This travelogue is the first in a series describing my approach and background to Angkor monochrome photography. Photographing Angkor is an ongoing project to produce a unique collection of fine art prints.
Photoshop post-production is an essential component in my image workflow, using digital dodging and burning techniques and luminosity masks. However, nothing is added or removed from the original RAW photo capture. I aim to present my fine-art prints in the way I saw and felt the scene at the time of image capture.
What is Angkor?
Angkor is more than Angkor Wat temple. In the Khmer language, Angkor means “city”. It is a complex of hundreds of temples built over many centuries. In addition to the temple ruins, there are vast waterways, reservoirs, and irrigation systems. National Geographic once described Angkor as a hydraulic city. Angkor, in turn, is part of a much broader ancient Khmer civilisation and empire which extended across present-day northern Cambodia, overlapping into Thailand and Laos. Today, ruined temples still form a focal point of Khmer culture, usually away from the main tourist drags.
Prasat Preah Vihear
Far from the maddening crowds, this impressive temple is located on the Cambodia-Thailand border and takes some effort and planning to reach. The storm clouds above the temple add to the feel and mood of the scene. I was drenched by monsoon rain after taking this photograph (using a tripod). Adverse weather can be your friend in travel photography, even if it means a soaking. Although Prasat Preah Vihear is officially within Cambodia, there is still an ongoing ownership dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. The international boundary cuts across the temple’s front steps, and Thai and Cambodian soldiers occasionally exchange fire. It is a safe place to visit (most of the time), a UNESCO world heritage site worth extra time and effort.
Prasat Bayon is the second most popular location in Angkor (after Angkor Wat temple) and features enigmatic smiling Buddha faces carved into the tower walls. This photograph was taken in the evening, just before temple closing time. A monsoon rainstorm helped clear away the crowds. For fifteen minutes, I had the temple virtually to myself and enjoyed the luxury of using a tripod to make this careful composition.
Strangler Fig Tree at Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm is famous for the jungle overgrowth of the towers and ramparts, contributing to the Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider feel of the place. The strangler fig trees will eventually take over the temples (if left alone), and the massive roots will ultimately cause the buildings to collapse. The trees provide sanctuary to ecosystems of birds and bats whilst adding romance to the place. For this image, I used a tripod to compose and had to wait a considerable time before tourists cleared out of view. Patience is a virtue in travel photography.
My feel from this Khmer lady is that her spirit has been around for a long time, perhaps for as long as the temples of Angkor. Poetic licence, maybe, but there is another worldliness to her. At the time, I was sitting close-up (in her home). This elderly lady was talking to me non-stop about her village. She didn’t seem to care about me taking photographs; she was too busy telling me her tales and was deep in her memories. Although we are in a relatively dark wooden house, there is enough sidelight on her face coming from the open entrance to make the scene happen.
Mother and Daughter
In this photograph, a mother and daughter are at ease while sitting at the entrance of their wooden house. I spent some time with the family, sharing food and chatting before taking my camera out of the bag. By this time, the subjects were used to me. There is a warmth to the scene as the mother holds her girl while gazing contentedly into the distance. The girl is looking straight at me with her beautiful smile. Such a scene would be impossible if I had walked up to them cold and pointed a lens into their faces – especially as a foreigner.
A remote Angkor temple, similar to Ta Prohm, without the crowds. Strangler fig roots have overtaken the tower, and the entrance framed by the roots is the composition. I feel the entry needs a figure or human-interest element to complete it. I placed my wife in the doorway. She doesn’t look out of place as an Asian, and her legs appear to intertwine with the tree roots.
An example of a detail shot from Angkor. Accessing this location involves a one hour, hot and sweaty trek up a forested hill before reaching the clear flowing waters of Kbal Spean. A Hindu holy place: there are ancient, intricate deity carvings in the sandstone riverbed and waterfalls. In Angkor times, the site was used for bathing solely by women.
Sambor Prei Kuk
A remote Angkor location set in beautiful forests and relatively unknown by foreign visitors, at least for now. There are dozens of small overgrown temple ruins constructed from laterite bricks. The temples pre-date Angkor Wat by several centuries and are the oldest Angkor temples. I like the simplicity of this travel landscape image ̶ the arching tree and roots. Sambor Prei Kuk is a new UNESCO world heritage site.