2013 has been certainly been an interesting and busy year for me.
I started an amazing adventure called RUOM Collective together with my friend Nicolas Axelrod, my pictures were published in some of the most influential newspapers and magazines (The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, etc) and I was able to create several interesting photo projects.
I started the year with a project called Blood Sugar – our collective inaugural project – which is an in-depth piece on the boom of the sugar industry in Cambodia, and the effects this rapid development is having on small-scale farmers and rural communities. We spent several months in 2013 travelling to different areas of Cambodia, investigating and interacting with agro-industry leaders, the affected villagers, and the organizations that are trying to help them
I then visited Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), where I was lucky enough to witness one of the most important Hindu festival in Malaysia, the Thaipusam, in which more than 1.6 million Tamils gathered in the Batu Caves on the outskirts of city to pay homage to Lord Muruga.
Back again to Cambodia, I covered the funerals of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who passed away in October 2012. Following tradition and with respect for an auspicious funeral date the cremation ceremony began on the 1 February 2013. An elaborate procession attended by officials, that displayed various aspects of Khmer culture travelled the streets of the capital. People from all over the city came to watch the procession that took the late King Father from the Royal Palace to the Veal Meru Crematorium site. The actual cremation started three days later and was attended by local and international dignitaries. Nearly one year later a 1.2 million dollars bronze statue is inaugurated in honour of what many saw as the last true Cambodian King.
This is one of the most interesting stories I followed this year. The training of Cambodia’s first batch of salvage divers who will start to recover the thousands of tons of unexploded artillery shells and bullets that lie at the bottom of the country’s lakes and rivers.
Finally, great news for all human rights defenders in Cambodia. Cambodian activist and independent radio station owner, Mam Sonando, was released from jail after his 20-year sentence was suspended by the Phnom Penh court yesterday (he spent a total of eight months in preventive custody).
In April German magazine Nido (Stern Group), commissioned a reportage about the increasing (and alarming) number of tourists visiting orphanages in Cambodia.
Since the days of the genocidal Khmer Rouge Regime and the following civil war, which ended in the early 90′s, the number of orphans steadily decrease. The number of orphanages, however, kept increasing, and the majority of children living in orphanages – more than 70 percent – has at least one remaining parent.
Due to the generosity of tourists who want to help the still impoverished nation and the most vulnerable Cambodians, orphanages have become a lucrative, multimillion-dollar business model, and tourists are tricked into believing that they are helping real orphans.
In April I also received my first two assignments (plus a third one covering a breaking news) for The New York Times and I couldn’t believe when I saw one of my pictures on the frontpage of The International Herald Tribune, a dream come true!
Inside the 969 Movement
For our second collaborative work for Ruom, Inside the 969 Movement we flew to Myanmar to work on an in-depth piece on the inner workings and consequences of the growing Buddhist-lead anti-Muslim movement.
After the experience in Myanmar, I came back to Cambodia, just in time to cover the campaign for the national elections with the return of the opposition leader, Sam Rainsy.
Don Sahong fishermen
After almost two months following the elections and the first wave of protests in response to allegd voting irregularities and fraud, I travelled to south of Laos to document the life of the fishermen whose livelihood is threatened by the construction of the Don Sahong Dam. Environmentalists say that this new dam will put at risk the ecological integrity of the Lower Mekong as a whole. In particular, it will have a severe impact on the endangered giant catfish, other fish species — some of them unique to the Mekong — and the Irrwaddy dolphin, which has found a natural habitat just two kilometers from the dam and is already critically endangered.
My reportage, together with the amazing work of Thai photographer Piyavit Thongsa-Ard, could be the last documenting the way of life of these people.
Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy started a planned three-day protest with a march through the streets of Phnom Penh together with thousands of supporters to contest the election results.
Unfortunately, an altercation between angry commuters trying to get home past road blocks degenerated in to chaos, protestors threw projectiles at riot police who responded with tear gas and live rounds. One protestor was shot dead, and people were injured, the fighting lasted well into the night, with the last reported outbreak around 1.30 am.
Thousands of Cambodians descended on the small village of Vihear Suor (Kandal Province) on October 4 to cheer on the annual water buffalo race that marks the end of the 15-day festival for the dead (Pchum Ben), the most important Cambodian religious event.
The race, that has very ancient roots, is organised for the entertainment of the spirits who have come to Earth during the Pchum Ben and is also be followed by wrestling and khmer boxe matches.
On Sunday, 3 November 2013, I followed a very interesting story together with fellow Ruom writer and photographer Luc Forsyth, as a group of over 40 Buddhist monks walked more than 25km through the jungle to the remote village of Pra Lay, Cambodia, to raise awareness of the environmental destruction occurring across their country. Situated in the Areng Valley in the Cardamom mountains, the village of Pra Lay is one of 8 villages, collectively home to roughly 1500 inhabitants, which will be flooded by a dam proposed by the Chinese development company China Guodian.
Political environment in Cambodia has changed after July’s elections and the country is experimenting a new wave (and more powerful) rejection against the ruling party. Is the case of the workers from SL factory, which makes clothing for Gap, H&M and other international brands, who have been protesting for months for better working conditions and pay.
UNDP’s Millennium Development Goals
At the end of October together with Nicolas, we received an assignment from UNDP Cambodia to illustrate the status of the (MDG) – Millennium Development Goals – in the country. It was a very long and interesting project that kept us busy for almost one month and that allowed us to visit some of the most interesting areas of the country.