7 Portrait Photos in Phnom Penh Utilizing Light and Shadow


7 Portrait Photos in Phnom Penh Utilizing Light and Shadow

One morning in March, whilst I strolled through the streets of Phnom Penh, a warm beam of light that filtered through the tall trees of the town centre fell on the face of a man sitting motionless on a bench. Under his stylish hat, his face was clearly lined with age. When you travel in a country that is new and unknown, talking to the local people, exchanging views, discussing current events, is a great way of getting to feel at home and of better understanding the people.

Cambodian born and bred, Yong moved to the capital a few years ago; he used to live in the country, near Tonle Sap Lake, the largest basin in Southeast Asia.

The desire to capture my meeting with Yong, to remember that kind and honest face, led me to take a photograph that I treasure. Dusk and dawn, characterised by an intense and enveloping light, are two moments of the day that are particularly suited to portrait photography.


In order to make sure the subject of your portrait is relaxed and natural at the moment you click the shutter, it is important to establish a relationship with the person you are about to photograph. Introducing yourself, exchanging a few words and smiling allow you to break down any invisible barriers that may exist between strangers and lay the foundations for a relationship, albeit a brief one, of mutual trust, which will enable the figure in your portrait to look at you with fewer worries and less fear.

In the photo of Yong, the elderly Cambodian man shows his feelings as he looks at the camera, ridding himself of any prejudice or preconception; in this image, Yong is completely natural, and this came about because I revealed myself before I revealed my camera.

During my trip to Cambodia, I had other chances to take unusual portraits, such as the lady below who, shading her face under a large hat, sold flowers in front of the Silver Pagoda, or the children who played with the pigeons, paying no attention whatsoever to what was going on around them. It’s not always possible to talk to the person you want to photograph; often the language or the situation doesn’t allow it, but this shouldn’t prevent you from taking the shot. The main aim of a portrait should be to communicate what the person in your picture is or does; it has to tell a story to whoever looks at the image, without the need for words.


If the aim is, for example, to explain that you can find the flower seller with the large hat in Phnom Penh, and that, to sell more flowers, she moves constantly from one side of the square to another, displaying her goods with pride, and that she is often lost in thought, I will try to focus on a few details that communicate the story in the right way. For example, I will try to include in the frame a detail that identifies where we are, and I will use the rule of thirds, capturing the woman looking towards the centre of the frame to convey the idea of movement and action. I will take the picture when the subject is looking at something in the distance, to convey a feeling of tranquillity and relaxation.

Cambodian woman

As I said before, the most interesting time of day in which to create a portrait is either at sundown or at dawn, but it is not always possible to be in the right place at the best time.


Another way of sparking interest in whoever is looking at your photo is to capture a particularly intense moment. I happened to find myself in a little alley in the Cambodian capital during an unusual afternoon in which the sun wasn’t able to reach the faces of five children playing out in the street. It was quite an interesting situation: a few children, barefooted and dirty, exchanged challenging looks around a football. The presence of a stranger interrupted this sort of silent ritual and the attention shifted on to me. A few pieces of paper and some pens turned out to be the winning combination for gaining their trust and taking some beautiful pictures, despite the lack of light. Caught up in the magic of drawing, they revealed their full expressiveness, telling tales of pirates, footballers and dancers in the streets of Phnom Penh.




Leo and Vero

Leo and Vero are two tireless travellers who love to discover the world by bicycle. After ten months cycling through Southeast Asia, they returned to Italy, but still dedicate their every spare moment to cycling, travelling and photography. They have travelled far and wide but are convinced that the best journey is always the one they have yet to make… “Because travelling is to remember the past, live the present and dream of the future.”

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