Photographs by Ranuth Yun
Words by Jaime Gill
Published on December 1, 2020
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Ranuth Yun looks back at his artistic journey to becoming an image-maker who is perplexing audiences with his arresting portraits.
When he was 15, Ranuth Yun – breakout star of this year’s Photo Phnom Penh Festival – noticed something. Fascinated by the power of images, he was disappointed when he checked the credits in local magazines or TV shows and found that the photographers or film-makers were always foreign. “I wondered why it was never a Cambodian name. In fact, the only times I saw them with good cameras they were taking pictures of tourists at Angkor Wat, not doing the more interesting work. That felt wrong.”
At the time, the young high schooler didn’t dream he could change it himself. His family, living in rural Siem Reap, were struggling financially after Ranuth’s father died when he was young. The only camera the budding photographer could access was a compact borrowed from an uncle. “I didn’t know much about photography,” he admits. “I just knew I loved it. I borrowed that camera if I could, but if not I used a Nokia phone with its low-grade camera. My first pictures were really bad.”
That’s no longer the case. Ranuth’s “Sprouts of Life” series, his first headlining exhibition, was unveiled at the Insitut Francais as part of the 2020 Photo Phnom Penh Festival. It created instant buzz, with audiences struck by the intriguing and sometimes unsettling originality of his portraits of 19 Cambodians of varying ages, each wearing masks of different kernels, from rice grains to sunflower seeds.
Many observers commented on the new talent’s obvious technical mastery, with the Institut Francais singling out Ranuth’s “perfect control”. He gained these skills during several years working as a commercial photographer and film-maker. He bought his first professional camera shortly after graduating from high school, and – after a detour into life as a travel agent at his mother’s behest – took the leap into professional photography in 2016.
Ranuth rapidly gained an excellent reputation for his work with non-profits and the tourism industry, as well as by winning several photography competitions. “I won an iPhone and a drone, which made me look more professional to clients. I still have them.” But it was a chance meeting in a restaurant in 2018 that triggered his next evolutionary step forward, when he encountered acclaimed Khmer photographer Sovan Philong. They discussed shared interests, and the older man soon challenged Ranuth to push his talent further by moving from commercial to artistic work.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know anything about the idea of photography as art. Nobody tells you that stuff if you’re an ordinary kid. And when Mr Philong started to show me art photography, I thought at first it was senseless , just photographs of nothing.” Yet his new teacher saw raw talent in Ranuth, and included him in the first of several workshops that would transform him.
Soon Ranuth knew he wanted his photography to say something, but didn’t know what. “It’s really hard to come up with something new,” he laughs. His lifelong love of rural Cambodia became his inspiration. One day, he noticed an old woman husking rice, a couple of grains stuck to her face. “Sprouts Of Life” was born, and soon Ranuth was hard at work persuading friends, family and strangers to take part.
“Some people are at first disturbed by the pictures. The grains can look like a disease or disfigurement. But with time they start to think differently. I chose people of every age because I want people to think about the cycles of life. A kid without education is like a seed. Both still have everything ahead, are yet to grow. An older person is like a full-grown tree. It’s not growing any more, but it’s bearing fruits and nourishing them, just like old people teach youth and pass on traditions.” A little like Ranuth himself, and how more experienced photographers have nurtured his talent.
Having been surprised and thrilled by his inclusion in Photo Phnom Penh, Ranuth has already turned his gaze towards his next project. “My ideas are still taking shape,” he said. “COVID-19 has actually been good for me in some ways. It’s been a struggle financially, I lost many clients, but it’s given me time to explore my art and realise this is where my passion is.” And, of course, it is his very Cambodian name in the credits, sowing the seeds for future young artists.
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