MY PHNOM PENH: Kim Hak, Photographer
Kim Hak, 35, is a photographer whose work has been featured at art and photography festivals around the world, including in France and Myanmar. Hak’s photography targets a range of subjects, but his favourite area of focus is in documenting the architecture and landscape of his homeland. This week, he sat down with Rinith Taing to discuss the places in Phnom Penh that catch his eye and help to bring the capital into focus.
Cambodia’s Post Office is not only a place for postal services but also a historical site. Long before it became a city, Phnom Penh was just clusters of small houses along a river. When it was modernised by the French colonial administration in the late 1800s, the Post Office was the first Western-style building to be erected in Phnom Penh, around which the modern structure of Phnom Penh would be developed. Since its creation in 1890, it has been in continual operation except during the era of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979). Located near Wat Phnom and surrounded by other examples of colonial architecture, the Post Office is a great place to take snapshots of Cambodia’s French colonial legacy and the history of Phnom Penh.
Central Market (Psar Thmei)
Central Market is another legacy of French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh. Constructed in 1937, at that time it was said to be the largest market in Asia. However, for me, it is much more than just a market. Central Market is the evidence of the historical transformation of Phnom Penh. Before, the area was just a lake used for absorbing excess water in rainy season, but now it is an important landmark and identity of the city. From above, the structure of the market looks like a fan blade, with four wings stretching into four main directions and a high-ceiling dome in the middle. Designed by French architect Louis Chauchon and built by Cambodian workers, Central Market’s stunning internal structure is one of my favourites in Cambodia, but I love taking pictures of it with people there buying and selling goods – [images] that depict meaningful relationships, especially those between modern people and the colonial era.
National Olympic Stadium
Renowned architect Vann Molyvann designed many landmarks in Cambodia, yet I find the National Olympic Stadium his most notable, especially for the earthworks. He used 500,000 cubic metres of soil to shape the grounds, which are big enough for 70,000 people. When I was still a student at Bak Touk High School, I usually spent my day here, swimming in the pool, jogging and playing basketball, yet at that time, I had not realised that the multipurpose stadium had been used as an execution site during the Khmer Rouge era, where officials from the Khmer Republic (1970-1975) were killed. The stadium can help me produce the images filled with various aspects of Cambodia’s modern architecture and history both joys and tragedies.
People call the White Building a slum, but I think it is inappropriate, because when the apartment building on Sothearos Blvd was built in 1963, it was known as the symbol of modernism in Cambodia, and before the genocide, its tenants were mainly moderate-income artists. The construction was even overseen by Vann Molyvann. From the outside, it looks like an ageing building, but most of the apartments inside are clean and tidy. People who live there now make their living decently, just like many other Phnom Penh residents, and they call the building their home. Their lives could be a very good topic for photographing.
Where I work is a small apartment in an old apartment building on Norodom Boulevard. I first noticed the building when I stopped at the red light on Norodom, and I was suddenly curious about its history. After doing some research, I found that the apartment building, which is now occupied by Cambodian and Vietnamese residents, used to be a maternity hospital in the Sangkum Era (1955-1970). In 2012, I was informed that a resident wanted to sell his apartment, so I bought it and turned it into my studio. As a single artist in crowded Phnom Penh, I find the place spacious enough for both working and living. I decorate it with my collection of artwork, which in turn inspires my own work, but the significant inspiration comes from the people and things happening on the street, which I see through the four glass windows.