Phnom Penh: ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Jonathan van Smit (NSFW)

Kid Sniffing Glue,  Street 51 slums.
Kid Sniffing Glue, Street 51 slums. Click to read more

Eric’s Note: This project is by Jonathan van Smit, a street photographer based in Hong Kong. In the past I have interviewed him on the Leica blog and you can follow his work on Flickr. In this post he shares his “Heart of Darkness” project in Phnom Penh. Warning, the photos are explicit and not safe for work. I thank Jonathan for sharing these very touching images with the rest of the community.

Jonathan: How did I start the ‘Heart of Darkness’ project?

Chris Minko, a musician friend of mine in Phnom Penh is the founder, guitarist and song-writer of a local band called ‘Krom’. I was touched by the words in one of his songs, and started a project loosely based on the lyrics.

she no like but she do

no money, no eat

love you like monkey

i no lie, i speak true

‘Yama’ is the God of Death in Sanskrit but in Phnom Penh it’s amphetamine sometimes mixed with heroin. I took these photos of two young women smoking Yama in a back room in the slum behind the ‘Heart of Darkness’ nightclub on Street 51’s red light district. They were beautiful once.

Being beautiful here can be a curse. Your parents might send you off to work in the bars, you smoke yama to cope, your teeth start rotting, your beauty fades, and soon you’re hustling in the steets….falling prey to an endless line of assholes.

It was quite hard gaining access. I simply walked the same backstreets & slum alleys for 4-5 days, made a few contacts which eventually led to the two girls in the photos. Frankly, I was terrified. I was taken down some small maze-like alleyways not much more than a metre wide, and then up to a small shack on the rooftops reached by a ladder. The yama smoke left me light-headed, and I tumbled down the ladder on the way out.

The experience has shaken me, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue. As well as the normal human concerns about the two young women’s future well being, I’m left with uncomfortable questions. Was it ethical to agree to pay them money for the photos? Should we be taking photos like this? Was I simply exploiting them? I don’t know the answers but the questions remain awkwardly in my mind.

I’ve been back a couple of times since. One of the young women is clearly very sick, and the other has disappeared.

Phnom Penh, Street 51
Phnom Penh, Street 51
Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh
Phouk & dealer
Phouk & dealer
Phouk & Navy
Phouk & Navy
Phouk
Phouk
Phouk
Phouk
Slum cafe
Slum cafe
Yama
Yama
Yama
Yama
Yama
Yama

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