The funeral of the late King Sihanouk was my first photo assignment in quite a while. I don’t many jobs doing stills these days so I was very pleased that Al Jazeera asked me to cover the day of the procession for them. Stills photography is still my passion despite turning mostly to video these past few years.
Last Friday was a very long day. The timetable I was given had the procession leaving the Palace at 6am and it was pretty obvious from past experiences that it might take a while to get past over zealous cops manning the closed off area. In the end the authorities decided to close off around one third of Phnom Penh to the general public for the procession. My motodop ended up trying 6 different check posts before we found one that would let me through. Despite leaving home at 5am I didn’t manage to fight my way through to the riverfront until close to 6am, with the sun still to rise. In the end I needn’t have worried as the coffin didn’t leave the Palace via Victory Gate until closer to 8am, just as the beautiful early morning light was beginning to fade.
As expected it was a glamorous affair, full of pomp and ceremony. Myself and the rest of the local and international press merrily clicked away as the coffin was brought out to the riverfront to join the procession that would wind it’s way around Phnom Penh, visiting four of the capitals most important pagodas on its 6km journey. As the procession set off there was a scheduled 101 gun salute, however there seemed to have been less than 50 shots actually fired, with just 2 or 3 of the dozen guns firing at the same time. Initially I set off north following the procession up the riverside, however it soon became apparent I wasn’t going to get much from this position as the background of restaurants, beer adverts and construction wasn’t very photogenic. It was also getting bloody hot and I didn’t have a hat.
Being folically challenged, the lack of a hat was not by choice as I have experienced sunstroke before and it’s not funny. Strangely the organisers decided that on top of the expected white shirt and back tie dress code they also insisted on no hats, no sunglasses and, hardest of all, no visible water bottles. I knew I was in for a rough day. There was no water available on the riverside for the hundreds of press and a number of people commented that the authorities seemed to be deliberately making life hard for the international press. I started to think the same when I walked down to Independence Monument and found the crowds being supplied with free water and fans. For me the only blight on the entire event was the free fans being handed out.
I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude here, but having what were essentially adverts for Mobitel (the main local telephone provider) being waved by the roasting crowds seems in very poor taste. I binned almost all my shots of the crowd because of these damn fans.
Anyway, having taken some great shots at the Palace I made the most of having brought my 500mm lens with me and got some fantastic shots up Norodom Boulevard as the procession slowly approached. Thankfully I was able to sit in the shadow of the monument while I waited otherwise I think I might have been in big trouble. Time was getting on and the procession was around an hour behind schedule by this point. I headed back to the cremation site, next door to the Palace. I knew we weren’t allowed in but thought it might be worth a try. Sadly it was a bit of a waste of time. I hung around until 1pm but I had to meet a 3:30pm deadline so with nothing much happening I headed home.
The day was really only half done at this stage and I still had to select a dozen pictures to upload to Al Jazeera. Considering I had managed to click off over 2,000 shots that was not such a simple process, although around 200 of those were of the guns firing. I am only using a Canon 60D at the moment so it’s not as fast as I would like. Out of the 200 shots only one had the desired flame from a canon.
I finally got the selection uploaded around 20 minutes late but as it turned out I’d made a mistake with the time zones and still had over an hour to go. The next surprise was that I was asked to write a 400-word piece to go with it. Aghhh! Not prepared at all for that. I allowed myself a few seconds to panic and then got down to it. OK, a quick Google to check some facts and spelling of names and then write “a simple background on the King’s life and brief summary of the events of today.”
Here’s the link to Al Jazeera for the outcome.
Well it’s not exactly Shakespeare but it was thrown together in half an hour, so cut me some slack.