Tracey Shelton: The Post shaped who I became as a journalist and as a person

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Tracey Shelton (right) started at The Post in 2005 as a young, wannabe photojournalist. She later became an editor, covering stories right across the country. The most memorable trip was to Preah Vihear to cover the long-running stalemate between Thai and Khmer soldiers, which had erupted into fighting over the world-famous temple. SUPPLIED

I was a young, wannabe photojournalist when I walked into The Phnom Penh Post office in 2005. My portfolio consisted of photos from my Dad’s farm back in Australia, portraits from a studio I’d briefly worked in and random pictures from across the globe from several years as a cruise ship photographer.

Still, it was enough to score me my first freelance photography assignments – breakdancing street kids and a “magic” turtle that had wandered into a pagoda – and eventually a job in the newsroom.

My dream was to make a difference in the world, and I saw journalism as my chance to use my skills to expose what was wrong, fight prejudice and misunderstanding and celebrate diversity.

Cambodia was already my second home. I had volunteered there when I was even younger and more naive. This time around, I hoped I was returning with something more to offer.

Back then, the newsroom was a cluttered labyrinth in the home of founder and managing editor Micheal Hayes. I’ll admit, at first, his gruff exterior made me nervous, but over my years at The Post and beyond I came to admire him greatly as a friend and as one of Cambodia’s most dedicated and ground-breaking media icons.

Within weeks, I was not only taking photos, but I had already begun to write my own stories with the encouragement and teaching of editor Charles McDermid, followed by Susan Postlewaite and Seth Meixner. I eventually became an editor myself, leading the best team of photographers in town (I may, however, be slightly bias on that topic!).

In addition to my wonderful photographers, I had the privilege of working with some awesome foreign reporters. Many have remained my friends to this day, but my biggest inspirations were my first Khmer colleagues who taught me what real journalism was all about.

My own interview techniques grew from watching Sam Rith, whose manner put everyone at ease. Survivors would open up with personal stories, while others, unaware they were in the hot seat, would be caught off guard with tough questions that would often elicit telling answers.

Vong Sokheng had incredible networking skills, and I especially loved working in the field with Cheang Sokha. We covered stories together right across the country, but the most memorable trip was to Preah Vihear on the remote northern border with Thailand.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Tracey Shelton (centre) with the late Cheang Sokha (left) and Sam Rith, who has continued to stay with The Post and now serves as its Managing Editor. A respected veteran journalist, Sokha was taken from his young family by a sudden illness. SUPPLIED

A long-running stalemate between Thai and Khmer soldiers had erupted into fighting and within minutes of receiving the news, Sokha had secured us a ride with AP photographer Heng Sinith. But we had to leave immediately, directly from the office.

I was dressed in heels and office attire and I only had one battery for my camera and no charger, but the guys insisted there was no time to stop by my house. I was not impressed when we stopped past Sokha’s house – which was apparently on the way – to get him supplies.

We drove through the night and slept on hammocks we found under a tree at the base of the mountain before making our way up to catch my first glimpse of the breathtaking, fog-covered Preah Vihear temple at sunrise.

Despite having completely inappropriate attire for a tropical jungle front line – and having to be extremely selective when it came to using my lone camera battery – I was in my element as both a reporter and a photographer.

As the monsoon rains fell and the mud clogged around my broken heels, I didn’t complain once until some days into the trip when the guys came back freshly showered with clean clothes and invited me to join them for a beer. My usual extreme tolerance for these situations cracked and I demanded to know where they’d found a shower when I hadn’t even cleaned my teeth in four days!

My uncharacteristic tantrum must have caught them off guard as I was soon showered with gifts – a bottle of baby shampoo, a hand towel and, from Sinith, a fresh shirt – white of course.

Among the wonderful memories were many valuable lessons and many firsts; my front-page photo, my first investigative report, my first close call – during a riot, a young protester pulled me from the path of an incoming burning plank of wood before muttering, “sorry ma’am”, raising a fist and running back into the crowd.

Career builder

These experiences formed the foundation of my career and after almost five wonderful years at The Post, I moved on to become a foreign correspondent covering war and human rights abuses in the Middle East.

I have returned to Cambodia to visit my second home and my second family every year since and never miss the chance to catch up with the guys and reminisce about those wonderful memories.

But this year, amid Covid-19 travel bans that prevented me from being there in person, we were devastated by the loss of our beloved friend Sokha, who was taken from his young family by a sudden illness.

While we all miss him dearly, he will always live on in our hearts, in our stories and through the many reporters he taught and inspired, like me.

The experience I gained and the people I met during my years at The Post shaped not only who I became as a journalist but also as a person.

As a young journalist staring at the photographs that adorned the walls from war correspondent greats, revelling in the occasional chance to pick the brains of Tim Page or Al Rockoff over a beer, I never would have imagined I’d go on to write history myself.

I was there on the front lines when Muamar Gaddafi was captured and told the world of his death in Libya. I had the privilege of documenting the resilience and pain of families and fighters caught up in Syria’s war. I was there at the most holy site of the Yazidi faith in Iraq when the Islamic State overran their villages – kidnapping, killing and devastating an entire community.

Still, some of my proudest achievements and fondest memories come from the years I spent at The Post.