What is the story of a marginalised group in Cambodia, still reeling from the after-effect of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and suspicious of the dealings of “mainstream society”? Perhaps one photographer’s work will give a voice to these people.
Pein Cheong Lee’s minorities:Report “Cambodia”, a photographic exhibition, comprises a series of 34 black and white photographs of the Cham people shot in different locations – Phnom Penh, Kampot Province and Kep – in Cambodia during his time spent there with Malaysian non-profit organisation Hospitals Beyond Boundaries (HBB).
The Cham community in Cambodia is a minority group and make up a large percentage of the Muslim population of Cambodia. With the help of HBB, Lee has been documenting the works that the NGO is doing with the Cham people, building medical facilities and providing medical assistance for them. The exhibition works are a snapshot of his photographic documentation of the work and the Cham people he has met on his four visits to the country between February and May this year.
“During the Khmer Rouge regime, many of them (the Cham) were killed. But now there is a resurgence of sorts, for instance, of local ethnic Cham doctors, so things have come full circle. It will be interesting to see how they will develop, as a community and as a country, in parallel with the rest of South-East Asia,” says Lee, who says his work in Cambodia is an on-going project.
This exhibition at Run Amok Gallery marks the first chapter of the greater minority:Report project. Currently, Lee is also looking at the Rohingya (refugee) issue, and Kuala Lumpur as a migrant centre. He was part of two groups in Kuala Lumpur in 2014 and 2015.
“It is an exciting time to be working in the region given the rate of change in the geo-political context,” he says.
From a Malaysian context, Lee, 39, hopes that through this body of work in this exhibition in Penang, the local audience will recognise that we are part of a greater community within the region.
“We are linked by culture, religion and history. There are ethnic Cham descendants living in Malaysia, so there is a historical connection and a protolinguistic link; they speak a very similar language to Malay. We are not all that different from each other, so we should recognise that we do not exist in a bubble,” he shares.
The exhibition is also an examination of the “universality of the human experience” and relativity.
“A majority in one place may well be the minority elsewhere,” he says.
Like it or not, circumstances often end up dictating fate. Where you are born, and when, steers much of what life offers you.
It is a strange thing sometimes that you find a sense of belonging in travels away from home. For Lee, it was through very different eyes that he saw Malaysia when he returned in 2007 after being abroad for almost two decades during his formative years.
“It was severe culture shock. I was not prepared for the Malaysia then, not prepared for the political and socio-cultural extremes that we are now exposed to,” he says, choosing his words carefully.
Lee left for Australia when he was 12, then in later years, ended up in London working as an architectural engineer.
His trip back to Malaysia started out as a career sabbatical. But one thing led to another, and now he runs the family business and roams the region in search of stories that he tells through photography as a form of therapy.
“I have been freelancing as a photographer since I was 16,” says Lee.
He hopes to make photography his life’s work and bring “untold stories that need to be told” to life.
“It is the one constant thread through my life, in spite of all kinds of career changes. This is the one thing that keeps me sane,” he adds.
To him, photography is therapeutic, even cathartic.
“And as with all good therapy work, it takes time. I think I am just barely scratching the surface,” he says.
But it is a good place to start, for even a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
minorities: Report Cambodia’ is on at Run Amok Gallery in George Town, Penang, till July 17.