In the dynamic city of Phnom Penh, the 14th edition of the Photo Phnom Penh Festival (PPP) will unfold its cultural celebration from December 7 to February 7, 2024. 

Evolving from its 2008 debut as a platform for emerging photographers, the festival has grown into a globally recognised event, fostering cross-cultural connections between Asia and Europe and playing a vital role in promoting the expansive realm of photography. 

“We are thrilled to return to this historically rich site, which has been the festival’s home since its inception,” says Christian Caujolle, the art director of PPP and a distinguished figure in the photography community. 

Caujolle observes that the PPP has catalyzed a transformation within the local photography scene. Finding even four Cambodian photographers skilled enough to exhibit was a considerable challenge back in 2008.

The establishment of photography education initiatives such as Studio Images, initially at the French Cultural Centre and now under the auspices of the French Institute, has played a substantial role in cultivating budding talents for the festival.

Despite these endeavours, the country grapples with a lack of comprehensive photography education, highlighting an ongoing demand for a dedicated photography school. 

“For our tenth edition, we had the opportunity to exhibit on the walls of the French embassy, one of the festival’s most stunning venues. We showcased works from 10 Cambodian photographers and organised a slide show featuring 25 Cambodian photographers,” Caujolle tells The Post.

Origins and vision

The festival’s origins can be traced to the collaborative efforts of Alain Arnaudet, the former director of the French Cultural Centre (now known as the French Institute of Cambodia), and Christian Caujolle, a prominent figure in the realm of photography.

The fundamental concept behind the event was both straightforward and impactful: to establish a forum fostering cultural exchange between Europe and Asia while nurturing artistic talent in the Kingdom.

Having previously conducted photography workshops in Cambodia during the late nineties, Caujolle assumed the role of art director for the festival. The primary objective was to provide local photographers with access to the international photographic community, encouraging them to develop their distinct artistic identities. 

“The festival’s main idea is to enable the public to discover photographic works, serving an educational purpose, and to inspire those who wish to express themselves through photography,” Caujolle explains.

Over the years, the festival has maintained its core vision: to acquaint the public with a diverse array of photographic works, offer educational opportunities and encourage expression through photography.

As the festival has progressed, its scope has expanded, encompassing outdoor exhibitions, inventive projection displays and welcoming participants from various countries. A notable aspect of PPP is its alternating focus on European and Asian countries. This approach ensures that attendees engage with the contemporary photography scenes of diverse cultures, often delving into those that are less known and underexplored. 

“Since last year, we have welcomed international guests, with 10 artists from Switzerland in 2022 and five artists from Taiwan this year, alternating between a European and an Asian country each year,” Caujolle shares.

International partnerships

The festival’s growth and diversity owe a great deal to its international partners, such as the French Institute and the Delegation of the EU. 

“Without these institutions, the festival would be impossible. They assist in bringing artists from their countries, but they do not influence the programming decisions,” Caujolle asserts. 

The guest country selection process is intentional, alternating between European and Asian origins to feature artists from these nations. This approach allows the festival to offer attendees an array of photography from various cultures. Moreover, the guest countries actively contribute to producing the exhibition, playing a vital role in the festival’s success. PPP aims to include countries that might lack the financial resources or political support to participate independently, promoting inclusivity and cultural exchange. 

“For instance, with Taiwan this year, we feature five photographers and a projection of 20 on the festival’s opening night, offering a glimpse into the photography scene in Taiwan,” Caujolle mentions.

Caujolle states the importance of financial support for such participation, especially for countries that may be unable or unwilling to contribute. 

“We need monetary support for this. We are considering partnerships for invited countries, with nations like Burma or Vietnam in mind,” he explains.

The art director advocates for the power of diversity in photography, evident in its aesthetics, history and representation of cultures. He sees the inclusion of works by artists from diverse fields as a means to broaden minds and vision, providing increased freedom for individuals to express themselves.

Another photo to be exhibited during the upcoming Photo Phnom Penh Festival (PPP). Photo supplied

Cambodian and Int’l artists 

At the French Institute, Kim Hak’s work serves as a reminder that Cambodia extends beyond Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields. Born in Battambang two years after the regime’s fall, his upbringing was immersed in his parents’ memories of that era. Initially in the travel industry, he shifted to photography in 2012, capturing landscapes, including the Mekong, Tonle Sap Lake and coastal provinces. Exhibiting globally, Hak’s work has featured in art festivals and prominent publications.

Young artist Hul Kanha presents a series blending photography and painting, exploring self-portraiture with diverse mediums. Born in 1999 in Siem Reap, her work draws from traditional proverbs and personal experiences, delving into the interplay between the physical body, nostalgia and trauma.

Born in 1993 in Takmao town of Kandal province, Chhen Kimhong transitioned from IT networking to photography in 2019. His series on Phnom Penh’s bus stops, shot at night, portrays them as luminous sculptures. Despite the pandemic, he documented their evolving state, reflecting urban elements with a graphic background.

Local artists Baty Morokot, Nhean Lyda, Khiev Kanel and Hou Sokratana explore themes from daily life to environmental concerns. International photographers like Chao-Tang Chang, Shen Chao-Liang, Lee Ya-Yen, Chen Chun-Lu, Yang Shun-Fa (Taiwan), Denis Dailleux (France) and Alan Crumlish (Scotland) contribute diverse subjects, including rural life, folk culture, climate change and cultural recovery.

These artists, each with individual styles and thematic focuses, bring awards and international recognition to PPP. Their participation underscores the event’s commitment to showcasing diverse photographic talents and perspectives globally. The Bophana Center hosts Alan Crumlish’s 1989 photographs, providing a poignant glimpse into Cambodia’s history post the Khmer Rouge regime.

Embracing the digital age

In the swiftly changing world, connecting with younger audiences is vital for the Festival’s success. Organisers leverage social media and local press in Khmer, English and French to engage with young Cambodians. PPP draws students, academics, artists, communication specialists and culture enthusiasts, offering an inclusive space for those with a keen interest in exploring art, regardless of formal education access. 

“We are also initiating numerous activities like the photo competition, ‘Photo is your memory,’ where artists can converse and share their experiences,” says Caujolle. 

Such initiatives are instrumental in fostering a deeper connection between the artists and the community.

“A highlight not to be missed is our ‘travelling exhibition,’ which will move around the city for two months. This is made possible through a longstanding collaboration with a group of remorque drivers. In the back of their ‘trailers,’ they carry artworks, making them accessible to all and offering an extraordinary artistic and urban escapade,” Caujolle tells The Post. 

This aspect of the festival not only brings art closer to the public but also adds a dynamic, mobile element to the artistic experience in Phnom Penh.

Future Aspirations

As the festival celebrates its 14th edition, it maintains its founding principles of cultural exchange and artistic growth. The festival is keen on continuing to build collaborations between Asia and Europe and harbours aspirations to include artists from South and North America in future editions.

“The festival is committed to maintaining its educational focus and to promoting new generations of Cambodian photographers,” affirms Caujolle. 

He also has a strong desire to continue inviting countries to participate and to expand the scope of outdoor exhibitions. Such expansions not only enhance the festival’s reach but also diversify the experiences it offers to attendees. He shares the aspiration to increase the festival’s activities in the provinces, spreading its influence and benefits beyond the capital city.

Caujolle says he has ambitions to establish a permanent home for photography in Phnom Penh. This dream, if realised, would create a lasting foundation for the photographic arts in Cambodia, further enriching the cultural landscape of the city and providing a continual platform for photographers to showcase their work and hone their craft.