April 23, 2015 - It’s hard not to feel ambivalent about the visit to the so-called floating village. I still feel unsettled remembering the excursion, and I doubt it has anything to do with the boat ride itself.
The only way to access the village was with a guide. After buying tickets at an outdoor makeshift ticket counter, we walked down a rickety ramp to a harbor. There, we were greeted by a young Cambodian male, surely no older than 22. He bowed his head, led us to his boat and helped us aboard, one by one. We weren’t entirely sure what was planned.
The ride from the harbor to the village was roughly half an hour. The three of us sat in blue wooden chairs at the front of the boat, using our orange child-sized life vests as cushions. The boat struggled through muddy water, trailing closely behind others that had set out just moments before us. I sat quietly, spying distant details in the horizon through the viewfinder of my camera: a man catching fish with his hands, chest-deep in the murky water; a cow and a starved oxen grazing stubby tufts of brown grass on the slope of land bordering the river. Uli quizzed our guide: where was he from? Why was his English so good? How old was he when he started working? It was hard to make out his answers over the din of the boat’s old, buzzing motor.
We had done very little research about Kompong Phluk and relied upon the explanations and suggestions offered by our guide, some of which seemed patently touristy and “inauthentic,” though our sense of authenticity was far from informed. We observed the organization of daily life in stilted structures and floating, tethered boats and imagined its difficulty. The poverty was inescapable, but so was the beauty.
We were on our way to the elementary school, our guide told us as he parked the boat in front of a small floating market. Did we want to buy a bag of rice to bring to the school for the children? Mom hesitated. The suggestion felt manipulative. She pulled out her wallet; Uli dug into his jeans pockets. Together, they collected $30, the price of one 30 kg bag of rice. We all knew the price was exorbitant but on balance, what was $30 to us in comparison to the good it could do? Our guide hauled the rice onto the boat. The school was only two more minutes away, he told us. Quite convenient, this store.
It was a performance of a school. Our guide parked the boat in front of the boarding ramp and hastily helped us off before he retrieved the rice from the back and handed it off to a partner at the school. He moved mechanically. He had done this a million times.
Inside, there were young children everywhere. Young girls took turns jumping rope near a sign that read: Help these children with your donations. Boys sat on the floor playing with sticks and rudimentary toys. Their small figures were almost entirely lost to shadows. Nothing suggested that teaching was taking place. There was a whiteboard, but no markers. There were no teachers in sight, no books, pens or paper. Just a few wooden desks arranged haphazardly in an empty room, and a hefty load of bagged rice.
One girl hovered by a group of her friends jumping rope. She watched them play, arms casually crossed behind her back. A dirty, pink scrunchie barely held her hair away from her face. I was drawn to her pose, and I took her picture.
In an adjacent room, another girl gingerly climbed up onto a windowsill. From her perch facing the water, she stared blankly into the distance, like a bird imagining flight.
She noticed when I raised my camera to my face and froze as if to maintain her pose on my behalf. As I fiddled with the zoom, she sat perfectly, patiently but preternaturally still. She was used to posing for strangers. She understood the exchange at hand: a picture of poverty for an indulgent donation.
On our way out, we passed two burly American men, dressed identically in tank tops and khaki knee-length shorts. They were aggressively herding the girls into formation for a group photo. Stand together girls! Dave why don’t you get in there with them? Dave crouched in between two girls, and flung his fleshy arms around their tiny shoulders.
I felt deeply uncomfortable. How was I any different from Dave and his friend? I was just as guilty of exploiting the girls’ performance for the benefit of my efforts to “document.” A tourist, just like Dave, I interacted with the girls from behind the lens of my camera, eager to construct a narrative of poverty I knew would shock people back home. I was succumbing to the worn-out stereotype of beautiful and innocent, and abject, children in an impoverished third-world country. I was enacting the stereotype of the Western adventure tourist in search of sensational imagery.
Why was the aesthetic of poverty so irresistible? Why was photographing the girl in the windowsill so satisfying? Susan Sontag offers some context and a theory:
It was precisely the shock value which I was after. The elementary school was a playground for the greedy tourist-turned-photojournalist, no less than a portrait studio set equipped with “authentic” toys and props to suggest a lifestyle with which the subject desired to be associated. “The image as shock and the image as cliche are two aspects of the same presence,” Sontag admonishes.
We rushed in silence toward the entrance to the school were we met our guide. He was surprised that we concluded our visit so quickly but led us down into the boat. I shot Mom a quick look. She nodded, entirely sure of what I was feeling. On the ride back to the mainland, no one felt like talking. I sat in the back this time, my camera heavy on my lap, imagining the conversation we might have later.