Leaving Cambodia: How do I do right by the place I called home?

Irish photojournalist Lauren Crothers on the conflicting emotions she is left with after seven years in Cambodia

Lauren Crothers: 'For me, Cambodia was not a difficult place to love.' Photograph: Tom Dallow

Lauren Crothers: 'For me, Cambodia was not a difficult place to love.' Photograph: Tom Dallow

 

When I last wrote for Generation Emigration in The Irish Times in 2011, I had been in Cambodia for just over a year. I was happily ensconced at a local English-language newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, a scrappy enterprise founded in 1993 with a vow to tell “All The News, Without Fear or Favour”.

Hired by the paper’s Irish then-editor-in-chief, Kevin Doyle, I started off editing and soon progressed to chasing stories and taking photographs of my own. I was deeply in awe of my Cambodian colleagues, whose skills at being able to get scoops by sidling up to high-ranking members of government at swimming pools, for instance, reminded me again and again of the kind of stuff that truly great reporters are made of.

People waiting to hear updates about friends and loved ones at the gates of Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh on November 22nd, 2010, after a stampede at the annual Water Festival crushed more than 350 people to death and injured hundreds more. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
People waiting to hear updates about friends and loved ones at the gates of Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh on November 22nd, 2010, after a stampede at the annual Water Festival crushed more than 350 people to death and injured hundreds more. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
A drag performer taking a break backstage at the Blue Chilli bar in Phnom Penh during Pride Week in May 2016. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
A drag performer taking a break backstage at the Blue Chilli bar in Phnom Penh during Pride Week in May 2016. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
A garment worker catches a moment of shut-eye on the way home in an open-topped truck in Kompong Speu province in September 2014. Back then the monthly wage was $100, with workers risking a perilous journey to factories to produce clothes for big brands such as Gap and H&M. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
A garment worker catches a moment of shut-eye on the way home in an open-topped truck in Kompong Speu province in September 2014. Back then the monthly wage was $100, with workers risking a perilous journey to factories to produce clothes for big brands such as Gap and H&M. Photograph: Lauren Crothers

Professional challenges

I could never have known at the time that Cambodia would end up hosting me for a total of seven years – four of them at the Daily and another three as a freelancer – and that it would take me that long to be able to tear myself away from the place in search of new professional challenges on a different shore.

For me, Cambodia was not a difficult place to love. I was all in, hook, line and sinker, within a few days. But over the years I found that love tested repeatedly as I saw people have their homes torn down, or beaten at a protest, or told that the country would fall apart unless the ruling party was re-elected.

A deminer with the Mines Advisory Group worked in a minefiled in Battambang province in November 2016. Cambodia remains one of the most mine- and UXO-contaminated countries in the world. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
A deminer with the Mines Advisory Group worked in a minefiled in Battambang province in November 2016. Cambodia remains one of the most mine- and UXO-contaminated countries in the world. Photograph: Lauren Crothers

If that is exhausting for a foreign journalist, I still to this day cannot imagine what it is like for Cambodians, who have been working on these issues far longer than I ever did, and who will continue to, for many years to come. I spoke to some Cambodians about this before my departure in July. There’s resilence, of course, but it is accompanied by weariness, too.

Supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party listen as Prime Minister Hun Sen makes a campaign speech ahead of the commune elections in Phnom Penh in June 2017. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
Supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party listen as Prime Minister Hun Sen makes a campaign speech ahead of the commune elections in Phnom Penh in June 2017. Photograph: Lauren Crothers

The country is now entering the latest in a long line of cyclical phases. With national elections looming next year, the government has shaken off any pretence that its citizens are entitled to participate in elections without fear of intimidation.

When I left, I could never have imagined how sharply things would deteriorate, but the past few months have been particularly sobering.

Monks checking their phones after a prayer ceremony during which the ashes of late King Norodom Sihanouk were interred in July 2014 at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
Monks checking their phones after a prayer ceremony during which the ashes of late King Norodom Sihanouk were interred in July 2014 at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
Participants in the annual Water Festival bathed after the final boat race in November 2016. Photoraph: Lauren Crothers
Participants in the annual Water Festival bathed after the final boat race in November 2016. Photoraph: Lauren Crothers

Shut down

Faced with a tax bill that management said was pulled out of thin air and designed to kill it off, The Cambodia Daily – the big-hearted little paper that drew me to Phnom Penh in the first place – was forced to close down in September. That same weekend, the leader of the opposition party was arrested and carted off to a remote border prison. He was later charged with treason, and the government is making moves to dissolve the party altogether. Dozens of radio stations have been shut down.

Watching from afar as my old colleagues spent every waking moment holding true to the paper’s motto as they lovingly put it to bed one last time, was at once difficult and inspiring. The shuttering of any independent media outlet is deeply worrying.

A woman waits for a ferry to take her across the Tonle Sap river in March 2017. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
A woman waits for a ferry to take her across the Tonle Sap river in March 2017. Photograph: Lauren Crothers

There are still so many wonderful things about Cambodia that will sustain my love for it – the growling sky before a rainy season downpour; the sound of a Tokay gecko piercing the quiet of a night thick with humidity; the people.

But democratic spaces are shrinking, people I saw being turfed out of their homes are still without proper roofs over their heads, and a significant number of people with dissenting opinions remain in prison.

For a few, their activism cost them their lives. My old paper no longer exists; my colleagues are without jobs. I had the privilege of being able to leave it all. The question now is how I do right by the place I called home for so long.

A construction worker heads back to his shipping container room after catching dinner in the Mekong river in April 2017. It’s not uncommon for labourers to live onsite, but conditions are poor and overcrowded. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
A construction worker heads back to his shipping container room after catching dinner in the Mekong river in April 2017. It’s not uncommon for labourers to live onsite, but conditions are poor and overcrowded. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
An opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party supporter takes a cigarette break during the campaign rally ahead of the commune elections in Phnom Penh in May 2017. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
An opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party supporter takes a cigarette break during the campaign rally ahead of the commune elections in Phnom Penh in May 2017. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
Garment workers stage a peaceful protest on May Day in 2017, calling for better wages, secure contracts and improved safety standards. Photograph: Lauren Crothers
Garment workers stage a peaceful protest on May Day in 2017, calling for better wages, secure contracts and improved safety standards. Photograph: Lauren Crothers

An outsider

When I last wrote for this sectionfor The Irish Times back in 2011, my emigration experience was about me.I think that’s natural, particularly when you’re caught up in the excitement and newness of it all. There’s no doubt that the experience of living and working there was utterly enriching, and I believe I learned to be a better journalist and more empathetic human. But I was always a visitor, an outsider looking in. None of it was really ever about me.

It is my hope that by sharing some of my photographic work here, I can do my part to keep amplifying issues that continue to affect a place I love, but one that I was ultimately able to leave behind. Many others are not as fortunate.

Follow Lauren Crothers on instagram.com/laurencrotwitter.com/laurencro or on her website, laurencrothers.com.

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