[Breath Of Life] In Memory Of

On the­ stuffy journey back to Phnom Penh this morning, I found my mind drifting off, my way of whiling away the time in this really poorly ventilated bus. 

It’s been 15 days in Cambodia. Today marks the end of my third visit here to work on an ongoing photo-documentary series about maternal and neonatal heath (and healthcare) in the country. What a ride it has been (has it really been 16 months? Really?)!! 

Just like many other documentary photographers, this project kind of fell into my lap. Or maybe not entirely. In 2012, I was very fortunate to have been selected to be part of the 8th Angkor Photo Workshop. At 24, very new to the scene, hardly any portfolio or experience to show, I can only thank my lucky stars for that golden opportunity. It was my virgin attendance at a photo workshop, and I was obviously very excited. Few weeks before going to Cambodia, I began researching for interesting stories I could take on, but was very discouraged as I ploughed through the web and found nothing. Was I really gonna show up without an idea? 

Many sleepless nights later, I found –that- perfect project. It was gonna be tricky navigating and negotiating for access to hospitals and villages to see how life really was like for pregnant women, the delivery process and also the health complications that faced both neonates and mothers. But I was convinced that the more difficult the project is, the more valuable the output would be. Naïve– maybe? 


I remember watching my first delivery in Bangladesh in mid 2012. The hospital in Nilphamari, north of Bangladesh, smelled of death. The walls were grimy, there were patients sprawled on the floor due to the shortage of beds, the air was stale. Upon stepping in, I felt sick. 

I stood at the far corner in the delivery room, turning my eyes away whenever I felt a knot in my stomach. I was really afraid. I kept looking at my watch; it took forever. So when the baby finally came out, I was relieved. 

I walked out of the room and the patients’ family looked over at me, waiting for my assessment. I thought all was fine, so I gave an ‘okay’ sign and smiled. Immediately after, the hospital plunged into complete darkness. It was quite a common occurrence, these blackouts. Then, I saw the nurses rush the baby over to another room, guided by the weak beam from their handphone lights. I scrambled after. They were trying to operate the oxygen tank to resuscitate the baby, but, there was no electricity and they had not switched on the generator yet. I didn’t know what to do; I did not want to get in anybody’s way so I stood rooted to the ground. Minutes later, the junior doctor glanced at me and said coldy, “birth asphyxia”. It was a strange turn of events. I teared in my sleep that night. 


On my second trip to Cambodia in Sept 2013, I was granted access to a couple of health centres in Kampong Cham, Stung Treng and Kratie province. In our 17 days there, we only managed to watch 1 delivery. One. But that is another story for another time. 

However, while watching that one delivery, I was reminded of a distant memory. Not of that episode in Bangladesh. But, of my secondary school E-Maths teacher who died from child birth. When news of it broke to me, I was baffled. I was in Junior College at that time, and was holding my plate of roti prata in the canteen. “You mean people will die of child birth one meh?”, I recalled thinking to myself. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. But watching this particular childbirth and seeing the woman wince in pain, it hit home hard. That maternal, and neonatal, mortality is very real, especially so in developing country where access and education is limited.

I don’t think Mrs Ng had a very good impression of me. Not with those poor scores and stinky attitude. But these days, I think of her alot. She’s one of my motivations when it gets awfully lonely and trying to carry on doing this project. I hope she’s finally proud of me.

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