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Erika Pineros | Amongst the dead

CAMBODIA – September 2011. Gravestones stick out of the water during the 2011 monsoon in Doeum Sleng village.

Having risen from the ashes of the Khmer Rouge genocide and its long civil war, Cambodia has experienced a steady – and some even argue healthy – economical growth over the past decade. There are vast signs of development across the nation – construction sites have become a clear sight over the country and cafes, bars and restaurants seem to open up on a daily basis in Phnom Penh, which thanks to the huge rising numbers of luxury cars has often been called ‘the Lexus capital of the world’.

Nonetheless, Doeum Sleng – one of the capital’s most impoverished communities is only 15 minutes away from the heart of Phnom Penh. In many cases having been evicted from their previous homes or simply having no other choices, residents have found amid the gravestones of this Chinese Vietnamese cemetery a quiet place to rebuild their lives.

Coming from different backgrounds and at different times, residents have adjusted to their new environment and have learnt to coexist with the dead. The initially stigmatized gravestones have now become part of their daily life and are used as benches, tables or other practical pieces of furniture.

Some residents rent their homes for a US$3 monthly fee, whilst others claim to have lawful rights to their land. Yet others have placed their wooden huts wherever they can, squatting amongst the graves.

Despite their resilience and adaptability, residents have found themselves isolated by their living conditions and poverty levels. Like other impoverished communities across Cambodia, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other chronic diseases are widespread. However, a high rate of mental illness seems to be a particular characteristic amongst Doeum Sleng’s residents.

This ongoing project aims to document the daily lives of this community focusing on the social issues caused by their forced unusual living conditions.

CAMBODIA – August 2011. A woman walks around the village collecting recycling material for sale, in the background another woman can be seeing sitting on a grave. Isolated by their living conditions, residents of Doeum Sleng struggle for means of income.

CAMBODIA – September 2011. A boy swims amongst the graves during the floods of 2011. The community has no sewage system and waters were highly contaminated.

CAMBODIA – September 2011. Suffering from a mental illness, Vanna’s son went walkabouts only to be found dead a couple of weeks later in a lake 20km out of Phnom Penh. In the background a chair with offerings can be seen – unlike the graves that surround her house, and following the Buddhist tradition, Vanna cremated her son’s body and has set up a modest temple for his remains in her home.

CAMBODIA – September 2011. Residents of Doeum Sleng have gotten used to the gravestones and use them as benches in a park.

CAMBODIA – September 2011. Vanna has been living here for over 15 years. She combs her granddaughter’s hair in her shop. To grasp a living, she has set up a small shop amid the graves.

CAMBODIA – March 2012. A woman bathes her malnourished 14-month-old child. The initially stigmatized gravestones have now become part of their daily life and are used as benches, tables or other practical pieces of furniture.

CAMBODIA – July 2011. Women sit on the graves to play cards and gamble. Doeum Sleng is a an impoverished community where unemployment, gambling and alcohol abuse are widespread.

CAMBODIA – February 2012. Children playing on the graves in Doeum Sleng village.

CAMBODIA – September 2011. A woman walks over the graves in front of her flooded home in Doeum Sleng during the most devastating floods over the past decade in 2011.

CAMBODIA – July 2011. Men have drinks in the crematorium during Pchum Ben, a national celebration when Cambodians pay their respects to their deads. Families have been squatting in a crematorium over years, making it their home.

CAMBODIA – September 2011. Fried snacks sit on a grave. The initially stigmatized gravestones have now become part of their daily life and are used as benches, tables or other practical pieces of furniture.

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