Monk At The Bayon In Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Here’s an old image from a trip to Cambodia in the early 90’s. I met this monk while photographing the Bayon, a part of the famous Angkor Wat complex near the town of Siem Reap.
Apparently the monk was from a town around one hours drive from Angkor Wat, yet this was the first opportunity he’d had to visit the site.
I asked him how he’d gotten the pockmark on his face. He answered with two words, Pol Pot. Further questions revealed that a member of the Khmer Rouge had pushed a lit cigarette into his face when he was a young boy.
Even The Downtrodden Have The Power To Forgive
The physical scare remained, as did the memory of the torture. Hopefully his Buddhist beliefs have helped the monk come to terms with the actions of his tormentor.
The original image was made on color negative/print film and scanned. By today’s standards the scan is below par, so I’m treating this version has a rough proof.
The same is certainly true for the above image of the novice monk resting on the steps at the base of The Bayon, one of the more popular structures within the Angkor Wat temple complex.
I plan to re-scan and reprint these image as part of a larger body of work on this beautiful country. I also hope to return to Cambodia in early 2020.
The Power Of The Gaze In A Portrait Photo
Even after all these years I remember very clearly being drawn to the monk’s eyes. His gaze was compelling and seemed to reveal an intensity bordering upon anger.
I’m very interested in the notion of duality, which is present in the power and intensity of the monks gaze and the perception of serenity and compassion we’d normally associate with Buddhism.
This apparent contradiction is, to my mind, the most important aspect that defines the success of this picture.
How I Photographed The Monk At The Bayon
This is not an environmental portrait. Without the caption it would be impossible to tell where the image was made.
I deliberately created a very shallow Depth Of Field (i.e., DOF), achieved by photographing at a relatively close camera-to-subject distance with my lens wide open at an aperture of f/4.
This technique helped isolate the monk from his surroundings, as does the use of the medium format Hasselblad 150 mm lens (roughly equivalent to a 100 mm lens on a full-frame DSLR camera).
I feel the camera’s square format provides an idea canvas onto which the line around the subject’s body and head are drawn. The relatively tight composition further enhances the tension within the image.
Angkor Wat, Then And Now
During my three day visit to Angkor Wat I only remember seeing another three Westerners as I made my way around the complex.
Experts were still clearing landmines in the area and I needed an armed guard to take me to Banteay Srei, one of the temple sites on the edge of the massive Angkor Wat complex.
Things have changed so much since then with Angkor Wat now well and truly on the South East Asian tourist trail. Nonetheless, this massive temple complex holds so many great opportunities for the enthusiast photographer.
I’m very much looking forward to my next visit to Angkor Wat. Perhaps we’ll meet there. Sunrise is a great time to avoid the crowds at some of the less frequented sites.