By Angelique Stevens
“The elements of a subject that speak to us are often scattered and can’t be captured in one photo; we don’t have the right to force them together, and to stage them would be cheating… which brings us to the need for photojournalism.” Henri Cartier Bresson (“HCB on Photography” 76)
In Kompong Chnnang, two hours outside Phnom Penh, a Vietnamese woman paddled me through the largest floating village on the Tonle Sap River. I sat camera in hand, uncomfortably squat-kneed, on an old wooden longboat that threatened to topple us if I shifted. I peered inside one- and two-room shoebox houses. They were laid out in lanes like housing tracts but with rivers for roads and square holes for doors. Row after row, tin roofs covered palm leafed sides and patched wooden floors. Houses, maybe 30 by 30 feet, floated on the water. Anchored like boats at dock, but disconnected from any land or piers, they were little islands unto themselves, each one an open diorama of Khmer water life.
Inside, a full life visible and exposed: pots and pans hung from shanty ceilings, hammocks rocked toddlers, clothes draped over balconies and roof tops. Some showed little TVs facing children sitting on fold-out chairs. Others displayed men napping on makeshift beds of palm leaves. Women scrubbed dishes in little wash basins on floors, small children played games on broken plank boards. Dogs barked. Life happened within each little house. We floated by taking note of the light, the shading, and the subject of each picture, waving and exchanging hellos to the children in Khmer and English.
Henri Cartier Bresson said that photography is all about that decisive moment when the photographer must decide within a fraction of a second the significance of an event unfolding. She must see the developing elements of a good picture—that physical moment where image meets poetry (“Decisive Moments” 46). This is what Nathan, our photography teacher, taught us in the two-day travel photography workshop I took while in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city.
Three of us—all strangers—gathered on the first morning at Nathan’s studio for a technical class before our afternoon field trip. We learned how to frame the subject. The principle subject should never be in the center of the frame but on the periphery in one of the thirds of the picture where one of the four imaginary lines intersect. The rules of aperture and shutter speed taught us that if we let more light in through aperture, then we would need a shorter shutter speed and vice versa. Nathan explained that travel photography is more complex because there are so many variables; the photographer has no control and the light rather than the eye is often the guide to the subject. The camera is essentially a light box; it’s all about what the photographer is asking of the light.
On the water, we drifted through the village. I saw a young girl in a green shirt finger paddling toward us in a little aluminum wash basin. She was maybe nine and half swallowed up by her wash basin and floating unrealistically, like a doll in a bathtub bowl. I stared in awe before I realized this was a decisive moment. I looked over at Nathan on his longboat. He was already shooting, adjusting his shutter speed, choosing an angle, asking the light how to expose her.
I pointed my camera. She looked at me. I snapped the picture. Still too far away for my inadequate camera to focus, her image was blurred and clumsily appointed to the right third of the picture. There was nothing else in the frame to make up for the blur. Behind her stood two drab shanties—one boarded up and broken, the other rusted aluminum over dried-up palm. An ancient longboat docked next to the aluminum shanty overflowed with wood for cooking. In front of her, dirty brown water reflected an overcast sky. A horrible picture.
She paddled closer. I pointed and snapped again, my photo owning more detail but not finding the right lines and form. When we passed each other, she in her washbasin, me in my longboat, she was no longer paddling. She floated on the current dragging two fingers through the water looking back at me looking back at her. I snapped again.
Henri Cartier Bresson said, “Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time. We play with the subjects that disappear; and when they’re gone, it’s impossible to bring them back to life. We can’t alter our subject afterward” (“HCB on Photography” 76). This little girl floating down the river reminded me of childhood fantasies. Watching her finger-paddle her way toward me, I saw a miniature me pretending to float in a walnut shell on the gutter stream outside my apartment. When I was a child, my parents’ fighting sent me out into the rain to sit curbside and watch the water carry debris along miniature rivers. I imagined little worlds on rivers. I placed pebbles in walnut shells and dropped them carefully onto the flood and wished myself beyond the gutter stream of my life—to some other chaos than the one I knew. I followed the shell as far as I could or until it fell through the storm drain.
I wondered if the little girl in green ever wished herself somewhere else, if she ever pretended for a minute that the trajectory of her life could be altered. I watched her as she reached the moldy step to her shanty. I snapped another picture. The image was underdeveloped. The light was too poor. She pulled herself up out of the bowl and onto the deck of her floating house. Then she set her bowl against the house to dry and sat on the edge watching us paddle through the rest of her village.
On our drive back to Phnom Penh that day, we asked our tuk tuk driver to stop at a rice paddy so we could take pictures of the planting. Ten workers stood in a perfect diagonal in a foot of water planting rice shoots in ten evenly spaced rows. Each body held a perfectly cut and tied bundle of bright green rice shoots. Each bundle might have held one hundred stalks. Those workers, both men and women, were in a small corner of a small square of hundreds of acres still yet to be planted. I couldn’t imagine how long it would take to plant the rest of the empty fields. It was an image of incalculability.
We took our shoes off and walked out onto the raised divider between paddies. Cameras in hand we waved to the workers. They waved back. Aware of us, they smiled and laughed with each other. Then we started shooting. In various positions we each tried to capture the moment, carefully placing our subject in one of the thirds of the frame. Two of us waded into the muddy water; another stood on the divider. We must have been a spectacle to them.
One woman left the row to get another bundle from the massive pile waiting to be planted. After retrieving it, she stood for a moment shifting its weight in her arms, holding the bundle like a bouquet, her only suitor the scorching sun. Her head tilted up just enough for me to see that she was stunning underneath her wet muddy workers clothes. Under a hot afternoon sun, she wore long sleeves and long pants and a wide-brimmed hat wrapped around her face with a scarf. The small triangle of face left uncovered revealed flawless earth-colored skin, high cheek bones, and a strong nose. Her features were characteristic of American Indian faces so common on reservations like mine back home. She looked like she could have been my sister. I turned my camera to portrait and shot. The only other skin exposed was that of her calloused hands. In a country where skin-whitening cream can be found in locked cabinets in roadside gas stations, her dark skin was just another source of shame. Conscious of the cameras pointed at her, she smiled with embarrassment and tilted her head down.
Bresson says that “the photographer must respect the mood, become integrated into the environment, avoid all the tricks that destroy human truth, and also make the subject of the photo forget the camera and the person using it” (“HCB on Photography 76). If this is true, then I did it all wrong. I had superimposed myself so deeply into the scene, that it was forever altered by my presence. It was almost as if she stopped for a minute purposely to allow us to take her picture. Underneath that exterior of hard labor and a hard life, she was like a Khmer Cinderella. I crouched in the water in front of her so I could get the right angle. I wanted to expose her beauty. I wanted her to believe, like I once did, in a future that couldn’t possibly be true. But she moved too soon, and my shutter speed was too low. I snapped three more times with my exhaustingly slow camera, but the moment was gone.
On the second day of our photography tour, we took a ferry up the Mekong River to Silk Island a few miles outside the chaos of Phnom Penh and far from the Killing Fields. We meandered along dirt roads lost to another era where houses stood atop stilts and cattle grazed on front yards. We stopped along the way to take pictures of a temple or a brightly colored house and children ran out to greet us. Nathan showed us, in each of our pictures, how the angle of the camera can change the way we look at things. He told us not to be afraid to alter our perspective. We squatted on the grass and looked up through our lenses at children in dirty hand-me-down pajamas.
Our first stop was a visit to a family Nathan had been visiting for years. Underneath the house on stilts, two women worked away, one on a silk loom, the other spinning cotton. The loom, like all the others underneath houses on that island, was a wooden contraption the size of a table. It had several broken pieces of board that served as spools for the different colors of thread. Sitting on a stool, the younger woman pushed back and forth the ancient bobbin that brings the cross thread. This beautiful piece of fabric would take her days to create and bring her pennies for her trouble.
The grandmother sat on a platform a few feet away spinning thread onto a spool. She emanated ease and simplicity. She sat on the hard wooden platform, both of her legs to her side, no pillows or mat underneath her. Her hair was gray and shaved close to her head. She wore loose knee-length pants and a light button-down tank, no shoes, no hat, no long shirts to cover her dark skin. Her movements were certain and effortless.
There was a metal bowl full of raw white cotton next to her and another huge bag on the ground near the platform. In front of her was a handmade wooden wheel connected to a spindle. She turned the handle of the wheel with her right hand. In her left, her fingers worked magic as the spindle pulled a seemingly endless string out of the rough wad of cotton she held. I snapped a picture, but it couldn’t possibly express the illusion that I saw.
There were no rooms full of straw to spin into gold and no future of fairies or dreams of different worlds. There was only the magic of her art, the certainty of spinning cotton, and the enchantment of an island known for artisans whose ancient techniques survived even Pol Pot’s genocidal terror.
I put the camera down and tried the cotton. I took a piece from the metal bowl and played with it between my fingers trying to coax out a string. It ripped apart in my hands. The old lady smiled at me. She put her work down and let go of her spindle. She took my hand into hers and placed my fingers around a small wad and pulled. I felt it slipping through my fingers, the fine thread used in textiles all over the world. She held my forefinger and thumb firmly on the cotton so I could gauge the precise amount of pressure needed to turn the cotton into string as it slipped through my fingers. I needed to reach that intersection where the pulling, the pressure, and the letting go would meet. I let her guide me. I didn’t question what she had to conquer. I didn’t wonder if she ever needed to escape. Instead, I sat still on the platform beside her. I closed my mind to the chaos of my own past, relaxed my arms and body, and I tried to find that place of ease she had already entered.
“Decisive Moments.” American Photo. September v.8, issue 5, 1997: 47
“HCB on Photography.” American Photo. September v.8, issue 5, 1997: 76.
Copyright Stevens 2012