Generation Emigration

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad

A blend of joy, adventure and unimaginable tragedy

Photojournalist Lauren Crothers spends her days photographing Cambodian politicians and survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, and hanging out at Angkor Wat at weekends; it’s a far cry from scraping a few sub-editing shifts together every week in Dublin, she writes.

Mon, Nov 7, 2011, 11:45

   

Lauren at the Elephant Terrace, Angkor Thom

Photojournalist Lauren Crothers spends her days photographing Cambodian politicians and survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, and hanging out at Angkor Wat at weekends; it’s a far cry from scraping a few sub-editing shifts together every week in Dublin, she writes.

When I wake up it’s blisteringly sunny. Factor 30 and a krama (a Cambodian scarf) have replaced socks, converse and a warm jacket as my daily pre-departure essentials. I hop on the back of a moto, usually with a camera or two slung around my neck, and get to work in 10 minutes for $1. I never know what my day will bring. One day I could be out interviewing a murder victim’s family; the next, I’ll be knee-deep in floodwaters photographing struggling communities. My life as I know it now seems completely normal to me, but it is so far removed from the one I was leading two years ago in Ireland.

I was born in Hong Kong to an Irish mother and Australian father and lived there until I was 11, at which time my parents split and Mum took us to Dublin. Over time I grew to love it, but always had a niggling feeling my life would ‘happen’ for me somewhere else.

After I got a Philosophy degree from Trinity I moved straight back to Hong Kong and began my career as a journalist at The South China Morning Post. After three years there, I moved back to Dublin and subbed for a few papers while completing a Masters. The two years I was back in Dublin were fun; it was nice to be around my family and friends again, but the crisis hit and things got difficult. Papers were cutting back and I was only pulling in a few shifts a week, which meant having to stand in the dole queue across from the very place where I’d received my Masters. I had started my career as a reporter, which segued into photography, but it just was not happening for me in Dublin.

An opportunity arose to work for The Toronto Star for a year and I pounced; this time, I was leaving a boyfriend, as well as my family and friends, all over again. I had a feeling this would be it and whatever would happen beyond Canada would not include a life back in Ireland.

S-21 survivor Bou Meng at the Killing Fields. Photo by Lauren Crothers

When my contract was up, I moved to Phnom Penh for a job at The Cambodia Daily. I was half terrified, half exhilarated at the idea of moving back to Asia, but to a country I had never been to. I have never once regretted the decision. It’s hard to do Cambodia justice in such a few words. The 13 months I’ve been here have been a veritable blend of absolute joy and adventure, but there have been moments of unimaginable tragedy. About one year ago, for example, about 300 people died in a stampede in Phnom Penh during the annual Water Festival. The next day, I was picking my way around 100 bodies laid out in a makeshift morgue. It was the kind of experience I could never have imagined; my emotions were teetering on a knife-edge, but I had a job to do. I found myself really struggling to balance my instinctual reaction to the situation with the need to portray it as honestly and sensitively as I could, but I managed, and it was one of the defining days of my life as a person and as a photographer.

The photojournalism opportunities exploded for me once I arrived. There are some incredibly interesting stories to be told here with a camera as much as with a pen and notepad. I have had the opportunity to photograph prime ministers and survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, while others have invited me into their homes. My Khmer is by no means perfect; I get around with basic pleasantries, hand gestures and English. I am very grateful that people allow me to shoot them. I want my subjects to trust me, and that can be hard to establish in a difficult situation. When I was at the morgue, I saw a man who had opened his button-down shirt to shield his daughter’s face from the sun. She was about 14 and was laid out in a clear body bag. I knew I could make a good picture but I didn’t want to rob him of such a deeply personal, traumatic moment. He noticed me and I gestured with my camera; he nodded and I made the picture. Afterward, he came over and cried into my shoulder and we hugged. Photographers have a duty to document an event, but I think it’s so important not to become too desensitised. Having a connection with your subject, no matter how fleeting, makes for better pictures.

Young boy in a village in Kompong Speu province during a campaign to provide the poor with mosquito nets. Photo by Lauren Crothers

Young boy in a village in Kompong Speu province during a campaign to provide the poor with mosquito nets. Photo by Lauren Crothers

I need to stress that my time here has been overwhelmingly positive; I can clamber around the temples of Angkor at the weekend or lie on a lounger on the Gulf of Thailand. I’m privileged to work with local reporters, see how they operate and get a story, and hear their own stories too. Everyone in Cambodia has a story…some of them are utterly unfathomable. I’d come to Cambodia with a fairly rudimentary knowledge of what had happened here only 30 years ago. Being here and hearing firsthand accounts of what colleagues and friends went through has been a humbling and sobering experience.

I could never have imagined finding such fulfillment, both personally and in my career, as in Cambodia. If you’d have told me as a teenager during the Celtic Tiger years that this would be where I’d end up, I would have laughed. Now, approaching 30, I feel a sense of achievement, but I also feel sad knowing that, in the pit of my stomach, Ireland is just not where I should be. I miss my family and friends dearly, but I think in a way it was always meant to be like this. My mother had met my father when she was in her 20s and moved to Hong Kong to be with him. She understands the emigrant experience; it’s nice to share anecdotes with her.

Bent steel column after a billboard collapsed in Phnom Penh. Photo by Lauren Crothers

I can’t see myself falling out of love with Cambodia, but I will know when it’s time to move on. That’s how my life has been for the past eight years – and they are good years to look back on, with no regrets so far. I think many emigrants want to see change – to see the public’s needs being heard and responded to. The instigators of the country’s financial crisis never had to leave their loved ones to find work. With ballotbox.ie, I voted in the General Election from Toronto and in the Presidential election from Phnom Penh. Neither of those votes existed in reality. I’d like to think in the future, my opinion – from wherever I am – would count, along with those of other emigrants.

Despite being ‘from’ Hong Kong and having dual citizenship, I have and always will retain my Irishness. I don’t think it’s something that dissipates just because you move away.

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