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Life in focus

Written By vibykhmer on Sunday, September 6, 2009 | 12:20 AM

Locals call it Smoky Mountain. Stung Meanchey Municipal Waste Dump is a 40-hectare tip on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where thousands come to escape the crippling poverty of rural Cambodia. Here, amid the haze of toxic smoke from the smouldering garbage, they scavenge their living. Sonang, 13 (above), is one of the many children whose families live and work here. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

September 6, 2009

WHEN Age photographer Simon O'Dwyer first visited Cambodia in 1997 to photograph the landmine clearing work being done by AusAID and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, he found a country devastated by war and death.

Under the command of Pol Pot, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians, almost a quarter of the country's population.

The victims' ''crimes'' ranged from having an education or speaking a foreign language to being a soldier or government official from the previous regime. Entire families were imprisoned and murdered and, even today, the country remains forever changed, with generations lost to the Killing Fields.

Back in 1997, despite Cambodia's continuing struggles with poverty and disease and the pain still so visible on the scarred bodies of so many people, O'Dwyer also saw a resilience and hopeful dignity.

It was a resilience and hope that he explored further on a recent trip back - photographing the displaced people of Andong Village, the Stung Meanchey garbage dump and the historic temples of Angkor.

"For me, returning so many years later, the growth of tourism has taken a small part of that initial charm, but the spirit of the people and their hopes for a happier future remain," O'Dwyer says.

With more than 42 per cent of the country's population under the age of 15, Cambodia is a young country that is trying to move forward; taking what it can from a growing tourist market that draws international visitors to both the memorials of its grisly past and a raw beauty that decades of killing and conflict have not been able to destroy.

Next weekend, as part of the third Ballarat International Foto Biennale, a collection of photographs from O'Dwyer's two Cambodian journeys will be on display. It is just one of the exhibitions being staged at venues in and around the Ballarat Heritage and Arts precinct featuring at least 2000 images from up to 500 photographers.

For festival director Jeff Moorfoot, the decision to include O'Dwyer's work was based on his belief in the photographer's "humanist approach" to the subjects he photographs.

"There is a real empathy with his subjects, rather than sensationalism," Moorfoot says.

For more information, see ballaratfoto.org.


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