Sunday, October 26, 2008

Project Smile at Gasolina, Phnom Penh


                     A leaflet introducing the 10 photographers of Project Smile

I’ve learned one thing about Cambodia. It is a country that has the ability to make you cry and smile at the same time. The suffering endured by many during the Khmer Rouge regime and the poverty facing those who remain are enough to bring tears to anyone. However, the Cambodians'  ability to laugh and keep on going despite the adversities of such harsh life can’t help but put a smile on your face.

More than a year ago, I visited Siem Reap as a tourist. I was taken aback by the number of children selling knick-knacks at Angkor Wat. There was one particular girl, she must not be more than 8, who persistently followed me around, insisting on selling some souvenirs. I refused several times because there were just too many of them.

“Ok, ok. You ask me any country’s capital. If I give correct answer, you buy. You buy, ok?” That was her sales line and she successfully gained my attention. In my mind, I thought, let’s give her a difficult one. She’s only what? 7? So, I asked her, “Hungary?” Without any hesitation, she answered, “Budapez”.

I wasn’t really interested anymore about her products. I asked another one, then another one, all in increasing difficulty. True behold, she answered all of them correctly. I was really impressed and I couldn’t help but smile thinking how did this girl become so smart?

As if anticipating that I might have  lost interest, she quickly challenged me, “Ok, ok. Like this, ok? I ask you any country’s capital. If you correct, no buy. If you not correct, you must buy, ok?” I must admit that, at that point, I should have surrendered to spare myself the embarrassment of not knowing my geography as well as a 7 year old, but I took up the challenge anyway.

I ended up buying several souvenirs from the girl because I failed to know Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar. Would you have known? Well, she did.

So, my visit yesterday to a photo exhibition organised by Smile Project, funded by ANZ Bank Royal Bank at Gasolina, bears similar sentiment. This project is created by Michelle Harrison-James, a British freelance photographer who was formerly a lawyer in the United Kingdom.

The project aims to provide basic photography lessons to some of the children from the Center for Children’s Happiness (CCH), providing shelter to children who previously lived and worked at Steung Meanchey, Phnom Penh’s largest garbage dump. Once these children become proficient with using a camera, they were tasked to take documentary photos which culminated in the photo exhibition last night. Proceeds from the exhibition will go towards a vocational training programme for disadvantaged Cambodian youths.

Posing for press_compressed Guests_compressed

(L): Some of the photographers posing for a press picture, (R): Guests enjoying a night out at the photo exhibition in Gasolina

Michelle arrived in Cambodia 8 months ago and quickly started this project after helping out at the CCH. In her interview with The Phnom Penh Post, Michelle said, "Many of the children involved have been subjects of photos. I wanted to turn this around and give them a chance to find a voice as well as a passion and possible vocational skill." (For her full interview, please refer to

I thought it was a brilliant idea and for a change, it was really comforting to see that role reversal where the children were the center of attention and the adults listened to them when they talked about their work.

When I first learned about this project from Michelle’s blog “Living in Cambodia”, I quickly decided to write a story about this and to meet Michelle and the budding photographers in person. When I finally met her last night, I was surprised how young she is (sorry Michelle, if you’re reading this!) and obviously impressed and inspired by her work.

I had the opportunity to talk to two of the ten photographers; Un Naran, a bubbly 12 year old girl who made a joke about her surname and initials (a triple "UN") and a more mellow Say Raksmey, another 12 year old girl. It was evident that they were both very excited with the exhibition and wasted no time in dragging me around the cafe to view their photographs proudly after I interviewed them.


                           A smiling and happy UN posing for me  

Naran revealed that she was taken in by CHH two years ago because her mother is mentally ill and her father is unable to look after her and four other siblings. She showed no reservation or the shame that you would normally expect from many children when asked about their less than ideal family condition, but instead looked optimistic and happy. Like many of the other children from CCH, she used to wake up very early in the morning to collect scraps from the garbage dump all day and never went to school. Now, she is studying in an international school, on a scholarship. She visits her family once a year during special festival.

One of her photographs on display shows two little boys who are still living in Steung Meanchey, staring into her camera. The facial expressions of her subjects were so powerful that you could almost feel a sense of how it is like living in such condition. Perhaps, that was what inspired her since she is able to recall her own experience while living there.

I like taking photographs too and my favourite subjects are people. Although I am not a professional photographer, I know how difficult it is to capture expressions on lens. She nailed it with that photograph.

While Naran showed recognition for her own achievement, admitting that she is proud of herself, she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. When I asked her what she would like to say to the readers of my blog, she carefully thought about my question and then answered in proficient English, “I am really happy to do something. I want to thank all the people who have come to support this project. I am happy with foreigners who are doing something and hope they will help Cambodians forever. I want the children of Cambodia to have a good future and opportunity just like me.”

It is no surprise that she has spoken out to foreigners like me because most of the people attending the exhibition were expats.

Raksmey2_compressed Showing photo_compressed

(L): Raksmey, feeling self-conscious as I took her photo, (R): Raksmey explaining one of her photographs to a guest

Raksmey, more reserved and shy, although I think it is due to the fact that she doesn’t speak English as well as Naran, told me that she has lived in CHH for two years. Her father has passed away and her mother is not able to look after her. She has two other brothers. While not being able to get Raksmey to talk more about herself, I was delighted to see her chatting comfortably with some of the guests alone. Very often, I would spot her with a guest in front of her displayed photographs, taking the time and interest to explain and answer to their queries.

When both girls were asked what they would like to be when they grow up, Naran said she would like to be a photographer and Raksmey, an accountant. I really hope they will continue to receive similar encouragements and opportunities to help them get there. With their optimism about life and displayed will to grasp at any opportunity, I am sure they can be anything they want, if given a chance.

I really like one of Raksmey’s photographs of a smiling elderly man, which she named Happiness. One can’t help but smile when confronted by a face filled with upward wrinkly curves connected to a huge grin.

*Sigh* Unfortunately, I cannot afford to buy all the photographs but settled for a coffee table book instead; a compilation of all the photos on display. At USD45 per book, I hope I can do my bit for these children and at the same time, received something from them; the joy of looking at their work of art. It’s a shame though that I no longer drink as much as before because for each drink bought at the bar, 25 cents go to the center.

I wish the children all the happiness that they deserve and will continue to receive the opportunity to feel proud of what they have become.

In the meantime, I think the project is a huge success at a personal level because I left the exhibition...... smiling.

P/s: For more information about Project Smile and how you can contribute, please visit their website at

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