Can One Image Change a Persons Life?


Kompong Khleang on the Tonle Sap in Cambodia

One of my hopes as a photographer is that someday one of my images makes a positive difference in someone’s life. Maybe someone will see something in one of my images that gives them a reason to visit a distant land or maybe buy a new camera to make images of their own. Maybe an image will portray a person in a way that motivates another person to take some action that brings something better to the life of the person in the image.

As of today I know of only one of my images that made changes happen in a persons life. I know that because the person whose life changed is me.

As a photographer when I go out and make images I never know in advance whether it will be a successful day or a day that I wished I just stayed home. I might be surrounded by all sorts of photo opportunities but nothing seems to click. Other times I can go out and after one press of the shutter button I know I can’t possibly get a better image that day.

After a long day of shooting and editing images I might see an image that pops out or there might be nothing at all that seems to rise to the level I had hoped. Sometimes an image pops off the screen months later having me ask myself why I hadn’t noticed that image in that way before.

In the early part of 2014 I booked a trip to Vietnam, a place I had desired to visit for years. In what turned out to be a serendipitous change of plans I was originally supposed to go to Cuba but instead I booked a photo tour to Vietnam after missing the deadline for Cuba. The Vietnam trip had an optional four day pre-trip extension to Cambodia and although I never thought about going to Cambodia I figured I might as well book the extension since I was going to be right next door.

One mistake I made was not paying much attention to the details of the tour. I had gone on a number of photo trips in the past, all of them oriented towards landscape and outdoor photography. If I had looked closer at the Vietnam/Cambodia tour I would have realized this was not a nature/travel/outdoor trip. This was about people and photographically people have always scared me. How could I miss a detail like this?

Although my stay in Cambodia was only four days long it was four days and nights filled with a world that was completely new to me. A world I liked. A world where I felt comfortable. The sights, sounds and smells had never touched my senses before. I arrived at the hotel close to midnight and after a good nights sleep I ventured out on my own to see what this new world was all about.

The photo tour wasn’t going to begin until later in the evening so it was me against Cambodia for the next few hours. On my own in a country I had never been in with people speaking a language I had never heard and words written in a way that I could not tell for a fact if they were right side up or upside down. None of this bothered me in the least.


The first image I made in Cambodia

I walked out of the hotel, turned right down the dirt road and headed for the more heavily trafficked road up ahead. When I got there I pulled out my camera and took my first shot in Cambodia. It was more a less just a test image to make sure my camera worked and the settings were in place. It wouldn’t be until more than six months later when I realized the significance of that random image. The sign you see almost hidden in the trees is a sign for Phare, The Cambodian Circus. Months later I would return to Cambodia and spend a week shooting the circus as part of the Angkor Workshop where I learned more about storytelling through photography. But that is a post for the future.


Home in Khompong Khleang, Cambodia.

About three days after arriving in Cambodia our tour we went to Khompong Khleang, a fishing village along the Tonle Sap where the home are built on stilts to keep them above the water during the rainy season. A small dirt road took us between single rows of homes on each side. Currently the water was about ten below the floors of the homes and the road is driveable. Our van let us off and we walked through the village on foot. The homes are not like homes in the United Stated at all. They could probably be better described as huts some without doors on the front or back and some with little more than a roof.


A Cambodian family in front of their home in Khompong Khleang.

Up and down the road people were very receptive to our cameras. Facial expressions can tell a lot and the need for spoken words diminishes here which is handy since very little English is spoken in this small village. I never knew that taking pictures of people could be so easy. Once I get done taking pictures of a family in front of their home I turn around and spot all of the other eyes down the road looking at me and waiting for their turn in front of the camera. The walk down this dirt road is a slow one filled with smiles and laughter. Could it get any better than this?

Down the road a ways I see a home off to my right where a young father is standing at the front of his home. Behind him on the wooden floor I see his wife eating with their two children. The man leans against the opening (I hesitate calling it a doorway since there is no actual door) with his arms casually crossed in front of him and bare feet toe to toe giving him a comfortable lean. On his face is the proudest most content smile.  By American standards this is a family that has very little but it is evident by the look of this father that they actually have everything that really matters.


Cambodian father and his family in Khompong Khleang

Of course that depends on how you define everything versus nothing. If you place all of your value on material things then it is doubtful that you will agree that this man has everything. If you place more value on your experiences  and non-material things then you completely understand.

This is the picture that had me making changes in my life. I didn’t really notice the impact of the image until after I returned home where I realized that I had way more “stuff” than I needed. I took a little inventory and quickly sat down at the computer and logged on to eBay looking to off all of my riches that I now realized I no longer needed.

Everything I could think of that had been tying me down was available online to millions of people across the country. Even my camera gear got a major shakedown. Anything that wasn’t essential needed a new home.

That exercise in trimming down gave me enough funds for a three month trip back to Southeast Asia later that year. I don’t think I can ever explain to the father how that one image got my brain moving and put me into a completely different mindset but each time I go back to the village I look for him. I have a print of that image to give him and if I see him again I will get another. It may not explain the significance but I know it will bring a smile to his face.



Young child walks down the road in Chomping Khleang, Cambodia

2 Comments on “Can One Image Change a Persons Life?

  1. Good story! I’m glad you said “change a life,” not “model a life.” I can’t imagine you’re going to retire to a village hut with a new Cambodian wife…..Or are you?

    • No, I need a little more than a hut in a village. You can take the boy out of the city…… there are still some comfort things I need. 🙂

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