Magazine / September

Cambodia: Photography in the Hands of the Youth

The Kingdom of Cambodia was never a place I daydreamed about one day visiting, but life is funny sometimes because it brings opportunities one could never imagine. In a country where I didn’t know the language and no knowledge of their people’s history, I found myself teaching photography at a drop-in youth center in the middle of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Whenever my students saw me raise my camera to take their photo they would imitate with their hands and frame me within them.

Three times a day 15-20 students met me in a classroom to learn and practice photography at an NGO known as Tiny Toones Cambodia. Each class was split among age groups from as young as 10 to 24-years-old and the majority of the youth barely knew English. Imagine trying to explain f-stops and shutter speeds to a translator who was also new at photography, then having her explain it to the class. It was a month-long experience with lots of picture drawing on the chalkboard and grand gestures, but it led to creating images and capturing stories that no language barriers could limit.

On the first day of class I handed out a camera to each student and photographed them while they were exploring their new tool and what would soon be a physical extension of their curiosity.

I provided all of my students a small digital camera and had them get to a point where they felt comfortable approaching strangers to take their portraits. Mara, shown in the photo, was one of my bravest students.

My decision to go to Cambodia occured only a couple months before my program start date (back in August 2009). My main obstacle to raise funds to buy classroom supplies like digital cameras, memory cards, and rechargeable batteries.. In less than a month, I was able to raise enough money to purchase 10 digital cameras, my airfare, and other necessities to run the program for a month.

The center had ongoing dance sessions throughout the day. They focused on bringing in kids off the street with hip-hop culture, then provided positive mentor relationships and educational classes to keep them on a successful track.

Chep Puntiya, a student of mine in the program, made this photo and many other wonderful images in a series featuring the daily life that occurred at the Tiny Toones center.

I designed the photography program around the idea of storytelling and how it was more than just taking a photo, but making a photo. Students showed excitement to explore their surroundings with a new perspective and creative tool. More importantly, the program encouraged students to exercise their voice in telling their story and how they see the world around them. A series of photographs taken during that workshop, “The World Through Our Eyes” is a vibrant statement by youth countering stereotypes of artistic, emotional and urban desolation in the developing world.

One of the assignments I gave was Self-Portraits where each student had to creatively express themselves in a photo. My youngest student, Sure Vandi, 11-years-old, made this photo outside the center using a mirror from a tuk-tuk vehicle.

Hechan Pheakira understood my request to look for interesting things that catch their eye when she stopped in front of a store in the early morning when the owner was preparing for the day.

This is one of my favorite photos made by my student, Mean Rithykun. He wanted to
capture motion and framed this photo appropriately for his title, “Magic Ball.”

After the completion of my program at Tiny Toones, a gallery in Phnom Penh invited me to exhibit the student’s work where 100% of proceeds from prints sold were donated to the center. This began the international tour of what is now known as, “The World Through Our Eyes.” Since then, I was awarded a grant from the Visual Artist Network under the National Performance Network and have traveled to Philadelphia for a week-long residency where I exhibited the work and worked with youth in the city. Over the years, the exhibit has also toured through California and Hawaii. None of this would have happened if I didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to give back.

One of our main field trips was in front of the Royal Palace where many tourists would visit and try, or just look in amazement, at the different edible insects.

Photography is a universal language and I believe it’s wise to teach the youth how to speak it. To read more about this cause and how you can help please visit

Jen May Pastores grew up in a world of constant travel and change and carries that into her documentary work and lifestyle. Besides working with the youth she is a wedding and portrait photographer based in Visalia and Los Angeles, CA. She is also the Events Coordinator for Help-Portrait, a non-profit and global movement of photographers using their time, gear and expertise to give back to those in need.

Documentary, Wedding, People |
Twitter | @jenmayzie

4 Responses to “Cambodia: Photography in the Hands of the Youth”

  1. teri says:

    wow. this is absolutely amazing and so inspiring. would love to do something like this one day! thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for letting me share this story!

  3. Patrick says:

    Jen, such a wonderful and exciting experience. I love traveling and seeing new places and have always wanted to travel abroad to do something more than just take pictures. Getting into and experiencing the local culture can be an amazing experience especially with children. Great job. If you ever need help let me know.

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