The Phnom Penh city dump in Cambodia: Toxic green fish ponds lurk under thin ice-sheets of medical waste, industrial poison and rotting carcasses of street dogs. Large tracts are on fire, choking hot brown fumes coat your throat, blur your eyes and sting your brain. It is a place which rats scorn. It is a place where nightmares run free. It is a place where more than 400 families live hand to mouth – scavenging daily survival from the dunes of darkness.
Christmas, 2008: I had just moved to Cambodia. My friend Becky came out to visit. Together we went to the dump armed with a backpack of disposable cameras. To a group of gathered children, we demonstrated how to wind and shoot, explaining that we’d be back that evening to pay $5 a piece for spent film cartridges. Then we probably retired to a shady balcony somewhere to sip coconuts.
The images these young people captured are the most disturbingly beautiful I have ever seen. A casual glance shows barefoot children enjoying a day at the beach – until close inspection renders sand dunes into burning piles of trash and driftwood shacks turn into homes. To me they radiate both the deepest depths of misery and the soaring triumph of the human spirit. They have adorned the walls of nearly every place I’ve lived these past six years.
But in my own selfish youth and carelessness, I committed a serious crime that day. I walked away with these photos, treasured them as my own, shared them, displayed them, and even loaned them out at one point. But I never returned to the dump. These young artists, none of whom I’m sure owned a single picture of themselves, never so much as saw the incredible photos they created.
This is the great wrong which now, six years later, we were setting out to right.
From the beginning, our mission felt doomed to failure. The sun was slow-cooking our brains, all we had to go on were a few grainy prints, and we were searching for needles in a garbage heap. We had no names or ages. Where do children of the dump go? There was a dark, unstated fear about the life expectancy…
But we set out anyways. And somehow, miraculously, early in the day we had a hit: “Yeah, I know him. He’s my relative.” YES! And we got a point.
The point proved hard to follow, and started us out on an odyssey through the deepest pits of urban poverty. Wandering through countless scavenging stations where the poorest of the poor homeless Cambodians congregate to scrap metal and plastic, we showed everyone our pictures. It was hot, nauseating and discouraging. New security measures were in place at the dump itself: ostensibly to curb the rampant human trafficking of children, but more likely to cut down on the country’s bad press, so we couldn’t get out on the dump itself this time. We were left stalking the scrap sites and shanty towns around the outside. There were more than a few times I was ready to give up, but every time my old friend, translator and companion Saltia persevered and we would get another lead.
Slowly, a story started to unfold. And a name.
The smiling child on the dump, whose picture adorned my wall for years, was named Mayk.
“He’s married now,” we were told in one scavenger ghetto.
“He has a kid” we were told at another.
And his name was Mayk.
Finally, exhausted and telling ourselves “This is the very last place we look,” we wandered through a shanty town built on the back beaches of the dump. And we found Mayk’s mother. “He’s working on the dump,” she explained, “he works there every day.” She eyed us suspiciously, then wandered off to go grab him. We sat in the blazing sun and waited.
Twenty minutes later a specter appeared: a little bit older and a little bit taller, but the same wide, gentle smile. We had found Mayk.
He was friendly and warm. 19 years old, we squatted in front of his garbage-shanty and met his two-year old child. “He’s ill,” he explained of the undersized, sickly-looking babe. “He throws up. I don’t have enough money to take him to a doctor.”
He smiled flipping through the prints we gave him. “Yeah!” he says. “I remember when you came before!” And amazingly, he knew the other kids in the pictures. “This one is my little brother – that one is my friend. I still see them all – they’re all here on the dump. I can help get these to them.”
After a relaxed, comfortable chat it was time to go. “When will you be back next?” Mayk laughed. And then: “Goodbye, you made me happy to see you today. Please always stay happy, I hope you are always happy.”
Cambodia – will you ever stop rolling hot tears from my eyes? Will you ever stop smiling at me with that profound beauty of human endurance and spirit? Day by day, life goes on in the Kingdom of Dragons.