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  • Andrew JK Tan

A Life Changing Experience in Sihanoukville

Before I share how I used photography to help an organisation called M'Lop Tapang , in the month of July , let me share a short perspective on Sihanoukville first to set the stage.

Sihanoukville is a costal city located in the South-West tip of Cambodia. Current population (2018) is more then 156 thousand people (Cambodia has 16.2 million). Sihanouville is also a location of China's Belt & Road initiative. Growth is basically driven by Chinese investments. 90% of the companies in the Special Economic Zone are Chinese companies. 70% of international flights are to Chinese destinations. When one visits Sihanouville, the many casinos & night clubs can easily be seen. There are now 16 operational casinos with 8 more projected to open in 2018. In addition , licensed casinos are permitted to offer live-streamed action from land-based tables to gamblers in other countries.. The downsides are the rapid increase of money laundering , internet scams , illegal gambling , human trafficking , rising property prices which all do more harm then good for the locals. (extracted for various news sources Reuters, Bloomberg)

In SG , we only have two Integrated Resorts and we already have a growing issue with gambling even with the many preventive programs that are in place , so imagine what this uncontrolled growth could potentially do to the less privileged in Sihanoukville.

The panorama below shows an operational casino on the left & another piece of real estate on the right which is most likely being prepared for another potential casino project sandwiching a small fishing village. I am pretty sure that from what I have seen , the village probably will not last too long before it is taken over and replaced by a nice looking beach.

When I was invited by my very good friend to use my photography skillset to help out a charitable NGO , I jumped at the opportunity. The goal was to provide images that had the right content with the right appeal so that they could be used to publicise their work in their social media , newsletters, annual reports , and so on.

My Preparations

I had no idea how the locations were going to look like and how the setup if any would be. So I decided on what I term as my "worst case" planning.

- prepare for the tightest of spaces

- prepare for low light

- prepare for uncooperative subjects

Hardware / Strategy

- Nikon Df

- Nikkor 24-120mm f4.0

- Nikon SB700 flash (in case needed)

- Macbook with 1TB external SSD

1. Use the High ISO performance of my Df which has a D4 sensor to handle low light conditions

2. Hand-Held for quick unrestricted photography especially in the tightest of places

3. Hand-Held panoramic technique to capture the tightest of spaces

4. Bracketing at 5FPS to handle high dynamic range scenes

All the images that I will be sharing were not staged , so it was more a candid , street & photojournalistic approach to capture the images. What happened , was that the teachers or guardians would be informed ahead of time that there would be official photographers around to capture photos and they should just carry on with their normal routines.

Image Highlights

The front gate of the main M'Lop Tapang Centre. Providing a safe haven for children is key.


The main elements I wanted to convey was the Gate itself , the sign and that little boy who would help provide the context on who this centre was for.

Education is key , providing education in various forms to the children is a mainstay in helping to re-integrate them back into mainstream schools and preparing them for their future.


The classrooms were pretty tight and I normally preferred to photograph using angles to provide more depth to an image. As you can see that for 3 out of the 4 images , I could photograph from an angular perspective , for that sole image (top) which I could not , I used symmetry to help with the composition.

Whenever I could (keeping in mind composition & appeal) , I included the organisation's branding.

Bracketing technique was also used especially to capture the required highlight informations especially with the brightly lit windows.

Keeping the children engaged even when they do not have formal lessons with extra curricular activities was offered by the organisation to the children.


For the dance & gymnastics like training images, lighting was low and there were lots of movement , so very high ISOs between 3200 to 12,800 were employed to keep shutter speeds up at a reasonable 1/200s to minimise motion blur.

I did not want to use flash as I see flash as being very intrusive and could potentially make the subjects uncomfortable and also generate harsh unappealing shadows which I wanted to avoid,

Wholesome meals with variety was also provided daily by the M'Lop Tapang centre. There was a central area where the children would gather for their meals and the staff would be there to assist if needed. The children were all very disciplined , lining up to get their meals , after finishing they would dispose any leftovers properly , clean their trays and proceed to get their toothbrush with toothpaste and proceed to brush their teeth to maintain dental hygiene.


Composing tight to "tell" the story was the main strategy here.

Providing Healthcare to the children with properly trained staff and doctors were also apparent.

In addition to having a clinic (which includes dental care) , the M'Lop Tapang organisation also has a mobile clinic which is dispatched daily to poor villages.


As my main goal was to produce images that the organisation could use easily & quickly without much thought , conveying the main message was the top priority while creativity took a back seat.

The 1st image of the dental checkup , the 3rd image where the label on the car hood was in sharp focus and the last image in this section which was the panned / slow shutter shot of the doctor rushing back to her clinic was about as creative as I wanted to be.

Imparting Life Skills was also a key initiative of the organisation with the Vocational Training Programs that they offered ranging from motor repair , electrical works / repair and sewing skills.


For the motor repair shots , as the space was so tight , even using a fisheye would not be able to present that small space to it's full effect. So creating panoramas was the smarter approach with my 24mm.

One reason I used the 24mm to create panoramas was because it was easier & faster to merge succesfully due to the lesser degree of distortion then if I had used a focal length wider like 16mm or less.

The last two images in this section was created by photomerging to form the panorama. The last image was created by merging 6 vertical captures using the 24mm by overlapping as much as 40%.


Showing the surroundings & environment to help supplement the main message was also a key consideration when I composed for the shots.

F&B training program was one of the most impressive programs that I witnessed & photographed. They had this Training restaurant called SANDAN where they could cater to western & local dishes and yes , I did eat there and the food was really good but to be trained at SANDAN, the trainees had to first start with basics at the centre preparing food & cooking for the children.


Photographing at SANDAN restaurant was a real challenge as nothing was staged. The teachers & students were actually cooking the dishes we ordered. Composing the shot was difficult as I did not want to pose or stage or slow down the cooking & dish preparation process so I had to visualise what I wanted and waited for the action to happen.

Lighting was also very low with motion , so ISO6400 to 12,800 was really required to capture the moments that I wanted.

The above two images were the cookery students cooking at the centre for the children , the images below are at SANDAN restaurant's kitchen.

M'Lop Tapang also has outreach programs like this community shelter which is embedded in a very poor residential area.


The last image was created using a panorama again to show the kids from around the area having a meal at the shelter.

There are actually many more images which I could share but I think it is definitely enough for now. I can truly say that photographing the children & the programs was very humbling , eye opening and educational. Definitely a trip which I truly enjoyed and treasure.

I hope to contribute more in future using photography as an enabler where possible to bring some change & joy to these vulnerable children & youth.

I hope you enjoyed this blog which I hope was educational in many ways other then just photography.

To know about M'Lop Tapang and the great things that they do in Sihanoukville for the vulnerable children and youth , you can always check out :

1. their website

2. Facebook: M'Lop Tapang

Till my next blog.



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