While we in the west are deliberating over our viruses, self proclaimed problems and media engulfed fake doom.
Being back in Phnom Penh after almost two years is wonderful experience and reconnecting with the Cambodian reality again.
During my early morning walk to get a coffee and some food I noticed two young children crossing the busy road full of people on their motorbikes toward the jobs.
Looking raggedy and shoeless, dirty, and carrying some bags.
The smells, the heat, the urban energy and certainly the madness, and the wonderful people trying to survive it’s all there on an empty stomach.
The older boy hurrying his playful young sister to get moving toward their mum, waiting with the youngest child.
Mother covered with a traditional kroma headscarf, the baby in her arms wearing a dirty huge long sleeve shirt, no shoes and black feet sticking underneath. Painful!
Beautiful poor Cambodian family, caught in these harsh times.
Phnom Penh city with the current metro area has a population of 2,211,000, a 3.13% increase from 2021.
Phnom Penh is a merciless growling steam machine at times. Only money can buy you some security here. Then again there is peace and a small town vibe also. Heaven and hell, a constant sense of shifting dynamics and human will power with a warm smile of dignity.
The smile of the mother says it all. She is confident and her children are learning the ropes and one look at the girl in red you will see the sparkle of survival in her eyes.
I am sure this family “between a rock and a heart place” know their way around and find food and probably come from the countryside to the city for survival and catch up with their family members, or the father working or selling his produce at the market.
Location is one block from my room at the Phsar Daeum Kor, an incredible 24/7 open market and food distribution hub in the heart of the city of Phnom Penh.
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On a small plot of waste land, right on the edge of the Mekong River. Named Areyksat, its located next to a busy ferry crossing. There are about twenty five or more huts built of waste wood on stilts because the river rises several meters during the rainy season.
There was always a welcoming atmosphere, not hostile or dismissive. Actually, nowhere in Cambodia is that the case.
I gradually got to know a number of residents more intimate and saw their children grow up in a period between 2013 and 2020. Often donated food or some money here and there and offered support when possible.
In one of those huts I saw a young boy lying on the ground in a dark hut and once outside I noticed that he had a serious eye defect. A whole family lived in the hut, mother, father, some brothers and sisters, plus a grandmother.
After a few times I went to have a chat during my visit and I took a good look at the boy in that dark hut. What struck me was that he was not blind at all. His eyes position weren’t right, he couldn’t see straight. Because of that, he seemed to make spastic movements with his head, which in fact what he did was fixate for brief moments to be able to see anything at all.
Cambodia is the land of ten thousands NGOs looking away
A multi-billion dollar do-good-industry with multi million dollar players and hundreds of smaller aid organizations.
Unfortunately most of the NGOs work according to their own programs and it was not possible to find anything locally in Phnom Penh to help, only banners to donate money to these NGO’s.
The ensuing treatments and ultimately cataract surgery have ensured that the boy called Tri Trey, can now function well, he can go to school and have a relatively normal childhood and ultimately no longer be a burden for his poor family and can give an financial input later in life.
The gradual process of getting the boy out of the dark hut, convincing his parents of the meaning and what we are going to do was a special experience. Once reassured and actually helped with a number of additional basic living necessities such as 10 kilos of rice and other food supplies and some medicines, I was fully trusted and was getting all cooperation from his mom to help her son.
Good people, warm and grateful. But also fear and insecurity – within the boy- who started to hate me as soon as he noticed me, because that was meaning going to the doctor and move out of his private life in the dark.
The photos shown here are not intended to illustrate my meddling but rather the reality of what a little bit of attention and help can mean to those who don’t have the means.
This series is my tribute to Eugene Smith and to all the children of Cambodia in need.
Now at the end of 2021 I relive the moments and re examine the images with more distance to reflect. Back then I was always moving forward and on to the next thing. This photo story was very real and profound experience, even more so today.
Emotionally it was great to see the boy named Trin Tray a few weeks after the surgery walking, running around and watching other children busy.
Unfortunately the procedure did’t work on both eyes 100%, one eye was upgraded for 50%. Together good enough to improve his awareness and eyesight much better to function.
Just an ordinary sweet boy, born on the wrong side of the river with a whole life in Cambodia ahead of him. Satisfaction is the right feeling to have been able to give just that little push. Best of luck to you Tri Trey.
We worked for a day in a school in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. I decided to make it into an improvised photo studio, so that the focus would be on the expression of the person being portrayed.
With a full frame camera (Nikon) and a 50mm lens set to an open aperture of F2.8 I got soft and a bit classical looking fantastic portraits.
These people and children were not really poor, more lower middle class. With my daily photo tours I came to see and meet people in the slums who really have it much, much worse. The choice of an NGO is based on facts and figures, where as a photographer I have no insight or a say in those considerations. As a photographer I am just lucky to be able to help were I can with my camera. The result of this campaign is amazing!
I care for Cambodia.
In my next upcoming blog I will show my own NGO actions for a young boy in the slums with eye problems. These people are so poor that they are overlooked by mainstream NGOs. The Cambodia’s untouchables.
At just over 3,000 pairs of glasses, we need your help to accomplish this goal. Every donation makes a significant impact on this campaign and the lives of those who will benefit. A $5 donation will provide a child in need with glasses, your contribution will help change lives.
During my time in Cambodia from 2015 until 2020, I was involved and worked as photographer/videographer for local and international NGO’s in Cambodia. (NGO stands for non governmental organisation) Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of being an photographer is to be hired and contribute for Oxfam-Kinderpostzegels or Cambodian Children’s Fund and other NGO’s. Proud to have worked for Cambodia.
Happy to share here some reflections on those projects with amazing powerful images and background story’s from the land of wonders Cambodia!
Cambodia is home to more than 3,000 non–governmental organisations, these NGOs in Cambodia provide a wide range of services to communities across the country.
For me the reality of real life is to show respect and attention to those in need and SEE them! Open a dialog and help where I can. Call it my social consciousness and desire to capture life at its most extreme form of survival. Provide a platform to people in need, not to exploit but to expose and to make life a bit better a day or a dollar at the time. NGOs do good work at best but also over look those at the bottom of their privileged feet, as I experienced many times in the capital city Phnom Penh.
The pictures I present here are the ones close to my heart, mostly unpublished and part of a personal story.
The Netherlands Children’s Stamps Foundation gives vulnerable children in the Netherlands and abroad opportunities for a better future.In 1924, the Netherlands was the second country to start selling children’s stamps. Since then, children’s stamps have been issued every year. The sale is organized by the Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland, which uses the proceeds to support charities for the benefit of the child. In 2015 I was hired to shoot a video promotion clip in Cambodia. Watch it here.
The assignment for Kinderpostzegels was to shoot a video clip for dutch audiences. I had to stick to strict guidelines in order to match the video clip part that was done in Holland. The basic storyline was about two young boys, both orphans living in different parts of the world. In need of the same care, love and education. Different cultures and different circumstances, but the same loss of natural parents. Living in a foster home. The boy in Holland is living with a foster family and the boy in Cambodia with his elderly grandparents.
During the shooting in and near the provincial town of Pursat we also went to a children’s orphanage school compound, where I found these kids waiting in anticipation for the foreigners. Clearly the children are dressed up into new pajamas and the whole scene has been set up for our purpose.
Through all of this I was very deeply emotional touched by the children when I looked deeper and closer into their faces and eyes, as you can see in the images here. There is something disturbing and neglect about these kids when I look back. Bless them!
Deep rooted corruption and imbalance of wealth in Cambodia has been the situation for decades, even centuries to be honest.
The United Nations, the EU and US Aid, have invested billions into Cambodia since 1992 to promote a form of democracy and to keep divided political fractions (Khmer Rouge) from fighting.
The result in 2021 is still immense poverty. Especially now during the 18 months of Covid-19 lockdowns and forced closed borders. This has hit millions of people already on the edge into a free fall and enormous poverty, social unrest and domestic violence
During those decades after the Khmer Rouge extremism and recovery years many NGO’s and aid organisations have stepped into Cambodia. Always follow the money. UNICEF resides at the most prestigious office building of Phnom Penh, where there is a world of air cons sweetly humming and the view over the city is splendid. Good for UNICEF!
Whatever the reason, or motivation of the NGO’s, the outcome is very often the same. A selected group of people will benefit and those who need the help the most are being looked over. NGO projects are targeted towards selected groups or political or religious goals. During 2020 the words ”woman empowerment” and “diversity” were the catch phrases for immediately NGO funding for example.
At the same time smaller local NGO’s like the Cambodian Children’s Fund are working relentlessly for more than 17 years on grassroots level doing an incredible job and providing daily education programs and real support for the most vulnerable children in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian Children’s Fund
Pictures below show the progress made for these children after 3 years after taking the into the CCF nourishing and education programs. Two life’s with a decent future. (I made these two pictures separate between 2010-2013 and was present when Scott Neeson found them during his daily community walk at the Steung Meanchey garbage dump in 2010.
Criticism and cynicism aside, the video’s and images that I was proudly assigned to shoot for NGOs in Cambodia are my testimony to the wonderful Cambodian children and people I captured with a smile, dignity and hope for a better life.
Most of my assigned videos and images ended up into an annual reports, online for websites, magazines to raise awareness and the main goal, get funding!
Flowers in Dirt is a series of portraits about underprivileged children that I photographed in Cambodia. My aim is to show the potential of these children and look reality in the eyes.
#1 Boy playing in the dirt in Phnom Penh-Cambodia
I passed by, he looked at me surprised. I got this picture before he knew it. Dirty smudges on his face, dirt, and garbage around him everywhere.
It’s just a kid playing but what a face! What is the story here? Who is the boy? Is this neglect or just playing? Poverty yes, most definitely but that is also the harsh reality of Cambodia.
Those eyes, and mouth such perfection! A sublime flower in the dirt. I look at what’s around me and notice the beauty and ugliness sometimes in a strong distilled way, like here. Many facets are here to be seen, beauty and dirt, hard and warm. I believe those opposite elements make often a good photograph.
I can see here also the famous ‘gypsy boy’ painting. This is my photographic homage to that famous kitsch painting.
On a deeper level, I believe the potential of each individual child is amazing. Who decides which ones may blossom and get a real change in life…or stay down and suffer? Shouldn’t every child in 2020 have an equal opportunity?
Child labor in 2020 is still happening in most parts of the world in Africa, India,and Asia.
#2 Just another brick in the wall, child labour and no education.
This brave boy is working for a stone brick factory in Cambodia. Complete family’s work there under hardship conditions. Often deeply in debt by loans to their employer. Locked into an endless circle of modern slavery.
This boy is fighting to survive and doing a grown man’s job, while his small body is undernourished and not fully developed. A little smile, his muscles overworked, one eye closed because of the weight of the bricks.
#3 Alms offering to Cambodian Buddhist monks as young as 6 years old.
Children in Cambodia are admitted into the Buddhist novice monkhood from an early age. Here we see a young boy barefoot with his older monk boys collecting offerings, money, and rice in Kratie.
Michael Klinkhamer is a Dutch photographer and journalist working mostly in Asia for the last 10 years. Michael lived permanently in Cambodia since 2013 and is now during Covid- available back for assignments in Amsterdam-Netherlands.
For the poorest people and their children, this is still a place to scavenge through the stinking, smoldering, and burning waste. They sell whatever is found to survive.
The landfill was operational until 2009. A newer landfill is relocated further outside the ever-growing city limits.
The people dwelling in Steung Meanchey find housing and employment in collecting garbage.
Since this area is basically a wasteland it attracts the poorest people looking for a cheap or even a free self-made hut made of plywood and what’s found. Trying to make it in the big city.
Most family’s come from the impoverished countryside and migrate to the big city hoping for a better future “between a rock and a hard place.”
Click on the images below to see all the images in gallery mode.
People are hopeful and always friendly toward visitors
Contrary to what you expect the energy here is hopeful and always friendly toward visitors. The locally operated Cambodian Children’s Fund has a lot to do with that positivity but it is also a known trait of the resilient Cambodian people in general.
The CCF is the driving force in education and optimism for most of the children growing up there in poverty. For them the only realistic way out is education. The CCF foundation was established by Scott Neeson in 2004 and is an unconventional success story helping people help themselves.
I was lucky to work with this organization as a photography trainer and also published many picture stories and interviews with founder Scott Neeson since 2010.
Ever since I visited this place I was infected by the positivity and sparkle you will receive once you see, smell, and walk around here and get in touch with the locals.
Click on the images below to see all the images in full size gallery mode.
See real poverty is just heartbreaking, but things are improving.
At the same time, it still is by no means a walk in the park here, and real poverty is still very real and oppressive and just heartbreaking.
Over the last ten years, I have visited the Phnom Penh Steung Meanchey waste dump many times and established a relationship with some people there and helped individual cases as much as I could. A very positive achievement was made with the availability of brand new small houses that sprung up in cooperation with world housing.
With this Canadian initiative, there was hope for families to live and raise their children in a more livable environment and take pride in their lives and wellbeing.
At the same time, an impressive university has been built right there where the garbage used to burn. The Neeson Cripps Academy was opened in 2017 With higher education for a brighter future.
Yes, I also took a lot of pictures there and yes, I admit there are hard truths and real beauty to be found in these people and their children. A deep respect for the way they are surviving. I believe it is my privilege to raise awareness with my camera for real situations of real people fighting for a better life.
It’s is the job of a social photographer to show truth and reality. Michael Klinkhamer
There is also criticism and abjection by some critics as they see my pictures as “poverty porn” and sensationalism. For me, there is no hiding for the truth, reality, and beauty in my pictures.
A chilling truth is also that the mainstream media and big NGOs follow their agendas. They often only report about social injustice during a disaster to raise funds for their own selected programs they support. While overlooking the real issues right in front of them on the ground.