Bombay Yatra – January 07, 2007


It’s not easy to keep up with a job that most people think is exciting and good-looking. So getting chosen for a photography workshop in Cambodia two months ago put me under more pressure to be a cool photojournalist. My work had to be more exciting than trying to manage an exclusive of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the Gateway of India back home. At that point of time, my only Cambodian connection was knowledge of Brangelina’s adopted child Maddox.

After spending two days guarding the Gateway and hoping that the star couple would grace the media outside with their presence, I made a rather meek exit without any photographs.

Siem Reap airport was like a little resort, with scores of people lined up for visas on arrival to the Kingdom of Cambodia. My workshop demanded that I explore the city on my own; finally doing justice to my profession and the image that went with it. So I rented a bicycle for a dollar a day (everything in Siem Reap can be managed for a dollar) and set out to look for a story that I could tell through my photographs.

Then in a quaint little lane parallel to where our edit sessions and daily discussions were held, I quietly cycled into a house with an odd signboard. Blind people administering a Japanese Shiatsu massage caught my attention immediately. I had found my story for the workshop and I was glad that it was not a sob story about the survivors of the war or the struggling economy of the country.

As I entered their home armed with a language that Cambodia was still only learning, Chea Leap (later my main protagonist) grabbed my arm mistaking me to be a tired, foreign tourist looking for a massage. It scared the daylights out of me since I am rather allergic to unknown human touch. Suddenly, I was in the middle of seven blind people who gave massages for a living, knew very broken English and were amused at my proposition of photographing them for two days at a stretch.

The only person with vision in the house was Chea Leap’s little daughter with her tiny dog on a leash. I photographed the family, initially from a distance and then from close quarters after they had finally understood that I didn’t want a massage even on the third day.

At the posh Carnets D’Asie gallery, after a photo edit session on the last day, I bumped into this good- looking guy with a white shirt, blue jeans, scarf around his head and unassuming, cool demeanor. He could pass off as a version of Brad Pitt, I thought, perhaps my desperation taking a toll on me from my misadventures at the Gateway. And then I looked again at the stunning woman behind him handling a tiny kid on her shoulders. My jaws, along with fifteen others’, dropped to the ground. It was Pitt and Jolie exploring the place. One of my tutors, Roland Neveu presented them with a book of his photographs of Cambodia through its war-ridden years. They spoke casually and hardly drew any attention, like any other couple on a holiday. I managed to stare at them for a ridiculous 20 minutes, something my Gateway colleagues would have killed for, and still did not manage to photograph them as there were strict instructions from the gallery to respect their privacy.

I couldn’t believe that I had them so easy in a country that I least expected this from. From the beautiful ruins of the Angkor temples to an interesting photo study of the independent blind and finally Hollywood’s most celebrated couple, Cambodia had won over me completely. But I still left the Killing Fields without a massage and with a shaken frame of Brangelina taken on the sly that is the exclusive that never was.