Deep belief in Buddhism, the cement of Khmer society, led to the creation of some 4000 Wats in Cambodia.
A Wat, commonly known as a Monastery in the West, teems with an exclusively masculine population. It is a center of learning that conserves sacred traditions and texts.
To enrich my photographic work, I had to do a series on the Buddhist monks. My base was Siem Reap, so I had to find a Wat that stood out among all the monasteries that dot the site of Angkor, someplace off the beaten path.
My research led me to the oldest one which has maintained the purest traditions of a Buddhist monastery. That’s how I discovered the very ancient Wat Bo.
Twice a day, at 4 in the morning and at 5 in the afternoon, all the monks go to pray in the Pagoda located in the middle of the monastery.
Meditation precedes the chanting. An absolute silence reigns over this place and I have to make my presence as discreet as possible to avoid disturbing the harmony here. It’s easy to get close to the monks. They know me well. I’ve already spent a week talking with them and helping them improve their English.
The challenge was going to be photographing prayer and daily living scenes with a very dim light in the rooms, to compose my shots with men that are mainly kneeling right on the ground with their legs folded to the side, trying to be as economical as possible with my shots so as not to disturb the monastic silence.
I chose to load my photographic equipment into the Manfrotto Pro Light Sling 3N1-35 PL bag, so I could take out my cameras (already fitted with their lenses) by slipping the bag carried on my back from back to front with the help of a diagonal strap. With the bag on my chest, I can easily unzip the side pocket where I have my camera without having to completely open the front pocket. With total ease and discretion, I move around the one-hundred-fifty-one monks adorned in their ocher colored kezas, plunged in total meditation in their four a.m. prayers and their five p.m. prayers.
Despite the very strong performance of the D3S in low light, I never work higher than a 640 Iso, as a personal preference, favoring above all the quality of the photo.
In this specific instance, a stand is essential to adapt your shots to the context, ensuring reduced speed with a maximum of stability. However, the wide variety of scenes require quick adaptation. Juggling between slow exposure with the stand and a rapid shot with a light camera.
The choice comes down to two considerations:
– For quick movements, the NIKON DF camera with a fixed 85mm lens that I open to 1.8 for close-ups. Carrying the Manfrotto Pro Light 3N1-35 PL sling backpack with shoulder strap will give you genuine effortlessness in equipment handling. In a moment, you can slide it from back to front, which lets you support your elbows on the sack and achieve a comfortable stability. So I can lower speed to 1/30 without altering the sharpness of the photo.
Crouching on reed mats, the monks meditate in a chorus for a whole hour. With their elbows resting on their knees, they rock back and forth to the rhythmic cadence of the chants.
My eye tarries over each scene within this ambiance of antique wood. The importance of shutters that let in the light, the holy grail of the photographer. Just like the monks, I have my elbows resting on the bag and I get my camera ready during the ceremony and start taking shots.