Photographs by Vannak Chhen
Words by George Shelley
Published on June 12, 2021
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A deep dive into identity, connection, and how emotions and mindsets govern our existence.
Vannak Chhen’s work is no easy viewing. It’s a visual battle that demands time, focus and introspection. Inner conflict seems to be the only sense that stirs in the viewer’s mind. Confronting his identity, his mind, and the lack of acceptance by his community, Vannak takes us on a journey to the darkest corners of his struggles.
Originally, the Cambodian born photographer had ambitions of capturing memories and moments throughout his life. These would be images to remind him of the good times. As much value as this has, Vannak decided to use his art to explore the most perilous and complicated conflicts that are taking place in his mind.
Although it was his brother who got Vannak into photography, it is not clear that Vannak saw eye to eye with his family. Growing up in Cambodia, he hints at a struggle for identity within a more traditional family structure. Vannak expresses his predicament – the need to hide who he really is from the ones that are supposed to love and support him the most. He uses photography to tell these stories. They are a sort of vent, a way to reveal his soul through imagery, to evoke reactions from the viewer so that they may begin to grasp Vannak’s struggle. Not always able to connect with the people around him, Vannak proceeds to air his “secrets” through the portraits that he organises.
A handful of friends have influenced Vannak’s work and provided something of a safe space for him to develop his work. For instance, Srey Sor and Aronx Wat are key collaborators in Och, and Ponloek in Self Depression, seen in this article. Vannak makes a point of making sure that I know it is in fact “my friend [who] is taking a picture of me” and that they are not a self-portrait. Vannak’s process is revealed as collaborative but under his direction of course. His ambition is to explore complicated realities that exist within his mind, to use photography as a tool “to express the feeling that [I] keep inside [of] me. To shout it out.”
Vannak’s selection of photography is intriguing, in particular his focus on portraiture. Vannak believes “it’s the only way to explore my topics”. And then there are artistic features of Vannak’s work that make me curious. His portraits on the bed that his friends took, deliberately lack detail. He is making sure that the image is difficult to understand and unnerving to look at. This is done primarily through Vannak’s use of light. Vannak explains, “You feel that the surroundings are dark, no one is with you.” Vannak is exploring his internal battles and his methods of addressing these issues.
Vannak’s work reflects a need to explore his troubles, his anger and his mental battles. He uses the camera to scream his agony to the world and to bring some perspective to the chaos that exists within him. The understanding that the way someone looks is nothing more than just an outer shell and has nothing to do with how one may feel on the inside. Vannak likes to remind everyone that your body is your own and no one else’s, no matter how close they are to you. There is a concerted overarching message here – a plea to be yourself, to “live in you”.
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