As children shriek with joy as they chase pigeons, their parents enjoy the splendor of the royal palace and the cool breeze of Tonle Sap, one man’s desperate demeanor goes against the backdrop of happy families capturing carefree moments on their smartphones.
Among the throngs of visitors happily relaxing along Riverside, one group of people stands out, holding hands with professional-standard cameras instead of bags of bird seed and snacks.
One, Poor Shamron, his face cloudy with gray skies threatening downpour, finds it increasingly difficult to make a living by capturing the happy memories of happy travelers as increasing competition and the spread of technology threaten to dislodge him.
“I’ve been taking photos here for over nine years, my photos starting at 1,500 riyals all the way up to 20,000 riyals per photo.
“In the past, there were not many photographers, and on Saturdays and Sundays I could only spend a short time photographing to earn 400,000-600,000 riyals, and I make at least 200,000 riyals most days.
“But now the number of photographers has gone from about 30 to nearly 60, and on public holidays there are photographers everywhere, so it’s getting more and more difficult,” he says.
While the increase in the number of photographers coupled with the decrease in the number of tourists makes his once stable business, Shamroon says this is exacerbated by the high prices of phones with affordable, high-quality cameras.
“The increasing number of people with smartphones has really affected the photographers working in front of the royal palace.
Increasingly, when we ask a visitor if he wants us to record his happy moments for him, he will show his camera phone and walk away.
“Nowadays people from the provinces still want me to take pictures with my professional camera when they visit here, while Phnom Penh residents mostly use their camera phones to take pictures themselves,” he says.
While his wife sells snacks in front of the royal palace, Shamron talks about his ongoing passion for giving visitors the perfect souvenir of their day and demonstrating his skill as a skilled lensman.
However, the efforts of the couple from Prey Feng County to earn a living in front of the royal palace are increasingly not enough to make their family life comfortable.
“The last years have been very difficult due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the collapse in tourist numbers, and the birth of our second child.
“While things were very difficult, they are a little better now. With photography, in a good month with so many clients I can probably save $400 to $500 after expenses, but in other cases, I can just survive Shamron says.
With the hustle and bustle of the booming district threatening to drown out the gentle voice of a father of two, he talks about the love of his life as a photographer.
But while Shamron is still passionate about his career, he hasn’t allowed his two children to follow him into it because it can be incredibly demanding.
“Being a photographer, and while interacting with people is a fun part of the job, you always have to be cheerful and confident and ask visitors to take their pictures – even if you don’t feel like it!
“If you don’t do this, you won’t find any clients because there are a lot of photographers and they are very competitive. Finding a client can be difficult in the middle of a hot day.
“I won’t change my job or where I do it because we started here in front of the Preah Ang Dornkyo shrine. It’s very sacred and won’t let us suffer – I’m still able to earn enough money to support my wife and children.
“But for my two children, I want them to study and not follow in their parents’ footsteps. My wife and I have been doing this for over nine years, and we’re very tired, so I don’t want my children to live the same life as us,” Shamroon says.
Echoing Chamroeun’s recent experiences is Srey Leak from Neak Loeung Township in Kandal Province, who has been working as a photographer for hire in front of the Royal Palace for over 10 years.
While professional photographers are not yet completely discouraged from plying their trade in front of the mansion — 10 of her Neak Loeung relatives also work as photographers there — she says most Riverside visitors now use smartphones to record their memories.
“The biggest problem a photographer faces in front of the royal palace is the smartphone because many visitors no longer want us to take pictures of them using our professional cameras.
“In the past, this business was able to provide a decent income to support the family, but now we just live. However, I don’t think I will stop taking pictures here because I can still make some money. He is not quite dead yet.
“But in 10 years everyone will have high-tech smartphones and they won’t be using our photography services anymore — 10 years from now I’ll have to do something different,” says Srey Leak.
To make her point, a group of four young women are standing in front of the royal palace, happily taking pictures of each other on their smartphones, unaware of the photographers waiting nearby.
Among them, San Srinith says that while photographs from a professional camera were of better quality, using her smartphone allowed her to capture the moments anywhere, anytime, for free.
“Professional photographers who use professional cameras will produce better pictures than we can on our phones, but we want to use our phones because it’s fun to take pictures ourselves and it doesn’t cost anything,” says the latest edition from the Royal University of Law and Economics.
A housewife enjoying Riverside on a weekend afternoon says the nature of keeping photos has changed with the advancement of technology.
“Previously we kept physical photos in albums at home, but nowadays there is no need to print anything as we post our photos on Facebook and social media.
“In the past, people really needed professional photos taken to record events, but in this digital age, people can do that with their smartphone, as it’s easy to use and able to shoot in multiple ways,” she says.
Freelance photographer Ming Kemlong says the challenges photographers face in front of the royal palace are those of professional photographers in general.
“For me, the photographer must now be more creative than ever because people today want beautiful, eye-catching photos based on their personal style, and their phones will have a lot of options with various applications for editing.
“Now more than ever it depends on the creativity of the photographer to draw people in. A successful photographer can add something different to grab attention.
“So when people visit the royal palace, for example, they will see such creativity and will want to have their picture taken,” he says.
The young freelance photographer adds that despite all the advantages of the digital sphere, traditional print photos still have their appeal and importance.
Leaving your photos stored on your phone leaves you at a high risk of losing them all if the phone is ever lost or broken.
“Plus, there’s still something special about having physical images so kids can see and handle them,” he says.
Additional reporting by Bor Sophia, Luck Chandara, Hack Eddy, Urk Chanthida and Fong Lilly.
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