Angkor Photography Festival: Small is Beautiful

An evening of slide shows at the FCC Hotel [photo © Oyen Rodriguez]

We believe that it is better to form friendships rather than simply make professional contacts.


In 1973, the economist E. F. Schumacher published a collection of essays entitled ‘Small Is Beautiful’. The book argued persuasively that bigger is not always better. If projects are to be sustainable and offer real benefits to human beings, a modest scale of operation is often the preferable approach. The book was subtitled ‘A Study of Economics As If People Mattered’.

People do matter, of course, that was his point.

Photographers tend to work as individuals. They function on a human not a corporate scale. As such, smaller and more intimate events are often better suited to the development of their practice and the widening of their horizons. For this reason, small photography festivals frequently provide greater opportunity to an individual photographer than do their larger more glamourous, but also more anonymous, metropolitan counterparts. Small festivals are places to form new relationships, gain new insights and reach new eyes in a meaningful way. It is for that reason I begin this yearlong tour of some of the world’s most interesting photography festivals in the town of Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia and not, say, Paris, London or New York.

The Angkor festival takes its name from a city that was once the epicentre of the Khmer kingdom, whose ruins, close to Siem Reap, are now a World Heritage Site. Held annually towards the end of the year, the weeklong event includes exhibitions and evening ‘slideshow’ projections. However, as its founding director, Jean-Yves Navel, emphasises: “it is really important that the soul of this festival be first and foremost the workshops.” This is about people who make images.

What is remarkable is the degree of access the festival and workshops afford aspiring photographers. Angkor is extraordinarily egalitarian, and everyone can meet and talk and share ideas with everyone else. The workshops are available to Asian photographers free of charge and many highly regarded international photographers come to the festival at their own expense, just to be part of the process. Money is not the driver here, the passion to share skills and ideas is. It is a mark of the success of the festival that many of the former workshop students have gone on to become respected practitioners in their own right, and a mark of its spirit of generosity that they now return to Angkor to run workshops themselves.

This year [2016] marks the twelfth edition of the Angkor Photography Festival and Workshops. It is an event by and for photographers. It recognises photographers not as an industry but as a community; a community that comes together each year because they genuinely enjoy each other’s company and know that in every conversation there is something to learn, some fresh perspective to be revealed, a new friendship to be made.

In the following interview, I talk with the festival’s founding director, Jean-Yves Navel, the Program Coordinator, Françoise Callier, and the Asia Coordinator, Jessica Lim, about the history and ethos of the Angkor Photography Festival and Workshops, and the opportunities the event provides for young Asian photographers.

Alasdair Foster


Alasdair: How did the festival begin?

Jean-Yves: In 2005, we had the idea of holding photography workshops for emerging Asian photographers in Siem Reap. We discussed this with Gary Knight of the VII Agency and this led to the proposal that we create a photography festival to run concurrently with the workshops. That’s how it began… And with the help of other photographers, our first Angkor Photo Festival was launched in October of that same year.

An exhibition of work by Hans Silvester presented in the garden of Raffles Grand Hotel [photo: © Lim Sokchanlina]

What is the aim and ethos of the festival?

Jean-Yves: The three words that represent best our values are: discovery, education and sharing.

Through the festival and workshops, we want to discover and, in some cases, rediscover talented photographers from all over the world and to showcase them on an international platform. 

The educational aspect is delivered through our two workshop programs. The Angkor Photo Workshops are free and aim to provide affordable and accessible professional training for emerging Asian photographers. Meanwhile, the Anjali Photo Workshops are organised especially for under-privileged children. Anjali House supports street children through education, health care and the arts, and the workshops use photography as a tool to foster creativity as a means to educational development and encouraging self-confidence. All our workshop tutors are volunteers.

Last but not least, sharing is a component that spans all three events, and involves everyone – the team, the photographers, visitors and our international audience. Our activities are all about sharing: sharing amazing projects and work; sharing ideas and ideals; and, of course, sharing our passion for photography.

Françoise: One big goal is to promote the work of Asian photographers in other continents, which we do through exchanges with other festivals and galleries. Also, an important philosophy we have is that all our activities have to be free. No-one should have to pay to participate in our events.

Jessica: We also work hard to keep the atmosphere casual and welcoming. We have realised that it is much more enjoyable to be making friends than creating professional contacts, and it leads to longer-lasting relationships.

[Upper Left] © Remissa Mak and AsiaMotion from the series ‘Fishes and Ants’; [Lower Left] © Romi Perbawa and Panjalu Images ‘Riders of Destiny’; [Right] Work initiated during the Angkor Workshops © Neak Sophal from the series ‘Hang On’

Does the festival focus on a particular kind or genre of photography?

Françoise: As the festival’s Program Coordinator, I can be quite eclectic in my selections. That said, I’m more interested in documentary-style photography because it is full of life and asks real questions. Personal stories move me a lot. I need to be able to understand what it is that the photographer wants to say or tell – with more conceptual work that isn’t always very clear.

But I do not think it is good to have the same pair of eyes making the selection year after year and, since 2014, two young Asian photographers have been helping me in the selection process. They are Kosuke Okahara from Japan and Sohrab Hura, a Magnum photographer from India.

Jean-Yves: Luckily, a lot has changed since 2005. Back then, it was difficult to show or publish work of documentary photographers covering social issues.

Where do you show the work in the festival?

Jean-Yves: Our evening ‘slideshow’ projections are a key part of the festival, and we show the work of around 130 photographers this way each year. Every evening during the festival, we present the work of around fifteen to twenty photographers. We also have a series of public exhibitions, staged in locations such as the Royal Gardens and alongside the Siem Reap River. This year, we will have seven exhibitions in total, presented across Siem Reap. On the Closing Night of the festival, we present a slideshow projection of work created by the participants in the workshops – thirty photo stories each year!

Who attends the festival?

Jessica: We get a broad mix of visitors. Along with the professional photographers and industry leaders who come to Siem Reap just for the festival, there is a strong expatriate community here who also attends the events, and of course the general public, as all our events are open and free to attend. December is one of the peak visitor periods for the town, so we also get plenty of tourists who are delighted to find that their visit coincides with the festival week!

How has the festival changed over the years?

Françoise: The festival began under different management, but the way the festival currently operates started around 2008. There haven’t been any major changes since then.

Jessica: There has been no deliberate decision to change the programming of the festival, but we have inadvertently expanded due to the general growth of photography in the region, leading to more submissions, more visitors and more requests for activities during the festival.

Françoise: But, while the festival is growing, the friendly atmosphere remains, and that is very important for us.

Is each festival themed?

Jessica: While our focus has been on the story-telling aspect of photography, the festival has always had an open theme. However, since our tenth-anniversary edition in 2014, we have included a new component in our program – The Impact Project. The project showcases stories about people or small organisations who are making a positive impact on social or environmental issues. We’ve had great feedback and a wonderful response to this.

Françoise: We think there is a real need to balance the overwhelming mass of ‘bad news’ reported by the mainstream media with some happier occurrences. The efforts of those working hard to make a positive difference are underreported. We want people to recognise that the actions of one person can lead to a positive change.

Jessica: In 2014, we also presented the inaugural GreenLight exhibition series, an initiative to promote photo-stories which highlight environmental issues through the presentation of public exhibitions.

How might an international photographer become involved in the festival?

Jessica: We have a call for submissions in April each year. It is a fairly simple process and we encourage photographers to submit via our website.

If a photographer is selected, who pays for what?

Jessica: We do not have a policy of paying photographers if they are selected. However, we do pay for exhibition prints and shipping. We also try hard to find sponsors to pay for the accommodation and flights of exhibiting photographers, so that they can be present at their own show.

[Left] © Li Lang from the series ‘The Yi People’; [Right] © Yang Yankang and Agence VU from the series ‘Buddhism in Tibet’

Have you shown the work of Chinese photographers before?

Françoise: Yes, both in exhibitions and as slideshow projections. To mention a few names: Li Lang, Yan Ming, Fan Ho, James Zeng Huang, Li Wei, Yang Yankang, Zhang Xiao, Jian Zhenqing and Wang Fuchun.

Fan Ho’s exhibition was greatly appreciated. Through his humanistic approach, he captured the soul of Hong Kong. Ho is recognized as one of the great masters in black and white photography and his images reveal a fascination with geometric pattern and line, and demonstrate his clever play with shadow and light.

© Fan Ho and Modernbook from the series ‘Hong Kong Yesterday’

In 2015 we presented the IPA Hong Kong and Taiwan Showcase. [Formed in 2010, Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA) is an influential platform for photography and the arts in Asia.] The showcase was presented by IPA founder Kevin Wy Lee, who was our guest curator last year.

Aside from the exhibitions, what kind of events do you run during the festival?

Françoise: For the past two years, we have started to include afternoon sessions where photographers can talk about their new books or make screenings of their recent projects. This arose following feedback from photographers on what they find useful.

Free Asian Workshops with Ian Teh and Kosuke Okahara [photo: © Soumyadip Gosh]

Jessica: It began with the photographers taking the initiative and organising their own sessions just to talk about new work and share their experiences. We decided that it would be much more effective if we helped organise these events and they have become a regular part of our programming since 2013. These afternoon sessions are now open to everyone – so, if you would like to organise a talk, share your work with your peers to get feedback, or even launch a discussion about current issues in photography, please get in touch with us.

Do you organised portfolio reviews?

Françoise: Yes we do. The reviewers are a mix of established photographers, curators, picture editors, festival directors and so on… Portfolio reviews became part of our regular program in 2013.

Portfolio reviewing at the Festival Centre [photo: © Soumyadip Gosh]

Jean-Yves: Over the years we have become recognised as one of the leading festivals in Asia in terms of discovering new talent, and a lot of people come just for the chance to reach out to new photographers in Asia.

Jessica: The portfolio reviews have certainly led to even more discoveries being made. For example, John Novis (the previous photo editor at Greenpeace) met a number of photographers at the Siem Reap reviews who have since gone on to shoot for his organisation. The Auckland Festival of Photography [New Zealand] and Ballarat International Foto Biennale [Australia] have also discovered great work through conducting reviews, which they later presented at their own events.

So you work with other festivals?

Françoise: Yes. Throughout the year, we engage in on-going collaboration and exchanges with fellow photography festivals and cultural events around the world. We believe this is a great way to give more exposure to the photographers in our program and to workshop alumni.

Can you give me some examples?

Françoise: Well, in 2015 alone, we worked with Chobi Mela in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Odessa–Batumi Photo Days Festival in Georgia; Bangkok Art and Culture Center in Thailand; Auckland Festival of Photography in New Zealand; Dali International Photography Festival in China; Ballarat Foto Biennale in Australia; Mount Rokko International Photo Festival in Kobe, Japan; Tbilisi Photo Festival in Georgia; Suwon International Photo Festival in the Republic of Korea; GuatePhoto festival in Guatemala… And we have an on-going association with Prix Pictet [an important international award for photography addressing social and ecological sustainability].

Anjali Workshops in the Butterfly Garden [photo: © Sean Lee]

Jean-Yves spoke earlier about the workshops you run for street children through Anjali House. Can you tell me more about this initiative?

Françoise: The Anjali Photo Workshops are held one week before the festival, and the resulting images are presented during the festival at Children’s Day. The workshops were initiated in 2005 by the Magnum photographer Antoine d’Agata when he started to teach photography to street children. This led to the creation of Anjali House, an independent NGO that today provides food, shelter and education to over one hundred underprivileged children in Siem Reap.

Jessica: The main aim of these workshops is to be an avenue for creative expression conducted in a fun, open-ended format that emphasises individual freedom of expression. The workshops involve a series of outdoor photography excursions, which are then followed by group discussions and sharing sessions. The older participants take their cameras home so that they may continue photographing independently on the weekends.

[Left] © So Kim an untitled work from an Anjali Workshop; [Right] © Try Sophal ‘The Life of an Apsara’ from Anjali House. In June 2010, Try Sophal won First Prize at the inaugural You Khim Memorial Women’s Art Prize for this photograph.

Each participant is given the freedom to photograph any subject or object they wish. This is important. Open-ended experiences are success-oriented because there is no ‘right’ way to accomplish something. This allows the activity to be a source of motivation for children of all levels of developmental ability. It provides participants with an opportunity to make a statement about their individuality through photography, this helps build self-esteem, confidence, feelings of independence and an eagerness to learn.

During the course of the workshop, the children are challenged to explore, discover and experiment with photography as a form of communication and expression. Children who are facing difficulties in other parts of school curriculum are given a different way to communicate their talents. On a broader level, artistic creative activities are known to benefit children’s development in a myriad of ways. With the emphasis placed on the process rather than the product, such activities aid young children’s motor skills and cognitive development, while also strengthening problem solving and critical thinking.

Closing night with all the students, 2014 [photo: © Soumyadip Gosh]

What makes your festival different from other festivals?

Françoise: . It is important that the festival stays small, because we want to remain close to all the photographers in order that we can get to know them and so be able to help them better. There is no hierarchy, everyone can talk to everyone. If the festival were to get too big, it might lose its original spirit.

Jessica: At Angkor Photo Festival, no one wears a badge declaring their status!

[Left to Right] Jean-Yves Navel, Françoise Callier and Jessica Lim [photo: © Laura Lalvee]

Biographical Notes

Co-founder of the festival, Jean-Yves Navel is a graduate of Fine Arts in Lyon, France. After a career in international business in Africa, Argentina and the Caribbean, he moved to Cambodia, where he has lived since 1998. Jean-Yves Navel stepped down as festival director in 2017.

Françoise Callier has made it her life mission to promote and highlight photographic talent, she is now curator for many photography festivals around the world. Previously, she worked for fifteen years as a photographers’ agent at 2e Bureau press office. Together with Sylvie Grumbach, she handled the press promotions of Visa Pour l’Image [festival] in Perpignan, France, and was also the French correspondent for Corbis from 1995 to 1998. She is currently International Exchange Coordinator for the Angkor Photography Festival.

Jessica Lim began her professional life as a writer and editorial photographer in her native Singapore. She went on to serve as a photo and news editor for Drik (Dhaka, Bangladesh) and as photographer liaison for Majority World [an initiative advocating for equal opportunities for photographers beyond the minority Western world]. Jessica Lim joined the Angkor Photo Festival and Workshops in 2010, initially as its coordinator and, since 2017, as festival director.

Established in 2005, Angkor Photography Festival and Workshops is held annually in the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is Southeast Asia’s longest-running international photography festival. Website here.

Coronavirus Update

With the uncertainty and challenges brought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, while preparations continue for the sixteenth edition in November 2020, the final decision about when and how the festival is staged remains open. Tentatively, the workshops are planned to be held from 18–24 November 2020, followed by the public festival from 24–29 November 2020.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the January 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.