Confronting Cambodian Sexism Through Portraiture

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by  for

There is an (in)famous traditional Khmer proverb, “ប្រុសជាដាដែលមាស ស្រីជាដាដែលក្រណាត់ស,” which basically means, “men are like gold, women are like white cloth.” This is because gold never sullies, while white cloth, once dirty, can never be clean again. The implications of this proverb for sexual equality and accountability are disturbing, to say the least. On the other side of the same coin, there are countless Khmer songs from the ’50s and ’60s that compare women to flowers. Cambodian photographer Neak Sophal’s newest series, Flower, seeks to counter — or at least complicate — these constructions of women, as well as other sexist aspects of Cambodian culture.

Currently on display at Java Arts, Flower is a series of portraits of Cambodian women, each of whom is laying down, wearing little more than a bit of white linen. Though the women are mostly naked, the portraits are cropped above the breasts and are not sexualized. In popular magazines, music videos, and at any important events in Cambodia, women are usually covered in thick makeup, especially to make their skin whiter, but Neak’s subjects bare their true faces, and their eyes boldly return the viewer’s gaze. In each photograph, the subject is surrounded by a sea of flowers of her own choosing. After the photo shoot, Neak stained the colors of the flowers directly onto the print, in a subversive reference to the Khmer proverb.

By adopting all these stereotypes — the white cloth, the stains, the dainty flowers — Neak creatively plays with social constructions of women, pushing but not erasing them. She does not so much reject the stereotypes as put her subjects’ agency into them: They choose the flower and the color of the stain, and they return the viewer’s gaze, empowered. Neak is not depicting a Cambodia where sexism doesn’t exist, but one where women are empowered to push back against it. A place where sexism isn’t hidden or ignored, but openly discussed and confronted.

Since the start of Neak’s photography career, her practice has been deeply informed by her sisters and the overall female experience in Cambodia. She told me that sexism is “a problem hiding” here, adding, “I wanted to show and remind people that [it] is still here.” This series is not the first time Neak has focused on women. In Rice Pot (2012), she captured women with the quintessential object of their (expected) labor, and in The Green Net (2017), she captured female construction workers, who are often underpaid and mistreated on the job. “I like to work on women’s issues and gender even though I don’t stick [to only] these topics,” she told me.

Neak rejects the idea that her practice as a whole is feminist. Throughout her career, she has used objects and simple interventions to create compelling and conceptually loaded photographs, usually portraits. While the experience of Khmer women is undoubtedly a strong theme in her work, Neak’s conceptual process of portraiture is more fundamental to her practice than an overarching feminist read.

Neak’s day job is as a graphic designer, and she was trained at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, so it should come as no surprise that she often adopts a design aesthetic. In some series, such as Hang On and Leaf (both 2013), this training proved to be a hindrance to her more artistic practice; the photographs, while aesthetically pleasing, are predictable and flat, like advertising. With Flower, Neak embraces the aesthetics and tropes of advertising but uses that as a tactic to subvert the sexist imagery that is so common.

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