“Waiting for the water to come”: How our human desire for control has drained the heart of Cambodia

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In a new commission for WaterAid and 1854/BJP, Calvin Chow turns his lens to Cambodia’s life force, the Tonlé Sap lake

Please note, artists’ project proposals for the WaterAid Climate Commission may be subject to change due to COVID-19. 

Having started out studying journalism at university, Singaporean photographer Calvin Chow is no stranger to telling stories. However, it was while on the course that he realised a lot of things he wanted to say were “in between words”. Deciding that text wasn’t the most appropriate medium to communicate his vision, Chow turned his eye to photography. For the past three years, he has sought to “condense” and slow down the narratives of our lives through images. “With my practice, I try to capture a lot of details,” he says. “Things that say something without being overtly loud.

© Calvin Chow.

The description of his work is, in a way, fitting of his persona in general. Speaking from his home in Singapore – a home in which he has lived his entire life – Chow is humble, measured and quietly determined. He’s not one to waste his words. The fact that he lives across the road from one of the country’s few nature reserves no doubt plays a role in his modest demeanour. “Most Singaporeans live in high rises or public housing so I’m really lucky to live here,” he muses. “When I was young, there used to be so many different animals that would cross the road and enter where we live.” The photographer’s continual proximity to nature and its tranquil effects appear to have afforded him a penchant for a slower-paced life and an acute eye for detail.

According to Chow, it’s a perspective set in contrast to the stereotypical Singaporean way of life. “It’s non-stop,” he says of his native country. “It’s fast paced to the point where sometimes you don’t bother to look back at things. Things change every day: one minute you’ve got a forest and the next you’ve got a new train station.” With his photographs, he aims to hone in on some of these details while giving viewers the space for introspection. No better is this depicted than in his black-and-white series Control Zone. Shot in 2015 in response to riots in Little India over a newly imposed ban on alcohol, the images are littered with warning signs: an enforceable reminder to slow down. Sleeping figures and the blackness of night further serve to emphasise this quest for stillness.

© Calvin Chow.

While Chow doesn’t consider himself a photojournalist, his interest in such sociopolitical and environmental matters extends beyond Control Zone. Climate change is a recurrent preoccupation of his. Watching the Tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004 on the news had a profound impact on Chow when he was young, sparking a fuse that now manifests itself in his photography. “I still remember very vividly the images of this insane, unstoppable water current. It would just drag the houses out and in,” he recalls. “As I started to read more literature about climate change it made me realise that choosing to ignore the climate crisis is a result of not wanting to be open to change. If you are to accept what is happening to the planet that would mean that in some way, shape, or form that you personally are responsible and that will change everything. It will change the way you approach or live your life.”

© Calvin Chow.
© Calvin Chow.

Previous projects, including The Blindness of The Sea, which explores the impact of rising sea levels, have seen Chow use bodies of water as his focus. His investigation into the impact of climate change is what made him a clear choice for the WaterAid Climate Commission. In collaboration with 1854 and British Journal of Photography, leading non-profit WaterAid has commissioned three new photographic projects exposing how the climate crisis is making it harder for people to access basic necessities of clean water, decent sanitation and personal hygiene around the world.

© Calvin Chow.

For the commission, Chow will head to the Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia, a resource central to Cambodian life and one which is already being impacted by changing weather conditions. The lake is being silently strangled by dams up north along the Mekong meaning that Cambodian locals are literally “waiting for the water to come” to sustain their livelihoods. Chow will head there during the monsoon season of October to stay with locals for an extended period of time in an effort to capture the realities of daily life. He hopes that by working in tandem with people he’ll be able to unravel the  geopolitical question of the lake’s resources in an honest light. “I’m aware of the danger of perpetuating a single story of a place,” he says. “In this project, I hope to channel the lake’s story, its structures, people, wildlife, and its underlying humanity; to tell a broader story about water, its ironies, and its importance.”



Find out more about WaterAid here

The WaterAid Climate Commission is a collaboration between Studio 1854 and WaterAid. Want to work with major brands and NGOs on compelling, cause-conscious campaigns? View our current commission opportunities.

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.