My love for documentary photography and being on assignment in the field has been hard-wired into my veins. It feels so natural to me, it has become like breathing – a need for my own survival. Some of my fondest memories are those with my camera and I going on adventure together, not knowing who or what I would find.
I was 21 when I took this photo. The memories leading up to this moment were as impacting as the realization of how to be an amazing documentary photographer. Little did I know at the time these two little sisters were about to help me crack the code to documentary photography that only years later I would decipher.
Two nights prior to taking this portrait I said goodbye to my university friends in Bangkok. We had just finished a week of celebrations after completing our scholarship in Kuala Lumpur. I had no planned agenda, no place to stay, just a carefree spirit of adventure and a hunger to travel.
My traveling companion on this trip was my camera. At this stage in my life I was still shooting on 35mm film so I remember being more reserved and selective when shooting documentary photography. Each image needed to be meticulously composed and constructed. This restriction forced me to take my time and choose my moments far more carefully than shooting on a DSLR.
After leaving Bangkok I was one of 6 travelers on a 20 hour journey sitting on an open pick-up truck heading to Angkor Wat, Cambodia. My back was against the passengers window, hair being blown in all directions while I faced backwards photographing the paddy-fields passing by. We used our backpacks as a mattress to soften the blow of the pot-holes in the road and listened to a fellow travelers boom box crank out relevant and iconic songs like Fortunate Son and Paint it Black.
It was humid and we occasionally drove through heavy patches of rain. Half way through the night we were bogged midstream in an unexpected river that started to flow due to earlier torrential rain. Next thing I knew I was thigh deep in brown muddy water, ushering backpacks over my head and attempting to push our ride through the water. We had 10 or so village kids come running to help us from their nearby homes. Forty minutes later and plenty of mud dripping from my face, we were on the other side thanking our new friends and waving our goodbyes.
By 5am I had reached a hotel in Angkor. It served warm water for a shower – in rations- and had a clean-ish bed. Just happy with the basics, I took it and slept for a few hours.
Around noon I arrived at Angkor Wat and began to photograph my day. As soon as I arrived I had two little sisters adopt me – I think they were just intrigued by my camera. I stayed at Angkor Wat all afternoon with these girls. I could not pronounce their name and nor they mine. But it didn’t matter. The elder sister was inquisitive, the younger slightly shyer yet cheeky. We played hide and seek, drew together – I always carried a pen and paper. I showed them how to use my camera and continued the day shooting both portraits and landscapes.
When it started to get a little dark, the two sisters sat on one of the ancient staircases where they knew they were to say goodbye. The younger sister hid behind the older and then, from nowhere, this peace sign came up and I took the photo. But as I was shooting on 35mm film it wasn’t until later that I noticed the juxtaposition of the photo. The younger sister’s peace symbol mimics what she witnesses daily from former tourists posing for their family photo album. Then there is the elders right hand: fingers softly sitting on her lips whilst she nervously and innocently bites her nail, in need of reassurance. Lastly you notice the younger sister again, inquisitively looking around from the safety and protection of her elder sister’s back to see my reaction. It was the perfect portrait. A visual summary of their personalities in childhood.
Years later I realized why this portrait was so special and what the secret is to taking your best image…That secret is time and to photograph from the heart. It was because of the time I gave to these girls, the trust we gave each other and the rapport we built together that enabled me to photograph them in this way. Even to this day my best images are the ones where I have done exactly this…