Sophie Zenon, Angkor Photo Festival, 2011

Where to find the essence of a country that tries continually to forget its own past? It was Sophie Zenon’s attraction to countries in transition, and situations in mutation, that first brought her to Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Post, November 22, 2011

Photographer searches for light that is seen and not seen

Sophie Zenon, By Tenzing Dakpa

Sophie Zenon, By Tenzing Dakpa

Sophie first came here in 2005 and was struck by the grace and kindness of a people who have endured so much, and by how the past continues to walk beside them as victims and perpetrators carry on living side by side.

“It is a very enigmatic country,” she said, “Not like South Africa or Rwanda, where judgement has been handed down. Here, life goes on almost like the Khmer Rouge never happened. But it did happen.

“My images are not about the Khmer Rouge history, though we cannot forget about  that,” she said. “I have been working a lot on death,” she said, referring to her long-term interest in the manner of treating death in photography. For Sophie, tackling death through her work in this way gives her a “real experience of life”.

In a country where fixed ideas will hold you down like concrete, she searched for Cambodia’s soul and found it in the fluidity and grace of its waters.

Roads over Troubled Waters, opening at The Angkor Photo Gallery in Siem Reap tonight, is a series of ghostly frozen moments captured in loose, grainy black and white that bridges the boundaries between what is real and not real, what is alive and what is dead. These images of the present look like glimpses into the past, and there is something unsettling in the darkness that defines them.

But Roads over Troubled Waters is not a bleak essay on Cambodia today. “The title of the series is a play on the title of Simon & Garfunkel song,” said Sophie, referring to the well-known ballad Bridge over Troubled Waters. “I felt it was really perfect for here. That idea that even when things are so difficult, you can still find hope, you mustn’t give up.”

Sophie was originally an historian and ethnologist, yet it is with an artist’s sensibility that she perceives the world around her. For her, nature is experienced as a richly embroidered tapestry, or perhaps mysterious writings on a wall cast by the shadow of a leaf.

To capture her images, she uses an old camera that is no longer produced and, with the aid of a device, made in plastic, she can take notes of her world, and sketch the scenes, capturing light that is seen and not seen.

This is not Sophie’s first time showing at the Photo Festival, and she was one of the first exhibitors here in 2005 with a study of Mongolia. Returning now for the fourth time, she is saddened by how little has changed for ordinary Cambodians.

“I see a lot of change for tourists, but I’m not sure if the Khmer people are really living better. When we arrived at the temples, we saw so many buses but I don’t know where the money goes.”

Being back here for the festival is a happier experience. “I love this festival and it’s organisers, who have been good friends to me for a long time,” she said.

“It’s also very important for me to share this work with more Cambodian people, and I am very happy that I can do that through the Angkor Photo Festival.”

Photographer searches for the light that is seen and not seen, PPP 22 November 2011, Sophie Zenon

You can find more of Sophie’s work on her website

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