Deborah Groves with local Cambodian villagers, outside the temple district of Angkor Wat where Ms Groves has established an aid organisation. Picture supplied.
September 9, 2009
Four years ago, Australian photographer Deborah Groves walked into a small village in the Cambodian countryside and met a man who would change her life.
Just 25 minutes away was the town of Siem Reap, the stopping-off point to the world famous Angkor Wat temple, a formerly modest town now flourishing with Western-style pubs, designer shops and luxury hotels driven by the influx of tourist money.
But lying in a primitive hut in the outlying village was 52-year-old man Mr Som - skeleton-thin, his ribcage clearly visible and emaciated legs resembling long strands of licorice.
Despite being gravely ill with tuberculosis for more than 18 months, he had not received any medical care mainly due to his family’s poverty Ms Groves was horrified.
"Morally I thought, ‘I have an obligation, this man is going to die, I need to stand up and offer some help’," she said.
Enlisting the help of family and friends, Ms Groves raised the money needed for Mr Som to be carried out on a stretcher to medical care.
But it was too late; Mr Som died 10 days later.
For Ms Groves, a wedding photographer from Queensland, Mr Som’s death was an enormous “wake-up call” that not everything could be fixed easily.
Shaken by the village’s desperate poverty, she vowed to stay on and help.
The result has been Helping Hands Cambodia, an aid organisation formed by Ms Groves to support Mr Som’s village and three others near Angkor Wat.
The idea behind Helping Hands is to give the local villagers a 'hand up,' rather than straight charity. For instance, recently when it gave away 1000 bicycles, each recipient agreed to work at least three days to fix local roads.
The organisation, which now has 10 Cambodian staff and up to two volunteers at a time, has also helped build bridges, a school, provided agricultural training and hundreds of free breakfasts.
The latest project will see drop toilets installed in the four villages. Fifty neighbours a day queued up to use the first one when it was installed in March, and another 15 have since been built.
To help fund Helping Hands, Groves sells photographs, magnets and bookmarks at hotels, airports and the night market in Siem Reap.
It is a long way from snapping excited brides on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
In 2004 Ms Groves fell love with the country following an Intrepid Travel tour, and feeling unfulfilled and burnt out, decided to quit her business and move to Cambodia.
But making the leap to live in one of the world’s least developed countries wasn’t easy, with many friends advising caution about leaving her business and safe life behind. "(But) I thought ‘surely I’m more than just a business’," Ms Groves said.
In the ensuing years, Ms Groves says she has developed a thick skin after four years of dealing with sometimes terrible situations.
One of her worst experiences was a man who received terrible eye injuries after a landmine exploded in his face near the Thai border.
"He was sent back to the village he was originally from without seeing a single eye doctor... I thought it was so unfair that no one cares," she said.
Helping Hands paid for his treatment, although the man’s eyes couldn’t be saved. They were later removed to stop his pain. To Western ears this may sound horrific, but Ms Groves said the man was "unbelievably grateful".
As well as the lows, there have also been incredible highs, such as a man in his 60s, blind since he was 15, regaining his sight in one eye following surgery sponsored by Ms Groves' organisation.
Another woman with cataracts regained her vision after 20 years. Ms Groves says the woman told her the thing she was most excited about was now being able to find the best food at communal dinners.
"I get a big kick out of stories like that, when you’ve had a radical impact," Ms Groves said.
However, the economic crisis has made life harder for everyone this year. Figures from Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism show although Vietnamese tourists increased by 40 per cent in the six months to June because of new visa exemptions, Australian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and South Korean visitors fell sharply.
Cambodia’s two main industries, garment manufacturing and construction, have been crippled as US clothes orders fell and tourists stayed at home.
According to the United Nations Development Program, the garment sector lost 60,000 jobs by April and the construction sector 25,000.
UN resident co-ordinator Douglas Broderick warned: "it’s not just people’s livelihoods at risk – it’s people’s lives".
The effect on Ms Groves’ photography business has also been dramatic.
"Last year was a boom year, then the Australian dollar crashed. It made a big impact because a lot of our customers are Australian,” she said.
In June this year, her photo sales had fallen 50 per cent from the same period in 2008.
Donations to Helping Hands have also dropped, although fundraising efforts such as a US$23,000 (about $27,500) donation raised by a young Irishwoman who rowed 250 kilometres down the Shannon River- Ireland's longest river - have helped.
Ms Groves radical life-change has meant many personal sacrifices, including sleepless nights, long work hours, lack of a social life and being unable to regularly see her family and friends.
She is working towards spending more time in Australia, but continues to manage Helping Hands and run her photo business full-time from wherever she is at any given moment.
Back home, Ms Groves says her standards of living will probably be different to last time she lived there. She believes that might be a good thing.
“Most of my staff have never had a hot shower, most of the people in the village don’t even have a shower, they use a bucket. Hot water now I consider a luxury,” she says.
“Even the poorest in Australia are still better off than the people here.”
To help, go to www.grovesphotography.com