Dear Readers. In our series of portraits of atypical Khmers outside the Srok, today Cambodge Mag meets the very quiet and talented iconic photographer (and passionate skateboarder) Vutheara Kham.
Distanced from his dazzling success on Instagram, where he has more than 1.1 million followers, it's with modesty and humility that the man who says he prefers "to be behind the camera and not in front of it" recounts his life's journey, and his commitment to the PSE association.
Your family arrived in France in 1981 as refugees, with only a phone number as a reference. What happens next?
They will be given 5 francs and a telephone number to call. A family from the Village Vacances Families association came to pick them up and place them in Normandy, where they lived in a 22-square-meter apartment with my older brother - born shortly before in a camp in Thailand - and four other family members.
What special relationship developed between your parents during their month of exile?
They learned to discover each other and forge a strong bond of solidarity. Later, the fruits of their hard work would lead them to open a restaurant in Cherbourg.
Tell us a few anecdotes from this period
After my father discovered his trade as a welder, and my mother as a seamstress, they headed for the center of France to take a crash course in catering (in order to acquire a business), which ran 7 days a week... our family restaurant is still there, and has been for 30 years now. We've all had a job there.
What role did Khmer culture play in your upbringing?
Cambodian music played a big part in our daily lives, and our homes and objects were a constant reminder of our culture, and we spoke Khmer at home. My parents also took me to see La Déchirure for their first French cinema. However, pre-French history was always a taboo subject in our childhood.
You were also the only Asian in your school. What would be your best and worst memories of your high school years?
"My worst memories are ultimately the best, and the best the worst.''
Looking for my path, I would spend 7 years there. Boarding school was perhaps my least happy period.
At the same time, you developed a passion for skateboarding. How did it come about and to what extent did it become a part of your life?
There was a park near our restaurant and my brother and I decided to buy a skateboard to keep ourselves entertained. The three of us shared the board, with my older brother and my younger brother, in a spirit of complicity and constant good humor.
This discipline, with its community universe that suits me perfectly, is still part of my life, 30 years on. I consider it creative and artistic, and it allows me to constantly discover the urban environment.
You also claim to be a film buff. Which ones would you say are your references to this day?
Definitely Dany Boyle's Trainspotting, not only for the story, but also for its diverse musical score.
Charlie Chaplin's The Kid
Kim KI-DUK's cinema as a whole too
Spring Summer Autumn and Winter and Spring again
An artist at heart, your musical tastes range from traditional Khmer music to English pop and Serge Gainsbourg. However, Icelandic music has brought you another passion: what is it?
At the time of these questions, you're still in Normandy. The person you're dating finds a poster about Cambodia and tells you about it. What happens next?
I go to a screening organized by the Pour un Sourire d'Enfant association, where I discover the story of the child ragpickers, who live in the garbage and whose daily life is intolerable to my eyes.
Following this event, tell us what happened in the parking lot
I find myself next to founders Christian and Marie-France des Pallières and their little Cambodian daughters.
"The conversation begins and we discover, to our mutual surprise, that we have a lot in common."
Still disturbed by their documentary, but delighted to get to know them, and them to discover that a Cambodian family is in Normandy, I promise myself in my heart to contribute to their cause one day.
When you moved to Paris. How did you feel in the early years?
I arrived in 2007, after being recruited for a web designer internship (the interview went off without a hitch), and initially lived an hour and a half by public transport from my new workplace. I felt in between two worlds, the off-center one where I lived, and the one - comparable to Guy de Maupassant's Bel Ami - where my internship was located.
This internship was to be the start of a great adventure. What was it?
My career will be linked to this startup. We'll be working together for four years; by the time I leave, I'll have become artistic director, and the initial team of four (including myself) will have grown to around fifty people.
Their change of address (from a 15-square-meter room in a Saint-Germain hotel to a 200-square-meter space near the Louvre) was one of the things that triggered my interest in photography.
Then comes a milestone year - 2010 - which corresponds to what we might call "a year of identity crisis". What decision will you make?
I felt that the time had come for me to go to Khmer Srok. I would go for several weeks, hoping to religiously follow an itinerary prepared in advance by myself. Incredible things would happen, such as sitting down by chance on the bus to Battambang next to an aunt's neighbor whom I was about to discover!
Three years later, you began photography in earnest. What were your first big contracts?
An exhibition at the BNF on American photography in the '70s really got me going. In 2011, when my Instagram account was up and running, I was contacted for my first assignment by the Paris Tourist Office to shoot the covers of several well-known guidebooks.
Then the Balenciaga fashion show
Let's go back to your encounter with PSE years ago. What has changed since then?
At the time, Instagram was a community of designers, and this enabled me, among other things, to stage my first exhibition, the proceeds of which would go to this association I had discovered more than 10 years earlier.
What have been your best missions with them?
My best assignment is definitely the one I'm working on right now! After spending several weeks on the premises of PSE - which has since become a city within a city, with its boarding school and classes ranging from nursery to young adulthood - I was given the task of photographing this microcosm on a daily basis.
The result is a three-day exhibition opening in Paris on October 19, 2023. The exhibition will then continue in Saint-Germain-des-Prés at Galerie Lee, the only Cambodian gallery in Paris, run by Mr. Lysath Loeuk, the owner, for a further three weeks. All profits will go to PSE.
On a personal note, what would you like to see changed in Khmer Srok?
The chaotic, anarchic traffic. And, of course, to see the poverty of our fellow human beings reduced.
On the professional side, what photo projects would you like to carry out in the next 3 years?
I don't know yet, as my shyness often holds me back in my canvassing.
Any final words of advice about your profession?
"The key to success is humility above all.
"Maintain this profession as a passion".
Interview by Chantha R - Françoise framboise