Asian markets are such a wonderful miscellany of contrasting colours, smells, sights and sounds – and nowhere is this more true than in Cambodia’s second largest city of Battambang. Dark corners hide from both the distorting light emitted by flickering fluorescent tubes overhead and the burning glare of sunlight streaming in through openings in the walls. Khmer stall-keepers sit on trestle tables, the epitome of a calm and quiet self-containment that is at complete variance with the loud, cheerfully coloured shirts they wear and the buzz of movement around them. I was there in June, when outdoor temperatures average highs of 33C (91F). Somehow, vegetables and poultry products managed to look crisp and fresh in spite of being displayed in an open alley-way in wilting heat, and the fruit looked wholesome and cool, regardless of being hand-cut and on offer in the most unlikely of places.
Markets are a photographic challenge for me because of the wild variances in light and the abundance of potential photographic subjects. My big decisions are always about coping with the jumbled cacophony of images and deciding what to leave out. Karl Grobl, who with Gavin Gough, Marco Ryan and Matt Brandon was leading our photo-tour, reminded me about using slow shutter speeds to get a feeling of movement, and I spend part of my morning leaning on a pole for stability, before wandering off to explore the space and finding my “subject”: a quiet garland maker in the middle of a busy cross-roads.
Rich-smelling jasmine garlands are everywhere in Asia. Whether hung as protective talismans in vehicles or laid at public or private altars, they are made, sold and given as offerings to the local deities. (For more about their use, check out a delightful article from Vivienne Khoo: “Cancer and the Queen.”) Selling for pennies, they are labour-intensive to make, even by skilled hands; I love watching as workers use needles or bamboo skewers to thread jasmine, symbol of promise and purity, and assorted other flowers, in this case the wonderfully fragrant Magnolia champaca, onto threads made from banana leaf or cotton to make wreaths of all shapes and sizes.
This little corner was a welcome respite of scented calm right in the middle of the busy meat market, and I was very appreciative of the garland seller’s willingness to have me hang around and watch over her shoulder while she worked.
A timely reminder: no matter how busy a place is, it is always possible to stop and smell the roses – or jasmine and magnolia, as the case may be.
Photos: 23 July 2011