Photographers in the Kingdom don’t see eye-to-eye on who should point their lenses at human suffering
Most days, Dutch photographer Michael Klinkhamer takes clients on photography tours around Phnom Penh.
Often they stroll around the Royal Palace, sometimes they walk the gritty streets downtown.
Occasionally – and more controversially – Klinkhamer takes the amateur snappers to the old dumpsite at Stung Meanchey, where people still scavenge in the remaining rubbish six years after the city moved the dump to Choeung Ek.
“[The tourists] want to experience reality – the real life, the harsh life – because there’s beauty in it,” he said.
“If you take good pictures, there you might end up with amazing photographs. It’s romance: it’s the gypsy child with the dirty face – that makes people soft.”
This type of “dirty tourism” made headlines in the UK’s Daily Mail this week, when Spanish photographer David Rengel slammed tourists for taking photos of children at Siem Reap’s Anlong Pi dumpsite.
“While I was taking photos to demonstrate the realities of child labour, I realised tourists were arriving to visit, sometimes in buses and other times in tuk-tuks, Cambodian taxis; I thought it was horrible, and it should be reported,” Rengel, who declined to comment to Post Weekend, was quoted as saying to the Daily Mail.
“In that moment, I changed my point of view and instead decided to report on the practice of tourism as one of the causes of slave labour, including child labour.”
Klinkhamer said it was “hypocritical” for photojournalists to claim a moral high ground over amateurs.
“If you’re a professional photographer or a journalist, why would you be entitled to cover that for a newspaper, and not a tourist?” he said, adding that amateur photographers engage in citizen journalism by sharing their images on social media.
“Maybe because of all these tourists coming down there and photographing it and talking about it, there will be something done about it,” he said.
While visiting blighted communities, Klinkhamer said he takes care to direct his clients to local businesses and NGOs working in the area.
He also has pre-existing relationships with the locals and encourages guests to mingle.
But photojournalist Thomas Cristofoletti, co-founder of the Cambodia-based Ruom Collective of journalists, said he was uneasy with amateur photographers seeking out grim situations.
“I don’t enjoy going to see people suffering – that’s not something I like to do, and I don’t understand how people could pay to have this kind of experience,” he said.
While he said citizen journalism had its place, particularly during sudden situations requiring quick action, photographers should generally have professional backgrounds before attempting to navigate the ethical dilemmas of bearing witness to poverty.
“You need preparation and [to] follow some kind of ethics to be able to document the reality of a problem,” he said.
James Sutherland, international communications coordinator at NGO Friends International, which works at the Anlong Pi dumpsite, said the distinction between legitimate reportage and exploitation was not always clear.
“There’s a very fine line indeed here about exploiting the people you’re supposedly trying to help by reporting the issue,” he said, adding that he has concerns about photojournalists’ effects on poor communities and condemns organised tours entirely.
In one instance, Sutherland saw an image of the Anlong Pi dumpsite with exaggerated red colouring that gave the area a hellish glow. Terrible as the site may be, he found the manipulation distasteful.
“[Scavengers] are not objects, they’re not another piece in your scenario,” he said.
Sutherland also said that informed consent can be tricky to obtain when children are involved.
“Children are just fascinated by the idea that someone wants to take their picture – they will have a look at it, have a laugh with it and joke about it, but they have no idea what’s going to happen with that image,” he said.
Cristofoletti said that, while such ethical problems are well known among photographers, he feared amateurs would not have the professional background to make good choices.
“It’s not ethical to take pictures of minors without consent of the parents, probably something tourists don’t know,” said Cristofoletti, adding that in certain instances he has opted to obscure the identities of children even with parental consent.
“You don’t need to see the faces to understand the reality – I can still try to preserve the dignity of the minor without exposing him to the public. That’s something you know because you’re professional, because you’re doing this job and you know the rules.”
At the old Stung Meanchey dumpsite in Phnom Penh, where people still pick through six-year-old refuse, scavengers expressed mild bemusement that foreigners would care to photograph their neighbourhood.
Seng Savy, a 25-year-old who works as a community seamstress from his shack next to the dump, said he would see up to 10 foreigners a day visiting the site before it closed.
“First I wondered why they came to take pictures of us, but then I realised that maybe they took pictures to show their friends in other countries the young Khmer people living in the rubbish,” he said, adding that he hoped the pictures would garner international aid.
Soung Nget, a 29-year-old scavenger, said foreign visitors were an interesting novelty.
“I have little education, and I was happy when I saw many people interested in me. They’re strange people,” he said.