Wandering through Battambang I couldn’t help but notice a multitude of old-school photography studios dotted around town. Their shopfronts were painted Kodak red & yellow or Fujifilm green, and plastered in blown-up images of beautiful young Khmer women with soft focus skin wearing jewel-toned traditional dresses and elaborate jewellery. Looking in from the street I see gilt-edged picture frames of varying sizes stacked against the walls and a row of computers along where young men sit, Adobe Photoshop open on their desktops; lightening skin, whitening teeth and smoothing wrinkles and blemishes into non-existence.
When in Battambang…
Chloe and I walk into a studio and enquire about their prices. At $50, it’s a little more than I want to pay so we walk across the street where we are quoted $30 for a photoshoot with 8 images, including costumes and make-up. Sold! We’re whisked out back, given some plastic stools to sit on and asked to wait while they call in their team.
A few minutes later a teenager appears and motions for Chloe to sit down in front of her. A make-up kit, of sorts, is produced. Now, being a photographer, I’ve worked with my fair share of make-up artists and I think it’s safe to say that any of them would have been horrified at the kit that was in use. There was a non-existent level of concern about cleanliness and sterilisation when it came to the tools of the trade. Powder sponges and brushes were clearly not cleaned between uses (or ever from the look of them), the same liquid eyeliner was used on everyone and the false eyelashes were re-used. It wasn’t ideal, but sometimes you just gotta go with the experience and cross your fingers you don’t get pink-eye.
Twenty minutes later Chloe has more makeup on than she’s ever had in her life, and then it’s my turn. By now an older lady has arrived and she takes control of my “look” for the day. She has the deft hands of experience and 5 minutes later I’m standing in front of the mirror with bold brows, rust & gold hued eyelids, a set of false lashes, blushing cheeks and red lacquered lips. Make-up done, it’s time for the costume department. Chloe peruses some photos and chooses a style for us. Soon we’re getting wrapped up in colourful silks and being bedecked with gaudy gold chains, bracelets, armlets and headpieces.
Enter the photographer who saunters in like he owns the place. Maybe he does. Lights are positioned and so are we. With language a barrier, he simply resorts to manhandling us into various positions and thrusting a random urn into my hands every now and then, while assistants drape the fabric from our dresses prettily around us. Satisfied, his camera raises, a cry of “Smile!” rings out, lights flash as his shutter clicks and then we are on to the next pose. After eight poses and ten minutes it’s all over. We’re ushered through to the back room again and in a matter of minutes the jewellery is off, our dress fabric is in a pile on the floor, and we are back in our own clothes. A last look in the mirror while I pull off my false lashes, and then we’re out the door.
The next morning we return to the studio to pick up our prints, kind of a novelty in this digital age. So how did they turn out? I’ll let you judge for yourself!