Photographer Nicolas Axelrod together with journalist Denise Hruby just released his latest book: Transitioning Cambodia. The book available through Ruom focuses on the redevelopment of Cambodia and the consequences it’s had on society and the landscape. Though development and growth is considered a good thing, the truth is there are often grave repercussions such as poorer communities being left out of the economic boom and families being forcefully evicted from their land. Read more about Nick’s work in the Q&A below.
First tell me a little bit about the project.
Over the past several years I have been photographing development in Cambodia, starting in early 2008 up until 2015. I started by looking at land rights and forced evictions, there was a lot going on from 2008 – 2011, large tracks of land were getting cleared for development and communities around the capital were being evicted. It was during that time, around 2010, that I noticed an appearance of a new middle class, initially there was a clear gap between the rich and the poor, but slowly more and more people were stepping into the lower middle class. I wanted to document that shift looking specifically at family values/structure and youth.
Denise Hruby, the writer and journalist I worked with on Transitioning Cambodia had lived in Cambodia for five years, she worked first for the daily english language papers and later as a freelancer. She had covered a lot of the same issues I was looking at. Denise and I are both part of a collective called Ruom, we are a group of 7 people, writers, researchers, photographers and videographers, who collaborate on long term stories. It made sense to work with her on the book, I had already done an initial edit of the images when I talked to Denise and we discussed at length how best to put this work together and the writing and reporting she would do for the book.
This book was a collaboration with a journalist, how did that work?
It was thanks to Denise that a hardcopy of the book was published. Initially my thought was to put out an e-book, but Denise pushed for us to do crowdfunding to get it printed. During the writing phase Denise worked a lot independently, she had much of the reporting done already through stories she had covered. There were a few personal stories where she did some additional reporting and we mostly worked together on that. Denise was very open to my comments and suggestions on the text, it was not the first time we had worked together so collaborating together was easy. She was very meticulous in the writing and spent a lot of time refining the language and structure of the text, we were lucky because we had two great editors look at the text and several journalist friends who helped us with the proofreading. For the editing I worked with two close friends, both photographers and picture editors. Fani Llaurado, a graphic designer and university lecturer worked on the layout of the book.
Were there any challenges involved with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?
There were many challenges over the seven years for the picture taking process and equally for Denise in her reporting. Cambodia is not an easy place to work and can be very draining on an emotional and psychological level when you are documenting poor communities that are losing their homes and protesting against wealthy developers. There is nothing they can do about it, their voices are just not heard and that can be deeply depressing. When it comes to the book itself, the main challenge was to have it printed. We ran our crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo and saw it more as an opportunity for a pre-sale rather than a call for funding. We were lucky and sold nearly 200 copies of the book before it was printed during the three weeks of the campaign. But crowdfunding is no easy task, it requires a surprising amount of work, you need to promote and pitch it daily, get it published in large publications. We were lucky because The Telegraph in the UK did a slide show about the book and so did The Huffington Post as well as many other regional online publications.
What was involved in planning/preproduction? How long did it take?
From concept to book the process took about a year. I spent three months going through my archive of images, looking at the hundreds of thousands of images I took over seven years, making sure I had not overlooked an image so we could start working on a layout and structure. Denise spent six months writing the book and another two months to edit and proof read, the crowdfunding took three weeks and the printing took another three weeks. What took us by surprise was the time it takes to get the writing to a stage where you are happy with it.
What has the reaction to the images been so far?
The reaction to the book has been great. We had a few lovely reviews in different publications, the book launch in Phnom Penh and Bangkok had a very good turnout and the crowd was really receptive. It will be showing at Photo Kathmandu in Nepal in early November during a projection night.
Did you learn anything through the creation of this series?
The whole process was very interesting, I learned a lot. The last seven years have shaped and developed my work immensely, my approach to the people and communities I work with, to the pictures I choose to take and the time I spend on stories. There was also a very personal learning curve, I believe in the importance of producing work of historical value like Transitioning Cambodia. I can see more clearly the importance of photography as means of documentation. The images in the book will never exist again in the same context. Even in the few months since the book was published the places I photographed have changed dramatically. I think this record of a time and a place as we see it now has value in the future.
To view more of Nicolas’ work visit nicolasaxelrod.com