The photo project and exhibition "I Want to Study", was held at META HOUSE in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on the 15th of August, 2019 and ran for one month.
The exhibition consisted of 42 photos, with additional text that detailed the lives of six, young Cambodian Youth and their path to education.
Please find the exhibition description, full photos, stories and acknowledgements below.
“I Want to Study”
The first few times I visited Cambodia, I was stuck by how happy the children seemed. They were always smiling, waving and saying hello to me, no matter where I went and no matter how tough their situation seemed. The more closely I looked however, the more I realised just how tough the life of a child in Cambodia can be, especially where education is concerned.
Approximately 98% of Cambodian children now attend primary school, which is a huge achievement, but only 55% make it to secondary school and a mere 10% study at tertiary level. Maths and literacy levels are often below standard and the drop-out rates are very high, particularly in urban-poor and rural areas.
Some of the main reasons for drop-outs include, family migration, financial pressure, high delinquency rates, low teaching standards and poor teacher attitudes towards children with disabilities.
Financial pressure on families is one of the biggest issues where drop-outs and delinquency are concerned. This is further exacerbated by teachers imposing ‘informal fees’, where they charge students to attend regular classes, or hold back information which forces students to attend their ‘extra classes’, that require payment. Extra classes also mean students have to stay at school for much longer, which puts additional strain on students and families. Informal fees can add up to $50 a month for each student and when you consider a teenager can earn $120 a month in unskilled employment, it’s understandable why many drop out.
Despite all the challenges that Cambodian youth face in education today, one main thing stands out above all, and that’s their sheer determination and willingness to succeed. Fortunately, there are some mechanisms in place that allow student success, or at the very least, student participation, but clearly far more needs to be done.
The project “I Want to Study”, began two years ago. It looks at six young Cambodians from lower socio-economic and disadvantaged backgrounds and the challenges they face on their path to becoming educated. They represent a small cross section of Cambodian society, but more importantly, give a face to the real human issues that confront Cambodian youth today. They show us that people are far more than mere statistics, and that education and young lives really matter.
Sreynoeurn, 9, Phnom Penh.
“I want to go to the same school as my sisters and I want to learn how to read and write.”
Despite her age, Sreynoeurn hasn’t had the opportunity to go to school yet. Her situation is complicated however, as she has to play an important role in earning money for her family.
“Helping my father beg isn’t too hard as he buys me sugar cane juice and we rest if I’m tired.”
Sreynoeurn’s father, Tin, is blind and cannot find work. In order to earn money he heads out each day to beg, with the help of his family. Sreynoeurn often accompanies him, as he gets more money when people see he has a young daughter to support. They walk for three or four hours in the often stifling heat, stopping at restaurants, cafes and markets. They take home anywhere from $2.50 to $8 a day, but this money has to support seven people.
Sreynoeurn’s living situation is also tough. She lives with her parents, an aunt, two older sisters and a younger brother, in a room that’s less than three-by-three square metres. The room costs just $25 a month, but it’s hot and dark, with only one light and a small fan. Her mother cooks by coal-fire and the tiny bathroom is a partition next to the kitchen. The room is extremely cramped and sleeping seven is a challenge, not to mention the heat when there are power outages and the fan won’t work. In spite of this, Sreynoeurn never complains.
“Sreynoeurn sometimes gets tired when she’s out walking with her father, but she’s never too tired to miss an English class at her NGO school.”
Sreynoeurn’s mother, Pov, recognises her daughter’s motivation to learn and spend time with her peers. Sreynoeurn normally sits at the front of the class and enthusiastically tries her best. She has a lot of catching up to do however, as she's only been studying English for a few months. In spite of this, she still wants to get ahead and learn, so she can eventually get a good job and support her family.
“I want my children to have an education, to be able to read and write. I want them to have good jobs, but I’m worried they won’t have the same opportunities as other children.”
Sreynoeurn’s father, Tin, sees the challenges that lie ahead for his children. He and his family understand the importance of education and the doors it can open. Because of this, Tin is planning on registering Sreynoeurn for primary school six months from now, which excites Sreynoeurn greatly. Starting school three years late will have its challenges however, but Sreynoeurn is simply happy to attend school along with most of the other kids in her community.
Piseth, 13, Phnom Penh.
“I miss my mother, I miss my home, I even miss my buffalo!”
Piseth left his small family farm in Svay Rieng Provence five years ago and now lives at his grandmother’s house with his father, brother, sister and cousin. His grandmother has lived here for twenty years and rents the remaining rooms to four other families.
“I brought Piseth to Phnom Penh so he could get a better education.”
Piseth’s grandmother looks after the family. At 67, she still does most of the cooking and earns further income through sewing and collecting rubbish for recycling. She sees how important education is for Piseth and would like him to go to university. Piseth understands this and has made the most of free classes at nearby organisations, where he’s studied English, Drawing, Swimming and Singing. While he doesn’t like studying English much, he knows it will help him in the future.
“I like school but sometimes I’m lazy.”
Piseth’s days are normally busy, so it’s little wonder he sometimes feels tired. As often as four nights a week, Piseth collects empty beer cans for recycling. He walks to a nearby outdoor drinking spot and patiently waits for locals to finish drinking. He sometimes finishes as late as 11 p.m., which isn’t ideal for a thirteen year old who is out on the streets alone. Recently, Piseth has been collecting cans less and less however, as his father needs him to help with his work as an electrician and general tradesman. Piseth enjoys helping his father, but sometimes the work is extremely hard. Piseth labours in hot, dusty conditions, doing manual work that would be challenging enough for an adult, let alone for a boy. In busy times, he helps his father everyday, but still manages to attend school.
“I used to pay my teacher 1,000 riel (25 cents) a day in informal fees, but the School Principal stopped it.”
Until very recently, the money that Piseth earned collecting cans and helping his father, went directly to his teacher, however things have changed a little thanks to the head of his school. Although he no longer needs to pay ‘informal fees’, Piseth and his classmates are still encouraged by their teacher to leave a tip in their monthly report book.
“I love drawing and inventing new things.”
Piseth is clever with his hands and is clearly very creative. He often uses things he finds around the house or at his father’s work to make various electrical gadgets, like a small fan he built using an old electric motor, a battery and a plastic bottle cut to shape with Grandma’s scissors (she often complains that they go missing!). When Piseth isn’t drawing or building something, he's usually out playing with his friends and loves kicking the football in the street.
“When I grow up I’d like to be a policeman.”
Piseth’s used to want to be a farmer, but his goals have changed since moving to Phnom Penh. Although Piseth still has many years of education and hard work ahead of him, he knows the future is in his hands and isn’t scared to take responsibility. “When I collect cans, I see people eating and I sometimes get hungry, but I am strong enough to face reality and I know I am able to make my own money.”
Sreyleak, 12, Phnom Penh.
“I want to be a teacher. I’ve loved that job since I was young.”
Children often gather at Sreyleak’s house, for fun, games and even pretend classes. Sreyleak normally plays the teacher, giving out instructions and leading the way. She possesses maturity beyond her years and seems to have grasped the importance of education very early on.
“Sreyleak wanted to start school when she was 4 years old. She's a good student and a hard worker.”
Sreyleak’s mother, Sopheap, beams with pride when she talks about her daughter. Sopheap herself, cannot read or write and doesn’t want Sreyleak to struggle through life, uneducated as she has. So each day, she sends Sreyleak to school on a moto-taxi that is shared with two other students. She gives her a small amount of food money, along with 500 riel (12 cents) to pay her teacher ‘informal fees’. They can only afford one trip a day with the moto-taxi however, which means Sreyleak makes the 30 minute return trip by foot. In class, Sreyleak’s dedication to her studies is starting to pay off as she was top of her class last month out of 35 other grade 5 students.
“I like studying English. I also like Computing as the typing games are fun!”
Sreyleak is fortunate that her local NGO school provides children with free classes. Here, she loves not just learning, but also having fun with her friends. In English she’s improving everyday and even thinks she’d like to become an English teacher in the future. Computing is also going very well, as Sreyleak has learnt how to type, navigate the internet and use Microsoft Word.
“I’m strong because I can walk home from school alone and help my mother with the chores.”
From the time she wakes until the time she sleeps, Sreyleak busies herself with school, study, work, games and more. She typically wakes at 6 a.m. and collects buckets of water from a nearby tap, as her two-by-two square metre room has no running water. She then washes dishes, before departing for her English and Computer lessons, getting breakfast along the way. She arrives at her NGO school an hour or so early so she can do her homework and revise, before having two hours of classes.
Following a short lunch break, Sreyleak then goes to primary school until 5 p.m. After the long walk home, she plays with friends, does homework and often helps her mother collect rubbish for recycling. Sorting through rubbish bags and waste on the streets isn’t the easiest of jobs to say the least, but they both go about their work without complaint, knowing that the extra $2 they earn a day is much needed. This money, together with the $40 monthly salary Sreyleak’s mother makes by cleaning her NGO school, allows them to survive, if only just.
“The most important things in my life are my mum and my education.”
Both Sreyleak and her mother realise the importance of education going forward. Her mother knows she can’t help Sreyleak with her studies, but instead tries to give her advice and support. “I tell my daughter to study hard and I know in the future she’ll be able to help herself and find work.”
Tongly, 19, Phnom Penh.
“Sport is my passion, especially frisbee and cycling!”
Tongly was first introduced to both frisbee and cycling through his local NGO. Although he’s a good cyclist, it is frisbee where he really excels. Four years of hard work, dedication and training resulted in Tongly making Cambodia’s National Flying Disk Team and further going on to tour abroad on two occasions.
“Vietnam was the first country I visited. I was just 16. It was very different, especially the food! Playing in Vietnam helped me learn off others and become a better player.”
Flying Disk also took Tongly to Thailand where he seemed to feel more comfortable and appreciate the new environment.
“It’s fun to travel, have new experiences and speak different languages. I also liked catching the sky train in Bangkok.”
The national team has a tour of the Philippines planned later in the year, but Tongly fears he won’t be able to play, as it clashes with his final school exams.
“I want to be a lawyer. I want to help people and it’s a good profession.”
Tongly became interested in law as his grandfather, who he is very close to, was a policeman and his uncle is in the army. He’d like to work as a lawyer for the government as it means he’ll receive good benefits. This year is Tongly’s final year of school, so his upcoming exams will determine whether he can get into university or not. Despite the pressure, Tongly has a positive outlook for his future. “I know I can do it and support my family.”
“If I don’t pay for extra classes my marks go down.”
At school, Tongly is a good student, but not top of his class. He has to pay 4,500 riel (just over $1) a day for extra classes but he’s sometimes too tired or busy to attend. This means falling behind and potentially being marked down.
Tongly’s English lessons at public school are also far from ideal. “At school we normally have one hour of English per week but often the teacher doesn’t show up. From November to April I’ve only seen my English teacher four times.”
Tongly’s English is surprisingly good however. He attributes this to four years of free lessons at his local NGO, where he also learns computing.
“The most important thing in my life is family. They support me and help me reach my goals.”
Tongly’s family have given him a great deal, but this certainly isn’t lost on him. Quite the opposite in fact, as he works very hard to make his parents’ lives easier. Tongly wakes at around 4:30 a.m. each day and takes his mother to the market, where they have a stall selling eggs, desiccated coconut and coconut milk. Tongly carefully sets up the stall, chops and grinds coconuts and helps out where needed. His mother, Sreymom Meas, understands just how hard he works. “He helps every day, even if he is feeling sick or tired.”
After a full day of regular and extra school classes, Tongly then goes back to the market at night time to help close the stall. He further helps with dinner and also finds time in the evening to study for his all important final year.
Even though he is sometimes tired and stressed, Tongly’s motivation and resilience, along with his supportive family, hold him in good stead as he works towards his future goals.
Makara, 15, Phnom Penh.
“I used to dream of being a school teacher, but now I’m not so sure …”
Makara’s future is uncertain. Although still only in grade seven, her parents have taken her out of school and would like her to work at a nearby hotel, as her family needs the money. Although all of this has happened quite suddenly, Makara already seems resigned to the fact. “I feel sadness and regret. I know my family situation however, so I knew one day I would have to drop out of school.”
Makara’s father is a musician and is often away travelling. Her mother works a 12 hour night shift at a nearby hotel, which leaves Makara responsible for taking care of the other children in the house. Makara has 4 siblings and their family share a small-wooden home next to the railway tracks with another family of three. Makara washes dishes and clothes, helps with the cooking and also buys food from the local market each morning. Although she works hard, Makara enjoys her time at home and often plays with her siblings. She also used to collect rubbish for recycling to pay for her schooling, but has since stopped as she waits for her upcoming job interview.
“I love photography!”
In her spare time, Makara studies at her local NGO, which she enjoys immensely. Here she has studied Computing, English, Leadership, Cooking and more, as well as participating in different activities and outings. Photography is where she has shown particular talent however, as she has a keen, creative eye and learns quickly. Makara has even worked as a photographer, shooting a small event in Phnom Penh where she earned $20, which for her age is a big achievement.
“I want to help poor children by teaching them. I like helping people.”
Makara’s personal development in her two years at the NGO has been considerable. Her teachers recognise her significant potential and frequently let Makara teach the younger students, which she handles with a great deal of maturity and care. Makara is a role model for other students and is genuinely respected among her peers.
“The most important things in life are education and money for my family.”
Makara wishes to continue her studies and eventually complete a university degree, however she knows her family must come first for now. At the same time, her NGO is considering a solution which could allow Makara to work part time for a monthly salary of $70, without neglecting her studies. This money would allow Makara to pay 40 cents daily in ‘informal fees’ to her teacher, as well as potentially providing enough supplementary income for her family.
Nothing is certain for the moment however, which means Makara’s education remains on hold for now …
Kosal, 25, Phnom Penh.
“I’ve dreamed of being a doctor since I was young.”
Kosal is proud of his achievements and deservedly so. At twenty five, he is now realising his childhood dream as he completes his Doctor’s Residency at Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital in Kampot. Ultimately, Kosal would like to run his own clinic, specialising in Dermatology and/or Cosmetics, which would add a further two to four years to his studies. It’s been a long journey for Kosal, but his aspirations are finally becoming a reality.
“Medical School costs 3,000 USD a year. I wouldn’t be able to study without being sponsored … it’s too much!”
Kosal has been fortunate to receive financial assistance from several organisations during his time at school and university. Without this help, Kosal acknowledges he wouldn’t be where he is today. One group of sponsors in particular, who Kosal met through his family’s church, gave him the option of becoming a doctor, committing to support him through his eight years of Medical School. At the time, Kosal had just completed his high school exams and was offered a university scholarship to study Environmental Science. The prospect of following his dreams was too great an opportunity to turn down however, and Kosal has never looked back.
“I am motivated by my heart, my goals, my thoughts and my family”
Kosal has worked extremely hard to get to where he is today. As a child, he was always in the top one or two of his class and in his first year of medical school, he was awarded Top Student. Outside the classroom, Kosal worked as an aerobic-fitness instructor to support himself, taking classes for two hours a day, over six years. He did this alongside his father.
“My mother and father are the most important in my life. They’ve looked after me, given me money, an education … everything! Now I want to give back.”
Kosal’s parents have worked incredibly hard to support both himself and his two younger brothers. Kosal’s father, Tiang Kheang, was previously a moto-taxi driver and is now an aerobic-fitness instructor, while his mother, Chuck Sokunthea, cleans and cooks for a family they know through their church. Their hard work and dedication has allowed all three of their children to follow their own dreams.
Firstly, I’d like to express my deepest appreciation to Sreynoeurn, Sreyleak, Piseth, Makara, Tongly, Kosal and your families. Not only did you grant me access to photograph your lives, but you also showed incredible courage in sharing your stories. For this, I can’t thank you all enough!
This project, also wouldn’t have been possible without the work of my dear friend Simouy Seng. You went above and beyond in every aspect and your dedication to the project was unwavering. Thank you!
I’d also like to thank Davry Hov, Senghai Sorn and Lihor Kim, for all your translations and additional help. Your kindness and generosity is very much appreciated!
A big thank you must also go to Empowering Youth Cambodia and Cambodia Youth Institute, along with all of your kind staff. Thank you for opening your doors to me and allowing me to photograph your students. I hope your good work in educating Cambodian Youth continues for many years to come.
Additionally, I’d like to thank Daren Beck at Action Cambodia. Your help at the end enabled my project to get over the line. Thanks again!
Finally, I'd like to thank Meta House for giving me the opportunity to hold my exhibition here. It’s this kind of support that artists need to get their work seen. Thank you!