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Photojournalist Charles Fox's Incredible Work in Southeast Asia and India

29 January 16 words: Rich Fisher

"It took me a long time to know what I wanted to say as a photographer – and it took going to Cambodia for me to work that out"

So how did a lad who grew up in Ravenshead end up living in Cambodia and making a successful career out there as a photojournalist?
When I was sixteen, I went to college in Nottingham for a couple of years and did a media course. After finishing, I continued making photographs and always had that interest, but I sort of lost my way a bit and ended up drifting into jobs that I wasn’t really interested in. By the time I got to my mid-twenties, I’d had enough and decided to travel around Asia. I had no real plan, but I took my camera. I did the typical backpacker route through Vietnam and Laos, and then crossed the border from there into Cambodia. Straight away I remember thinking, “There’s just something about this place that feels really interesting.”

I ended up in Phnom Penh, the capital, and decided to stick around. I got a job working in a restaurant at night, and made photos during the day. I started getting some of my work published by local newspapers, and that was it. As time went on, I just kept getting offered more and more projects, and I’m lucky enough to now be in a position where I do the thing I love full-time. I’ve lived in Cambodia for most of the last ten years; I’ve studied the language and speak quite good Khmer now – some days better than others. It’s as comfortable for me as it is living in the UK.

A lot of grim stuff has happened in Cambodia in recent history, such as the Khmer Rouge regime in the seventies that was responsible for the deaths of over a million people. What’s your take on all that?
In 2007, I was part of a small group of photographers who were allowed into the first trial of Duch, who was part of the Khmer Rouge regime. He was in charge of the S21 prison camp in Phnom Penh where a lot of people were put to their deaths. I’ve also gone on to photograph a number of people who were affected by what happened at the time, including portraits of people who were in forced marriages. Forty years on, the legacy of all that recent history is still apparent in day-to-day life in Cambodia, and I find that fascinating. That’s one of my main reasons for being there – I’m really interested in the legacy of conflict and colonialism.

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photo: Charles Fox

Over your years working in Asia, you’ve undertaken some quite long-term projects…
After I’d been in Cambodia a while, I started to feel that there were a lot of stories that hadn’t really been told – the only way I knew how to tell them was through photography. To be able to tell a story properly, you need to invest a lot of time in it. I’ve just spent two and a half years documenting a team of divers who are clearing unexploded bombs from lakes and rivers there. A lot of people don’t realise that Cambodia was massively affected by the Vietnam war – the country was bombed heavily by the Americans.

It is an amazing project. I went out on the water with the divers. I had to learn how to dive for the project, although they’d only let me dive with them when they were doing training missions. There was still an element of risk though – one time I was with them and they managed to pull a massive 500lb unexploded bomb out of the water. One of the guys turned to me and said, “If that goes off, we’re all dead.” They’re really brave and their work is ongoing, there are still a lot of bombs out there for them to recover.

I recently exhibited these photographs in London and Adelaide, Australia, and although it took me years to make those photos, people who came to the exhibition were able to look at them all in nine or ten minutes. But I really like the fact that photography enables you to tell quite a long story in a concise way. Some of the photographs are also going to be included soon in exhibitions in New York and Paris.

Although you’re based in Cambodia, you regularly work all over Asia. Tell us about some of the assignments that you’ve done…
Recently I’ve been working with American veterans from the Vietnam war who have returned to Vietnam. It was surreal – I drank beer and went bowling with a couple of them. I also climbed a mountain with this other guy, who said that doing it had given him closure and helped him come to terms with the effect the Vietnam war had on him. That’s one of the best things about my work – I get to meet so many interesting people, and I’m completely privy to the intricacies of people’s lives. It’s fascinating.

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photo: Charles Fox

You did another long-term project in India that ended up becoming an exhibition…
One of the biggest projects that I’ve done was a series of photographs of male masseurs in India. They are young men who use the veil of massage to hide the fact that they are essentially sex workers – that project went on for two years, with regular visits to Mumbai.

The younger masseurs were only eighteen or nineteen, and most of them had moved to Mumbai from small villages and had become taken the job to earn money to support their families back in the village. A lot of them had clearly been tricked into it, often by members of their own family. I never met anyone who didn’t have the opportunity to leave, but I think once they’d come to terms with the job, the economic benefits were too hard to break away from.

A lot of them were certainly not comfortable with their situation, though. I went to one of the villages and met some people who had walked away from it who were clearly quite disturbed by their experiences. It was a dark project to do. I remember sitting in a room interviewing a sex worker – and as we were doing that another guy was sat in the corner smoking what we assumed to be heroin, while another guy was having an epileptic fit. It was very surreal and quite disturbing, but in these people’s chaotic lives it was a pretty normal scenario.

What do you have in your kitbag on an average assignment?
I’ve always used Nikon cameras, and I shoot digitally. I have a few different cameras but predominantly I use the Nikon D810, and ElinChrom lighting equipment when I’m doing a job that requires lighting. I believe in buying the best equipment I can afford at the time.

In this day and age, everyone has a camera on their phone and anyone with an Instagram account thinks they’re a photographer. Has this made your job harder?
One of the great things about photography is that it’s a democratic medium – everyone can do it. I remember when camera phones first came out and everyone was saying that they’d kill the industry, but there have been some incredible photos over the years that couldn’t have happened without camera phones. Most of the initial images from the 7/7 bombings in London were from them. Photographers can’t be there all the time.

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photo: Charles Fox

What advice would you give to someone starting out in photography?
Don’t work for free. It won’t help you, and it won’t help any other photographer. More importantly, know what you want to say. It took me a long time to know what I wanted to say as a photographer – and it took going to Cambodia for me to work that out. Some of the best photography work is where people have told stories that are on their doorstep. You also need to be prepared for the fact that it’s hard – you get rejected a lot, but keep going, keep showing your work to as many people as you can, and try and get as much feedback as possible.

You make it back to Notts every year or so. Any particular favourite places here?
Rock City still has a strong place in my heart from some very good and very bad gigs. I remember my mates and me going to a goth night there once by mistake, because it was the only place that would let us in. We ended up having a really good night. I generally like being in Nottingham whenever I come back. There’s something about the people – they tell it how it is here. Whenever I come back, I get torn to pieces, “What are you doing? Why don’t you get a proper job? Cut your hair! Shave your face!” Sometimes I dread it, but it’s a good reality check. There’s nothing like the slap of Nottingham reality.

Charles Fox website

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