Phnom Penh, Cambodia

By Damir Sagolj

Like a true professional, Maen Sopeak sings to the audience of seven people who sit on the bare floor of her room in a Phnom Penh suburb. Her singing is soft, at moments almost a whisper, but her beautiful voice is clear. In a country even slightly richer than devastated, impoverished Cambodia, she could be a star. She could perform to packed halls, wearing only the best clothes.

Maen Sopeak is, however, just a poor garment worker. There will be no sell-out crowds or fancy dresses for her anytime soon. She shares a single, hole-in-the-wall room with six other women, who all work at a nearby garment factory producing clothes for Western brands.

The song is excruciatingly sad. It tells the story of a girl forced into marriage with an older man, not the one she loves. Maen makes the grim song sound somehow joyful, although suicidal thoughts would be more appropriate. The abject conditions where she lives and works are a natural setting for this tragic ballad. Here, misery invites yet more misery. Just like in my home country of Bosnia, another devastated post-genocide country where its sevdah music is just a natural extension of everyday hardship.

I’m in Cambodia for five days to do a story on garment workers. The idea is to see how these women live, and shine some light on these conditions before a tragedy strikes (which I hope will never happen). Working conditions are better than in Bangladesh, but not by much. After a building collapsed in Bangladesh in April, killing more than 1,000 workers in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, more business has come to Cambodia. Many fear more accidents will follow.

I knew coming here was not going to be easy. No matter how long I stay, or how good or lucky I am, many layers of this complex story will remain unseen. What I have seen and photographed is not easy to put into one picture or into a single thought.