Photographer donates printed portraits to Cambodian villagers

The power of seeing one’s PORTRAIT for the first time

In 2014, travel photographer Reuben Teo was on vacation visiting a Cambodian village when a group of local children approached. After playing with them for a bit, he began making their photographs. Each time he snapped an image, the children would grab his arm to peek at the camera’s digital back, searching for their own visages on the screen. Teo later learned from villagers that none of the children had pictures of themselves. “That bothered me a lot,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that people nowadays don’t have pictures of themselves. So I decided to do something about it.”

Teo launched “My First Selfie,” a philanthropic personal project that provides Siem Reap villagers with framed portraits of themselves. During his first visit to the area, he focused on making portraits of the children. On a recent second visit, he trained his focus on the elderly. Prior to both trips, he raised funds for the project by asking for donations from family and friends. As a result of their generosity, he’s been able not only to provide framed portraits but fund water filters and water pumps for the villagers as well. The result is readily available potable water they don’t have to travel to obtain.

Making, printing, framing, and delivering portraits in a remote area in a short period of time required planning. His days went like this: He traveled from the town to the village in the early morning and began making photographs. Then he traveled back to town to drop the files at the photo shop. While those were being printed, he traveled to a second village to make more portraits. In the evening, he dropped off the second batch of portraits at the photo shop and picked up the first batch to deliver to the first village in the morning. And so on. The photo shop was able to do the framing and packing of the photos as well, saving time for Teo and his team.

The reward for his toil is simple, he says: distributing framed photos to smiling faces. “It is pretty touching because they often hold it like a teddy bear, hugging the picture,” he says. “I have never seen people hug pictures, so I think it really means a lot to them, even though it’s just one picture.” 

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.