Best Cambodia souvenir: Khmer studio photos

It’s no secret that I’m completely addicted to Khmer studio portraits. I’ve probably done more Khmer studio photos than any other human living in Cambodia. Every time I have a friend visit from outside of Cambodia I drag them to a photo studio and force them to take portraits with me. It’s the best souvenir one can get from Cambodia, hands down.

You’ll never forget Cambodia with a giant copy of one of these on your wall.

In Cambodia couples go to the photo studio when they are getting married and dress in several brightly colored traditional costumes. And while they are usually reserved for engagements, Cambodians often take these portraits of children (they have kid-sized costumes, too). It’s also becoming a trend in the middle classes to take glamour shots, although most are not in Cambodian dress. My point? Do not be ashamed of wanting to take studio portraits. This is a legitimate cultural experience.

Photos can cost anywhere from $5-25 for a set of printed photos that include costume rental and hair and makeup for women (and usually several sets of fake eyelashes). Men don’t get any hair and makeup unless requested, but they pay less. Be sure to check the price before you start so there are no surprises.

Time in a Cambodian photo studio is time well spent.

Some tips for having Khmer photos taken:

  • Ladies, bring your own makeup. They will use cheap communal makeup and applicators on you and it’s not the greatest for sensitive skin. Moreover, the coloring is intended for Khmer-colored skin, so if you are paler than that, the makeup will look funny.
  • Prepare your poses ahead of time. I cannot emphasize this enough (despite the fact that I often forget to do it myself). They will spend an hour getting you made up, and then begrudge you anything more than 90 seconds in front of the camera. When the cameraman aims his lens at you, be prepared.
  • Don’t let them force you into anything you don’t like. I have an entire set of shots where they drew in huge black eyebrows that will never see the light of day and another where they gave me thin, hot pink lips (they seemed to find the natural fullness of my lips obscene). Many of the poses they will suggest are unflattering as well–they take shots looking up at their subjects to make Khmers look bigger, but most Westerners are happy to avoid that fate.

You’ll find photo studios all over every city in Cambodia and most of the smaller towns, too. To find the right one for you, page through their photo albums–if the backgrounds and photoshopping is absurd, you might want to keep looking (or sign up immediately, depending on what you’re after!)

Happy portraiture! If you have any great Khmer studio portraits, we’d love to see them. Please post a link in the comments, email them or post them on our Facebook page.

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