Burying Boeung Tompun - Evan Cobb | Photographer & Videographer | Utah

Burying Boeung Tompun

Life in the way of development

Monks stand on the banks of Boeung Tompun and examine the lake and the city of Phnom Penh.

Monks stand on the banks of Boeung Tompun and examine the lake and the city of Phnom Penh.

Boeung Tompun is a freshwater lake located on the southern edge of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. The lake covers roughly 2,600 hectares and is filled with aquatic plants and fish. The lake's environment allows for many to farm the area for aquatic vegetables that are then sold in nearby markets. These plants are also a natural treatment center for much of the wastewater in the area. Boeung Tompun's location and size also helps mitigate the flood waters from the city. 

In 2009, the Cambodian government awarded four private development firms the right to modify Boeung Tompun from a freshwater lake into a satellite city (ING City). Since then, the lake has gone through steady changes as the realities of development become more present for those who live near Boeung Tompun.

The change to the area has been constant since sand was first pumped into the lake. The sand reduces the farmable area of the lake and decreases the lake's ability to clean the wastewater and reduce flooding. The sand is a sign that the path of development has been set and those who live there are in the way. 

The images in this project offer insight into the balancing act performed by those who currently live along the waters. This project aims to provide photographic evidence of a place and people before major change arrives and the villages are displaced. The images unveil a more nuanced look at life along the lake and, hopefully, will expand the narrative about development in Cambodia. This will allow for the viewers of the imagery to reach new understanding and for new stories to be told.

Women sit on the pipes that pump the sand into Boeung Tompun. They walked from their nearby homes for morning exercise.

Women sit on the pipes that pump the sand into Boeung Tompun. They walked from their nearby homes for morning exercise.

A mixture of water and sand spill into Boeung Tompun and overrun plants.

A mixture of water and sand spill into Boeung Tompun and overrun plants.

A farmer passes by growing aquatic plants and the skyline of Phnom Penh reflects in Boeung Tompun.

A farmer passes by growing aquatic plants and the skyline of Phnom Penh reflects in Boeung Tompun.

Phearun decided to build a new house in Prey Takong Muy, a village that extends out into Boeung Tompun, even though he believes residents will be evicted from their homes. "I think they will 100% evict people out of this place... I think if they are evicting people, it will take a bit of time," Phearon said.  Phearun believes that it is better for his family to live in a newer house while they await their fate. 

A moto-taxi driver explores the sand dunes that continue to encroach on Boeung Tompun.

A moto-taxi driver explores the sand dunes that continue to encroach on Boeung Tompun.

Om Khun pauses while he levels debris near his house next to Boeung Tompun.

Om Khun pauses while he levels debris near his house next to Boeung Tompun.

Girls play with their dolls outside of their family's house near Boeung Tompun.

Girls play with their dolls outside of their family's house near Boeung Tompun.

A table set for a birthday party sits next to Hun Sen Boulevard, the largest road in Cambodia, which runs along the edge of Boeung Tompun. The road, named after the prime minister, connects national roads from the southern part of the county to Phnom Penh.

A table set for a birthday party sits next to Hun Sen Boulevard, the largest road in Cambodia, which runs along the edge of Boeung Tompun. The road, named after the prime minister, connects national roads from the southern part of the county to Phnom Penh.

For those who continue to live along the lake during this time of transition, many choose to carry on with their day-to-day lives until a final decision is made. 

In the past, when freshwater lakes have been filled in, foreign and domestic journalists have tended to photograph the peak moments of evictions, relocation, and protests. These are the images that make it into major news outlets and these images become the only visual representation of the story. They are evocative and essential, but leave out a lot of the context. Without the context, it is hard to tell the complete story.

In my opinion, context is key. It removes levels of “otherness” and allows for viewers to begin to see themselves within the frames.

Arriving years before the final displacement allowed for me to develop relationships, learn about the place, and make pictures of quieter and usual moments. These images showcase a less dramatic story, but a real story that is consistent with the lives of many at the lake.

The people that reside near BT are pushing on with their lives as the sands come closer each day. They will continue to do so until they are removed.

Birthday party attendees share a plate of fried fish near Boeung Tompun. The fish was caught in the waters of the nearby lake.

Birthday party attendees share a plate of fried fish near Boeung Tompun. The fish was caught in the waters of the nearby lake.

A farmer tosses a bundle of water mimosa, an aquatic plant that thrives in the waters of Boeung Tompun, to another on shore. Water mimosa is often used in Cambodian cuisine.
A fisherman pulls in his net from the waters of Boeung Tompun.

A fisherman pulls in his net from the waters of Boeung Tompun.

A farmer cleans off a bunch of water mimosa before setting the plants in her boat on Boeung Tompun.

A farmer cleans off a bunch of water mimosa before setting the plants in her boat on Boeung Tompun.

A mother and daughter play in the shallows of Boeung Tompun.

A mother and daughter play in the shallows of Boeung Tompun.

The lake is a  constant presence in the lives of those who live nearby.

Many of the visuals in this project are near or on Boeung Tompun. Locals will spend their evening hours watching the sunset on the man-made sand dunes, while other families will forage for snails or plants in the shallows of the waters. The pictures showcase the variety of interactions with the water, which conveys the uses of the lake and the constant connection that currently exists with it.        

There are also images that showcase scenes that may remind viewers of their own homes and lives. My goal is to demonstrate a likeness between the people living on the edge of Boeung Tompun and people viewing these images on their screens or in print. Rather than conveying “otherness” with these images, my goal is to show that while life may look different, the thread of humanity connects us to one another.

A farmer bags up aquatic plants on the edge of Boeung Tompun. Farming the lake is a job for many who live along the lake's edge. As the lake decreases in size, there is less room to plant vegetables.

A farmer bags up aquatic plants on the edge of Boeung Tompun. Farming the lake is a job for many who live along the lake's edge. As the lake decreases in size, there is less room to plant vegetables.

A construction worker chips away at the concrete beams while framing a new house in Prey Takong Muy.

A construction worker chips away at the concrete beams while framing a new house in Prey Takong Muy.

In a house along the waters of Boeung Tompun, family photos sit above the family's  television.

In a house along the waters of Boeung Tompun, family photos sit above the family's television.

"This is my hometown and I really don't want to move out. I just want to live here," Phal, a resident of Prey Takong Muy, said. Her house was the first to have electricity (in 2002). She is proud that her community gathered funds to build a road that extends into the village. This road makes travel easier and safer for the residents of the village.

Riya sleeps soundly in her family's house in Prey Takong Muy.

Riya sleeps soundly in her family's house in Prey Takong Muy.

A farmer takes a moment during her daily work on Boeung Tompun. The aquatic plants that are farmed by many also work to clean wastewater from the southern portion of Phnom Penh.

A farmer takes a moment during her daily work on Boeung Tompun. The aquatic plants that are farmed by many also work to clean wastewater from the southern portion of Phnom Penh.

Virak brings the boat towards Prey Takong Muy.

Virak brings the boat towards Prey Takong Muy.

Cows are herded past the Mercedes-Benz dealership, which was recently constructed on Hun Sen Boulevard.

Cows are herded past the Mercedes-Benz dealership, which was recently constructed on Hun Sen Boulevard.

Boys play volleyball in an empty lot on the edge of Boeung Tompun. The created sand dunes are used by many for games and picnicking.

Boys play volleyball in an empty lot on the edge of Boeung Tompun. The created sand dunes are used by many for games and picnicking.

"I don’t know anything about the resolution, but they said that this area will be developed, but villagers request that the company leave this part, don’t buy (the land) or anything, people just want to live here," Phal said. 

In the evening, residents of Prey Takong Muy make their way to buy snacks.

In the evening, residents of Prey Takong Muy make their way to buy snacks.

Currently, there is no resolution to this story. The lake continues to be filled in with sand and the farmable area shrinks. The growing city of Phnom Penh continues to develop closer to the small villages on  the periphery of the capital city.

 The people that I talked to often spoke of their desire to stay and continue living their lives.They are proud of the developments that have come by the efforts of the community, but they acknowledge there is still work to be done. Teachers want their students to attend school consistently, parents want their children to stay away from drugs, and the farmers hope for good harvests and land to work. It is painful to realize that the place they call home may not exist in the near future.

My motivation to create a project that showcases quiet and daily moments comes from my experience with Cambodia. 

In 2012, I arrived in Cambodia to work for the United States Peace Corps. For the next two years, I worked as an English teacher in rural Cambodia. During this time, I gained insight into daily life in Cambodia and became passionate about visual storytelling. As a Peace Corps volunteer I was exposed to the narratives that permeate the majority of images of Cambodia that wider audiences see. I started to realize that the visual narratives of the country were limited and that more nuance was needed in photography of Cambodia.

My aim with this project is to demonstrate the normalcy of a place and people before it becomes “news”. Boeung Tompun and the communities that live along its banks are in the local news from time-to-time. The stories cover the large topics within Cambodia: development, environmental concerns, and displacement of people. These are important and very relevant stories, however, it leaves out the details of the day-to-day of the individuals and families that call the lake their home.

This is an attempt to show a different and less told story about Cambodia that demonstrates resilience, ingenuity, and a place that will be lost in the near future. 

I want to thank the community members of Prey Takong Muy and those that allowed me into their lives. I am grateful for the opportunity to have met so many kind and generous people who allowed this "baraang" into their homes and daily happenings. 

I would also like to thank Soumy P., who worked as a translator and conducted additional reporting for this project. Thanks for getting me to and from safely. I look forward to working with you again.

I would also like to thank Zoe Smith and Professor Keith Greenwood for the scholarship that helped fund this project.

A special thanks goes out to Professor Jackie Bell, Dr. Cynthia Frisby, and Professor Brian Kratzer. Thank you for all the support and feedback throughout this project and my time at Mizzou. 

Finally, a major thanks to Mary Beth Meehan, Charles Fox, and Peter DiCampo. These three photographers allowed me to learn from their wealth of experience and understanding. 

8 x 10 prints are available upon request. Email me for more details