The Little DIY Photographer Guide: The Making Of Cambodia 80’s Images

Digging and sampling Saeth Umar's photographic collection.

Digging and sampling Saeth Umar’s photographic collection.

“Because I am too old now, that’s why. This is exhausting. All that travel, all that work. So I am done, that’s it”. A pout face on me. That of a disappointed spoiled child. The partner in crime of photo swaps and techniques on a straw is retiring. Who am I going to nerd around from now on??? Filters shining through, exposures blurring people in precising ghosts out, Cecil B DeMille grand schemes for the next wedding set… The conversation has barely started, I turned around for a minute and this is it: Saeth Umar, quite the DYI uncle of all images has run his course, and leaves his photographer job to potential younglings. “I’ll miss it that’s for sure” concludes his little impulsive laugh. The laugh of a boy of 60+ year old who never stopped being amazed and amused by what started as quite a challenging job: making images in a no-more-images land.

Hold on. Step back from the screen. Hold on to the album. Rewind. It’s a land of no more images for they tie up tight attachments, a land of no more pictures because it’s a technology of the West, a land of no more representations because they are of bourgeoisie solely. It’s a land that is claiming to start all over. Year zero it projects. Barely emerging from that land, something claiming to be peace is showing up, shyly crossing the threshold. It’s not even here just yet, but we’ll take it, hell that’s all we have right now. Barely emerging from that moment, barely recovering from the toll of family losses, comes Saeth Umar, then and now a young teacher in a Stung Trang public school, then and now a respected Muslim devout, then and now an admirer of whatever it is that modernity has on wheels. Then and now an imaginative maker of images against all odds. “There was no money at the time. Actually, no, let me take that back, I should clarify: there just started to be some money, since they just brought it back, after it was gone during Pol Pot time. But really it wasn’t much, nobody really had any”. No money. No gold. No sequins and yet, weddings were sure going to shine back, on track, right away, lighting up the countryside again. People started to get back together, to gather, to groom around and bride about. There was a hunger for images, there was a wedding with no pictures, there was clearly a need for a photographer.

1991. Minolta. Portrait of the photographer in four shades. “When we all came back from the war, we had to start all over, we had to take the teachers’ exam again. This picture was for that, passing the diploma. It was my wife or one of my kids who pushed the button of the camera”.

1991. Minolta. Portrait of the photographer in four shades. “When we all came back from the war, we had to start all over, we had to take the teachers’ exam again. This picture was for that, passing the diploma. It was my wife or one of my kids who pushed the button of the camera”.

“I always loved photographs. Even when I was younger. When we were kids we used to make pinholes out of mud, my father was so intrigued by the upside down images resulting from that. And even after the war(s) I managed to keep photographs from before, from my father who worked in the plantations, from my uncle who was an athlete… And then my teacher’ salary wasn’t enough to raise my family anyway. At that time I noticed that those photographers they were making quite a bit of money, so I thought I would give it a try”.

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But giving it a try in early 80’s middle-of-Kompong-Cham-province required more than a few screen swipes and frantic thumbs liking skills. It required talent. Savoir faire. Daring smarts. And maybe a bit of luck too. “Of course I had no camera and no money to get myself one, so that was going to be tricky”. Observing it took. That of an image maker behind the camera for sure, but even that of a researcher paying a close and careful attention to those he wanted to learn from: “I already knew what photographs looked like, so I started to look more at how they were made, how photographers were all doing it”. Itinerant adventurers on the go thrown on a moto with gear around the neck, red dust all over the face, torn up flip flops glued to the brakes, photographers were not exactly a lot of plenty, they were coming from afar to spend a few days working on a wedding, feed and lodged, leaving to return later on with the trophy: an album of a few precious glossy shots.

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Circa 1982. Handmade camera. Sisters.

Circa 1982. Handmade camera. Sisters.

“I paid attention to the cameras they were using, and to… you know… those boxes where they show images for kids*. And then I started to think of making my own”. Just that: making a camera. Still no money and nothing, but ideas, that he had. Then and now. “I got some wood and built a little box. Then I added some old glasses’ lenses. I managed to get my hands on some leftover rolls of films and found someone who could process it. That’s how I got my first camera to work”. Neighbors around with better things to do didn’t really get what was it that he was doing exactly, no one really understood what he was up too: “Go buy yourself a cow man!”. You get the cow, you sell it back, you make money, you buy the camera. Nice and simple. Almost too nice and simple for Saeth Umar. So he kept on going with his very own pinhole camera.

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Circa 1983-84. Customized Rolleiflex. Niece & Nephew.

Circa 1983-84. Customized Rolleiflex. Niece & Nephew.

But the interest grew. His own interest in making photographs, his neighbors’ in getting a few, then more, and finally a lot. “My cousin he somehow had an old Rolleiflex. It was broken of course. But I thought maybe I could work on it and have like a real camera this time”. A tiny little piece of wooden stick here, a thin line of iron thread there, and it was all ready to shoot. Except that by then, the medium format film that the Rolleiflex goes hungry for had completely disappeared from the surfacing market.

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Circa 1983. Customized Rolleiflex. Brother & Cousin.

Circa 1983. Customized Rolleiflex. Brother & Cousin.

“Here is what I did: I took some black fabric and glue and made a mask for it. So that instead of the large opening that allows the whole surface of the 6×6 roll to be exposed, I would be able to focus the light on a 35mm strip”. A process that will become decades later the marketing ploy of the Lubitel restored by the Lomography company. 1986 arrived and with it a bit of income accumulated through the selling of all those portraits: “This is actually when I bought my very first ‘real’ camera. A Soviet Zenit. You would have loved it!”. Eyes turn sideways: my very own Arax listening by… None of those little treasures of mechanics have unfortunately stuck around: “What happened to that wooden one, the one you made or even the Rolleiflex you refurbished?”. “We recycled them. There was no reason to keep them once I had a replacement, so I sold the parts”.

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Circa 1986. Zenit. Sister & Children.

Circa 1986. Zenit. Sister & Children.

But the trouble with photographs is only half cleared up by having an actual camera. And a bit of film also. How do you make the dark room magic sparkle when you have no dark room, no chemicals, and certainly no enlarger? “I went to Kompong Speu once. There was a famous photographer there. I followed him in his lab, but well, he didn’t exactly want to teach me the tricks of the trade so I had to figure it all out by myself. Except, it’s seriously dark out there in the dark room, you really can’t see nothing!”. Observation switched to a patient looking beyond sight, an attention beyond mere vision: “I figured out that it was all in the numbers. It was all it could be about, the timing, the minutes. So I started to count down and take notes in my head”. Saeth Umar goes home, the photographer says goodbye, and a departure gift tags along: some leftover chemicals. A few grainy paper sheets – or rather pieces – were added into the recipe by the local printer. Saeth Umar was ready to go full trial mode. “So here is how it went: I do the whole thing with the paper, the chemicals and all, in the dark, counting, with my torch. But of course the pictures were exactly the same size as the negative, it was impossible to make them any bigger. That was a problem. I was stuck”.

Circa 1987. Zenit. Homemade backdrop. Daughter.

Circa 1987. Zenit. Homemade backdrop. Daughter.

Saeth Umar waits. Probably counting by the minutes before a solution passes by. A solution dressed as a soldier: “That I have no clue… Where he got it from, how come he got a hold of that thing… You know back then, people got their hands on all kind of stuffs that were left behind from the Khmer Rouge (time), so that may be it. But anyhow, he had this Polaroid camera that didn’t work so well and that he didn’t know what to do with, so I bought it”. An inverted camera hanging from high above, suspended on a wall: the bare bones of the most basic enlarger. “Of course I still had to adjust the size, so I would play around with a stool and a pile of books, getting the image closer or further to the Polaroid”. It couldn’t be that difficult: a little before that, our imaginative DIYer had improvised a dark room with a blanket and a stool. “I was doing it, right there with my hands under the stool and the blanket, while still having conversations with friends visiting. They had no idea what was going on down there. Always amazed them with the images coming out like magic!”. Passers-by with no affinity with photography were not the only ones amazed. One day it is the famous photographer from Kompong Speu who passes by, just like if – back then – this hadn’t take him days to “just pass by”. He gets himself a tour of Saeth Umar’s installations and impromptu tricks and treats: “It’s like his face almost got scared, his body shivered. He said ‘I have spent so much money to set up my whole lab and you, you spent nothing and got it all done just the same”.

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Circa 1988. Minolta. Black & White secondhand backdrop. Son. “I had to set it all up outside so to get enough light, but still had to add a cover to filter the sun”.

Circa 1988. Minolta. Black & White secondhand backdrop. Son. “I had to set it all up outside so to get enough light, but still had to add a cover to filter the sun”.

Money – just a bit of it – will finally come by, as the demand for Saeth Umar’ refined techniques and know-how would be increasing. And yet, himself a passer by not staying put, weddings were not the only moments that this image hunter would gather: “I would go around, take so many pictures of my kids, of my relatives, the friends, the neighbors. I was so happy to get them printed that I would just distribute them around, so I don’t have that many left. But people back then had lost most of their photographs to the war, so those were the very first images they would have again”. Photographer on the road, in the trails, by the river, and through the paddy fields, paying a close attention to others, caring for what they looked like, knowing what they could be like.

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Circa 1986. Zenit. Son.

Circa 1986. Zenit. Son.

“Sometimes I would add up some colors to make it a little more special, just a touch, using those Chinese color sheets. Often I would set up a whole scene with a ”tableau”. I would either rent the backdrop, or buy a second-hand one. Sometimes even, I would make it by myself, just to try it out”.

Craft comes to mind. Care. Love also. An intimate knowing that comes from the hands as much as from the heart. For a long time I had been spoiled knowing Saeth Umar, his trade, his craft, his love for images. Knowing that – now that he is retiring – just when I was supposed to learn from him. “But who is going to teach me now if you stop?”. “I don’t know. I was pretty much the only one of a kind that’s true”. Cheeky smile flashing. “But actually, I was never taught. I never learned. I just did it. I always loved doing it. I kind of still do. Just like you, right?”.

Phnom Penh, December 6, 2015, Emiko Stock.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

* I believe Saeth Umar is here referring to something close to Iran Shahre-Farang or Japan Kamishibai in which still images are shown in a viewing box as a visual support to the story teller. Some NGOs have been using Kamishibai in Cambodia for awareness and literacy program and my have introduce the form 30 years ago (I would like to thank Beatrice Montariol from Sipar for pointing that out).

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