during the day other than wander through Manila’s streets and parks.

Matao’s criminal clearance, one of the documents necessary for him to find a new construction job. The second document he needs is an $8 medical check which he cannot afford.

Matao searches the rocks along the seawall for items which wash up in the bay that he can use himself, or possibly sell.

Matao enters the large Robinson’s mall for the first time, despite living only a few hundred meters away.

Matao shields himself from the rain. Having no money, he is not able to travel back to his home province where the rest of his family lives on a coconut farm.

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Also posted in Blog, Philippines

Seoul Shanty Towns…

Gwangfan Piao takes a break from his work in a recycling yard in the Guryong shanty town

 My connections in the Seoul shanty towns are getting stronger with each visit. I’ve made a pretty solid connection with this man, who I thought until recently was named Park Kwang Beom, but in fact this is just a Korean name he has chosen for himself. He is actually Gwangfan Piao, a Chinese immigrant who works in Korea to earn money which he sends back to his family in China. I said in my last post that I would be releasing an account of my overly eventful visit to his home, but it is turning out to be longer than I expected and too long for a normal blog entry, so this image serves as a holder until I can finish writing it up. The full story will be available in the next few days as a free download.

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The Benefits of Giving Back

As the work continues on my project about life in Seoul’s Guryong shanty town, I wanted to share some thoughts about getting access and giving back to the people I photograph. At its core, the concept of taking someone’s photo implies a one way relationship, something that David DuChemin has inspired me to move away from. For a long time I viewed photography as a way of getting something for myself, and I approached people as tools to use in order to add great images to my portfolio. But this is fundamentally flawed as it created a distance between me and the subjects, something which was somehow apparent in the photos.

While David and other photographers often carry portable devices to make on the spot prints, my finances are in no position to support such a purchase. On my last visit I snapped a quick portrait of two recycling yard workers – so when I headed back to the Panjachon (shanty town) this weekend, I made a quick stop off at a department store photo desk and had an 8 x 10 print made for 1 500 Korean Won (about $1.25). You get what you pay for and this was certainly no professional grade printing, but I figured it was better than nothing.

While not a gallery piece by any means, this cheap print opened more doors than any amount of time or money could have.

This was my third visit to the Guryong community, and truth be told I was nervous going in. Not because of any fear about my safety (Koreans are some of the most trustworthy and unthreatening people in the world), but because I felt truly out of place. The Panjachon has been the subject of a fair bit of media publicity recently as multiple news outlets have begun to run features about the frequency of fires and flooding, and as a foreigner carrying $3000 worth of camera gear in one of Seoul’s poorest neighbourhoods, I knew how I must have looked to the residents. Yet another person coming to take stereotypical photos of decrepit houses, perpetuating the “otherness” of the people who live there, the “thank God that’s not me” style of images that are so prevalent.

So when I approached the recycling yard looking for Park Kwang Beom (the man on the left), I was not surprised by the suspicious looks from the other workers. It wasn’t anger, just a kind of frustration from people who think they are about to be exploited. But when I pulled those two crappy 8 x 10’s out of my backpack, the change in mood was incredible. Scowls transformed into huge grins, cheerful laughter, and shouts of Chingu! Chingu! (friend! friend!). The manager of the yard came hurrying out of his office to bring me a paper cup of instant coffee. The workers all reached into their pockets offering me Chinese cigarettes.

My arrival was poorly timed, and all the guys had to get back to work, but instead of just awkwardly nodding thanks and shuffling away like I had done so many times in the past when taking pictures of people, I was being invited back. With the aid of a tattered calendar, they indicated that I should return next Sunday when they weren’t working. The body language and the repetition of the word Soju (rice wine) told me that I should expect something special.

Lesson learned. Instead of taking photographs, with a little giving on my part I can make photographs with people. The results are infinitely better, both more meaningful and far more intimate.

An image like this would not be possible without being accepted by the person I am photographing.

Also posted in Blog, South Korea Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Sheet Metal Church in the Guryong Shanty Town

A man walks past a sheet metal church in the Guryong Panjachon (shantytown)

The connection between poverty and religion is a strong one. Being a non-religious person, I can’t relate to the comfort people derive from spiritual belief, though I wish I could.

The Guryong Panjachon has an incredible amount of churches for such a small community, and the wood and metal crosses are the most prominent feature of the skyline.

 

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Seoul’s Shantytowns Catch Fire

Nestled against the side of a small mountain, in the shadow of the city’s most affluent neighbourhood, is the Guryong Panjachon (shantytown. Literally “scrap wood village”). A byproduct of inflation and urban development, this community is home to those who cannot afford the rising housing costs in Seoul. Technically illegal, the panjachon is tolerated by the government because, quite simply, there is nowhere else for these people to go. Many residents are one step away from homelessness.

Because Seoul does not officially recognize this area as being part of the city, there is no access to reliable infrastructure. Power is syphoned from the main grid through a myriad of extension cables and there are virtually no safety regulations. Fires and floods are regular occurrences, and though I was of course saddened, I wasn’t surprised to see that a large cluster of houses had burned down.

Charred remains of a group of houses
Electrical fires and gas leaks are the common causes of such a fire
In the shadow of Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthiest neighbourhood. Churches are prevalent in the Guryong panjachon.
A dining table and a portable gas cooker amongst the ashes; a reminder that the people who live here likely have no place else to go.

I had visited once before a few months ago, but I had mostly forgotten about it as my schedule got increasingly hectic over the new year. So when an editor friend asked me to go back to shoot a photoessay for his magazine, it was a perfect excuse to re-open a neglected project. I made some great contacts with residents, and have plans to go back several times in the near future. More to come.

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