There is nothing special in this exhibit; nothing special about the kids in the photos. There is nothing particularly special about me, or the equipment I used. The pictures, the kids, the camera, the photographer; all are pretty normal. For the kids, that can be unfortunate.
The idea for this exhibit came after I read a BBC story highlighting the plight of Cambodian kids working in the salt fields near Kampot. That story focused on a global report by the International Labour Organization, which singled out a job in the salt fields as one of the “worst forms of child labour.”
After reading the article, I began to think of all the kids I’d seen working in Cambodia over the years. There were a lot. Compared with the developed world’s ideas of what a kid is expected to do (go to school, play, do some household chores), Cambodian kids are at work everywhere, all the time.
I began taking photos of all the working kids I came across while doing other projects and working on other stories in Cambodia. On a couple of occasions when I had free time, I’d hire a moto dop and drive around at random, taking photos of the working kids I came across. Only twice did I go out in search of kids working in a particular job; in the Kampot salt fields and at the Steung Meanchey dump. And there, they were all too easy to find. In the end, I ended up with dozens of portraits.
The Cambodia Child Labour Survey of 2001, put together by the Cambodian National Institute of Statistics, reports that roughly half of Cambodian children “work”, using the definition set out by the ILO. I would guess that figure is pretty low when judged by the ideas and ideals of the developed world. Often, Cambodian kids’ labour is imperative for their survival and the survival of their families. In rural areas, kids are expected to work beside their parents on farms. In cities, they are sent out to sell flowers, drinks or shine shoes for extra money. Everywhere, children are expected to take care of their younger siblings and take up difficult family chores as soon as they are able, work that is usually reserved for parents or servants in the developed world. In Cambodia, kids work everywhere and form a significant — if underreported — part of the economy.
So, in a way, this exhibit is a small view of the underpinnings of Cambodia’s economy.
I spoke with all of the children photographed, either in my terrible Khmer or through a Cambodian friend working as translator. I explained who I was and what I was trying to do. If a kid didn’t want to have his or her photo taken, I didn’t take it. If it seemed he or she didn’t want a photo taken but said “Yes” anyway, I didn’t take it. All of the kids here understood, though many said that their work wasn’t really work. It was “tuamada.” It was normal. For most of the photos I didn’t even ask the kids to move – what you see is how they chose to show themselves.