By John Kennerdell
It’s easy to know when a job is done: it’s when you get paid. What’s harder is to decide when it’s time to wind down a long-term personal project.
In 1998, a Japanese aid agency asked me to take some photos of schools and hospitals in rural Cambodia. I’d spent time in Phnom Penh but hadn’t ventured much into the countryside, partly out of safety concerns, partly due to the wretched roads. Helping push your bus through knee-high mud lost its appeal a long time ago.
But we did this trip by riverboat, and it was a revelation. Half the country seemed to be water, served by a vast fleet of elderly boats and impossibly colorful boatmen, porters, and passengers. It felt like a ticket back to the 1950s. I did the job but then stayed on another week just to shoot this waterworld.
My experience has been that we don’t choose our best subjects. They come to us, insistent and demanding. Here was something visually exciting, culturally significant, and likely to fade into history once the road system improved. There was no question but that I had to try to document a bit of it. What to do with the photos, well, I'd work on that later.
So for ten years I kept going back, usually at my own expense. Again and again. Until, sure enough, the boats began to shrink in size and number. The weird and wonderful cargo—pingpong tables and disco balls, looms and livestock, Chinese generators and teakwood beds—grew rare, then pretty much disappeared. Old fellows in fedoras gave way to young ones in baseball caps.
The feeling had been building, but it didn’t hit with full force until one day a couple of months ago. I was on a favorite dock—still a lively little place—but things just weren’t happening. It was as if I were trying to recapture my own best shots and not quite pulling it off. Another photographer fresh to the scene no doubt would have thrived on it. For me, it simply felt like time to move on. Yes, I’ll happily go on shooting the Cambodian boat scene whenever I come across it. I’m just not going to organize large chunks of my life around it any more. Time is finite, and too much else awaits.
As if to prove the point, on the way back to my hotel, crossing the big new bridge over the Mekong, I happened to see an impromptu volleyball game on the shore directly below. Not a subject I’d ever given a thought to, but it was a nice angle and within a few frames I found myself thinking, hmmm, Asian street sports...this could have potential. The start of another project? Well no, probably nothing that ambitious. But who knows? It’s just good to feel a little of the old excitement in a new context. The best subjects and the best shots, one always likes to think, are yet to come.
Featured Comment by Semilog: "The volleyball player may be my favorite photo ever to appear on TOP. Gorgeous, like the very very best dance photography."