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Photographer Captures Cambodia’s Rapid Changes


Editor’s Note: Construction and development is changing Cambodia at an unusually rapid pace, photographer Nicolas Axelrod says. His best work on the evolving story will be included in ‘Transitioning Cambodia,’ a photography book due for 2015 publication. Axelrod says the building boom during the past seven years has not benefited all segments of society, especially those from poor communities often evicted from desired real estate. Transitioning Cambodia is ‘a historical documentation’ of contemporary change in Cambodia, he says. Axelrod is a founding member of Ruom, a visual journalist collective in Cambodia. He spoke by phone from Phnom Penh with VOA Khmer’s Soksreinith Ten in Washington.

VOA: Thank you for talking to us today, Mr. Nicolas.

Nicolas Axelrod: Thank you for having us.

VOA: First of all, what brought you to Cambodia?

Nicolas Axelrod: So I came here for the first time in 2008. I was living in Thailand and had been coming back and forth. I was really curious to come and be here for the election. And after the elections in July 2008, I decided that I should stay here. I really felt Cambodia was the place to be. I felt that a lot of things were happening. Visually, it was very interesting. The people were so nice. It felt like there was something changing in the air. It felt like something was going to happen in Cambodia.

VOA: You are working on a book project. What is it about?

July 07, 2011 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A resident of Boeung Kak rows a wooden boat against a storm moving in over Phnom Penh. The new buildings of the Council of Ministers and the office of the Prime Minister can be seen in the background. © Nicolas Axelro

July 07, 2011 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A resident of Boeung Kak rows a wooden boat against a storm moving in over Phnom Penh. The new buildings of the Council of Ministers and the office of the Prime Minister can be seen in the background. © Nicolas Axelro

Nicolas Axelrod: So when I first came to Cambodia, I was documenting Boeung Kak lake. Right in the center of town, there is a massive body of water and it was surrounded by all these communities. A lot of people were living from the fishing of the lake. People from all over town had set up along the banks of this lake. I found it a very interesting place to go and take pictures. It’s visually interesting and people were very welcoming. And there were all different levels of society. There were the people being flooded next to the train station and there were all sorts of people who had built houses there and were working in all sorts of different jobs, whether military or government or working in restaurants and what not. So there was a wide range of people that were there. It was by going there that I learned that the lake was going to get filled in. And you could sense that there was this kind of evolution of change that was going on in the capital. First thing would be the evictions and then you could sense a rise in the middle class. People were starting to have more money. There were more cars on the roads. So I thought that was a logical transition, to go and look into who is this thriving middle class and also what was happening to the land after people had been evicted. The development projects and all the construction sites that were happening - not only on this land, but also in other places around town. The city was really booming, and how the consumer culture was really booming as well and the middle class was growing. So I thought it was really interesting to see how, in such a short time, and this was from, say, from 2008 until about 2012, and you could really sense there is a rapid, rapid change, and it is amazing how quickly things are changing. Even now the pace is going really, really quick.

VOA: So your book, Transitioning Cambodia, is a book that you compile all the pictures you have taken. Can you explain or tell us what these pictures are all about?

Jan. 24, 2009 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Residents flee a bulldozer as it charges into rubble of destroyed homes during the forced eviction of Dey Krahorm. The community of Dey Krahorm situated in central Phnom Penh was made up largely of artists and musicia

Jan. 24, 2009 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Residents flee a bulldozer as it charges into rubble of destroyed homes during the forced eviction of Dey Krahorm. The community of Dey Krahorm situated in central Phnom Penh was made up largely of artists and musicia

Nicolas Axelrod: So the pictures are all mine. So it started from, for the first earliest pictures are around August 2008 and it is going on until up very recently. And so the book is looking at the land rights and evictions, the rising middle class, and what happened to the development after people got evicted. And there was also families as well. So the introduction of the book we’re looking at families and the importance of family. I wanted to put a little bit on culture and history at the beginning in Cambodia to situate, a little bit, the book and the context. I found family was something that really touched me in Cambodia – the strength of the family and the importance of family. I think that is something that in Europe or the Western world we have kind of forgotten a little bit about these strong family ties and I really felt it here. So I wanted to include that in the book.

VOA: What do you hope to achieve from your book project?

Nicolas Axelrod: It’s a documentation. I find it’s a historical documentation. It’s a phase of Cambodia that we will never see again, these last seven years. I think it was important to record it. I think it was important to show how the country changed so rapidly. The thing that happened here in Cambodia, I don’t think it could happen in anywhere else: how quickly it changed and how quickly it tried to catch up with the modern work in such a rapid way.

VOA: What do you think of the change of the landscape in Phnom Penh that you had captured in your book?

March 27, 2009 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A child plays in muddy water that is spraying out of a broken pipe, the pipes are pumping sand into a natural lake in Borei Reakreay community. The community was evicted from their homes in mid-2009 to make way for r

March 27, 2009 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A child plays in muddy water that is spraying out of a broken pipe, the pipes are pumping sand into a natural lake in Borei Reakreay community. The community was evicted from their homes in mid-2009 to make way for r

Nicolas Axelrod: There is definitely a positive side to it and it’s impressive how quickly the middle class has grown and there is so much more wealth than before. But what worries me and what I am scared of is that a lot of people have been left out in this change. You notice that there is a massive change in wealth in Phnom Penh. But as soon as you start looking in the provinces things have not really changed that much. I found that is a bit of a worry. It would have been amazing to see the country change in an all-inclusive change for everybody. Not only the rich getting richer in Phnom Penh, but for everybody and especially for the people I was able to meet and to work with.

VOA: So how long would it take to finish up this book project?

Nicolas Axelrod: So what we are doing now is pre-selling the book online. We are going to do the layout. So we are working with two wonderful people. There’s Denise [Hruby], who worked for several years with the Cambodia Daily, who’s writing the book. She is doing the writing. And Fani [Llaurado], who is a lecturer and visual artist at Limkokwing University [in Phnom Penh]. She is going to be doing the layout and design. So we are hoping all of that process will be finished within a month. And then we will take the book to print in Bangkok and the printing process will take about four weeks. So we’re hoping to have the book out of the printer by mid-April or early May at the latest.

VOA: Thank you so much for talking to us Mr. Nicolas.

Nicolas Axelrod: Thank you so much.

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