le bec en l’air Editions presents Philong Sovan’s book, City Night Light, an immersion, at night, in contemporary Cambodia revealed by cinematic light. Christian Caujolle wrote the text of which here is an extract:
Straight behind the welded metal gate, he seems totally frozen but his left hand, as if abandoned, gives fragility to this portrait of a teenager staring fixedly at the lens. Located in Koh Dach, very close to Phnom Penh, the image dates from 2020, at the very end of the year. In the street, sitting on the edge of a low wall with behind her a gate whose black railings shine slightly, she too fixes the lens. She holds a young child in her arms. She does not smile, she is serious or indifferent and one cannot say that she is posing. She agrees to give herself to photography. It was in 2010, in Siem Reap, the small town that gives access to the temples of Angkor. And, beyond time, these two still children who do not know each other and have little chance of meeting each other become brothers and sisters in photography. Bathed in the same light that reveals them, they are part of a device that questions the portrait as much as it affirms a point of view in relation to time, change and permanence. It therefore took ten years for Philong Sovan to conclude his project of exploring Cambodian cities at night.
Phnom Penh was the preferred playground for this series of nocturnal shots. Despite its more than two million inhabitants, the city, apart from the main axes of its crossing boulevards and the quays where bars and restaurants bunch together to benefit from relative urban lighting, is plunged into darkness, every day, after the nightfall, around 6 p.m. Yet the activity does not stop. Small dimly lit restaurants, couples in love, night watchmen, card or go players, groups of friends drinking alcohol around a coffee table on the sidewalk, families finishing their dinner in front of their house, children picking up empty cans that they will resell, others sniffing glue on a bench not far from a few drunks who have not managed to go home, delivery men rushing towards the night vegetable market, craftsmen working late, small groups of young people perched on their two-wheelers, among other things, offer themselves to the gaze of those who take the time to meet them unexpectedly while exploring the surprises of the city.
The most common means of transport in Cambodia is the small motorbike. More than a million low-powered two-wheelers criss-cross the capital alone and crowd into impressive clusters in front of cars at every red light. In Siem Reap, while he was trying to define how he was going to deal with the night, Philong Sovan discovered while crisscrossing the streets that the headlight of his motorcycle help him discover in the dark scenes he had not suspected. He knew very quickly that these “apparitions” would be his subject. And he decided to use the headlight of his motorcycle to photograph what he wanted. With humor, he sometimes compared himself to the hunter who dazzles the rabbit with a beam of light.
The city, then, becomes a pretext, a terrain for discovering lifestyles no doubt in the process of disappearing from the public space and, more than anything, a setting for portraits reconstituting a situation and yet surprisingly “natural”. The obvious acceptance of models who either look at the lens or continue their activity has been translated into slices of nightlife that become representative of a situation. We thus discover a whole population rarely highlighted for portraits always marked by the context which gives them a symbolic value. Odd jobs for the poor, motorcycle taxis, security guards, garbage collectors, homeless people, street children, those lost, groups harassed by work, brave people waiting for a bus that may never come, kids hoping that a customer will ask them to clean their car in the garage, so many of the people of the night.
The staging, is minimal, without affectation, based on what was seen or glimpsed before the shooting,almost paradoxically, intended to accentuate the effect of photographic realism. The more the elements are in place in a frame of extreme precision, the more the whole, fabricated even in a light that never exists in this real world, is composed with balance, the more the veracity of the whole is affirmed. A warm, subtle, sometimes slightly strange palette ensures the chromatic coherence of the whole and allows a subtlety of the details in the dark to compose tableaux, scenes without any misery.
Because he sticks strictly to the notion of measures, however tinkered they may be, because he forces himself to choose with precision, each time, the direction of the ray of light from the headlight of his motorcycle. Adding to the situation he discovered by chance during his crossings of the city, this explorer founds a completely original modality to the documentary style. Staged and realistic, documentary and absolutely fabricated, his photographs aspire to no truth. They write with the light of which he has decided to be the deus ex machina the questions that a young Cambodian asks himself today about the cities of his country, the rapid transformation of which obliges him both to wonder about its meaning and to retain the echo of what is still there. And, perhaps more than anything, to keep track, with some concern, of the situation of those who live, invisible at night, in these cities.
Born in 1986 in Cambodia, Philong Sovan was introduced to photography with his compatriot Mak Remissa. Photographer for the newspaper The Phnom Penh Post until 2011, he obtained a scholarship in Paris, at the École Louis-Lumière in 2012-2013. Along with commissioned works, he also devotes himself to his personal projects. Philong Sovan’s photographs have been exhibited around the world: Photo Phnom Penh (2009, 2010 and 2013), Biennial Photoquai of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris (2011), Hôtel de la Paix in Siem Reap (2011), Institute of Singapore Contemporary Arts (2012), World Event Young Artist Festival in Nottingham (2012) as part of the “Ma Samaritaine 2013” project, of which he was the winner, Getxophoto festival in Spain (2015), Friche la Belle de Mai in Marseille in the framework of the Rencontres d’Arles (2019) as well as in various festivals in France, Italy and Sweden. Represented by the Lee (Paris) and Batia Sarem (Siem Reap) galleries, he is regularly published in the Cambodian and international press.
Philong Sovan : City Night Light
Text by Christian Caujolle
le bec en l’air Editions
18 x 24.5 cm, 112 pages, hardcover
60 color photographs