An eye on Cambodia, Margot Schwass

A Certain Grace
Anthony Maturin
Anthony Maturin, $70.00,
ISBN 109995082705,

Instead of teaching in a dirt-floored classroom or hacking through the jungle, today’s VSA volunteer is just as likely to be an office-bound small-business advisor or a human resources trainer in a government department. There are, of course, sound reasons for this shift – chiefly the fact that development assistance has been shown to be most effective when it focuses on transferring skills, building community capacity over time, and meeting local needs rather than the priorities of foreign donors. Long gone are the days of well-meaning agencies swooping in to improve the lives of impoverished communities for a year or two, leaving behind a heap of rusting equipment that there’s no electricity to run, or textbooks wholly unsuited to local conditions.

VSA understands this very well; hence the increasing numbers of its volunteers involved in “training trainers” (rather than classroom teaching or frontline nursing, for example) or working in advisory roles with locally-run, locally-staffed organisations that are there for the long term.

Laudable as this quest for greater professionalism and development effectiveness is, it’s important that the underlying ethos of volunteering overseas is not overlooked. Anthony Maturin’s book is a reminder that what volunteer workers can experience – and contribute – is something quite different from the well-paid foreign consultants who glide through Phnom Penh, Nairobi or Honiara in their four-wheel drives.

Volunteers live and work alongside local people; they share in their daily routines, learn the local language, get to know their co-workers’ children, eat in their homes, visit the local swimming-hole. While the fact that volunteers are unpaid requires them to make big sacrifices, it also offers rewards in the form of a real connectedness with their host community. They not only give their time and skills: they gain friendships, and are enriched by the lives they have briefly shared.

This is true not only for VSA volunteers themselves, but also for the rather unfortunately titled “unassigned partners”: the spouses and partners of volunteers who go with them on assignment but do not themselves have a formal “job”. Two years ago, Anthony Maturin – a South Island shepherd, farmer and photographer with a lifelong concern for global poverty and injustice – moved to Phnom Penh with his wife Sandra Jones, a VSA volunteer working as a research advisor with the Buddhist Institute. He used his time to document the lives of people around him; A Certain Grace, printed in Cambodia with a full Khmer translation by Huy Vong Rasmey Dara, is the result.

Working in black and white, Maturin set out to capture what he calls the “essential human dignity” he observed in a country that, more than 25 years after Pol Pot’s genocidal regime was ousted, remains one of Asia’s very poorest. He photographed people across Cambodia, from the streets and squatter settlements of Phnom Penh, to the rice fields of the provincial hinterland and the forests of Ratanakiri in the wild northeast. His subjects include trafficked women and children, villagers dispossessed of their land, drug addicts, amputees, AIDS patients, slum-dwellers. Pol Pot’s Year Zero is a constant groundnote, continuing to reverberate through every facet of Cambodian life.

But in addition to those caught by poverty and disadvantage, he also shows Cambodians who are working for change – doctors performing cataract operations for free in rural clinics, safe-sex educators, de-mining crews, monks helping in the fight against AIDS, a master carver teaching his art to street kids. Although often supported by overseas aid and external agencies, these are Cambodians helping Cambodians. It’s refreshing to see their work recognised; too often, the Cambodia depicted by outside observers is a land of tragic, passive victims.

Making pictures of people who are abjectly poor or suffering presents a range of challenges. How to respond when asked by a family to adopt the baby you are photographing? How to remain a mere observer when an HIV-positive patient is in agony from the side-effects of anti-retroviral drugs? At what point does a spectator become a voyeur? Do photographs that celebrate the spirit of those struggling to survive in poverty run the risk of trivialising it, of making poverty picturesque?

In his commentary and captions, Maturin shows a keen awareness of the problems of the documentary photographer. He talks about his task frankly, describing his relationship with his subjects, how he came to meet them and what he knows of their stories. The personal connection he has established with many shines through, either in their obvious responsiveness to the camera or their ability to ignore it – a young boy absorbed in the task of washing his family’s enormous white bull in the river; the itinerant rice harvester lying nonchalantly on a bed of stubble, his lit cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth; a Phnom Penh rubbish-picker admiring a good find from the heaps of refuse at the city dump. The decision to organise the book around visual themes – including hands, machines and death – is a good one, creating some interesting resonances between images.

Many of the images show infectious smiles and the palpable warmth that can radiate from the most miserable of circumstances. Charming though these are, I found the most interesting photographs were those replete with uncertainties and ambiguities – is the man sorting through the rubbish bins outside the Phnom Penh restaurant shrouding his face because he’s hot? Embarrassed? Resentful? Or simply absorbed? What do the heroin users at the drop-in centre see in the posters of Britney Spears and the Arsenal football team that adorn the walls? Why does the woman sorting shellfish by the banks of the Mekong stop work to sashay towards the camera, and just whom are her friends laughing at?

Less successful are Maturin’s photo montages, some juxtaposing scenes from traditional Khmer art with images of drug paraphernalia: such contrived connections are oddly devoid of emotional impact.

Writing captions and commentary to accompany photographs is also an art. The text needs to illuminate without explaining or self-consciously interpreting the image. The text may point to a larger issue that lies behind the image – the rights of children, or official corruption, for example – but too heavy a hand can minimise the photograph’s impact, reducing it to a mere illustration of some grand truth. Maturin’s text does not always avoid these pitfalls: he is at his best when simply retelling what his subjects have told him about their day-to-day lives, leaving his audience to scrutinise the photographs themselves for meaning and message.

Profits from the sale of this book will go towards addressing poverty and justice issues in Cambodia. Maturin is to be commended for his initiative, and for revealing the many faces of a place and people he has clearly come to love.


Margot Schwass is a Wellington writer and editor, who worked with VSA in Wellington, co-authored New Zealand Abroad: The Story of VSA’s Work in Africa, Asia and the Pacific (2002), and travelled in Cambodia in 1999 and 2001.


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