Simon Larbalestier logo  
Archive Sales
  Gallery 1Gallery 2Gallery 3Gallery 4Gallery 5Gallery 6  

Interview with Simon Larbalestier 2004

Neil Chenery January 2004

© Copyright Simon Larbalestier 2001

NC. Where have you been travelling over the last few years and what inspired your choice of destination?

SL. Australia (early 2001) and SE Asia (mid 2001 - present day) have accounted for all of my recent work. Desolation, extreme terrain and weather were my inspirations for Australia. I searched out the stark beautiful deserts and the delicate temperate rainforests. Buddhism was my chief reason for visiting SE Asia. First, was a 6 week trek in Ladakh, Northern India at altitudes of 12-16,300 feet photographing ancient Gompas (Tibetan Temples), Mani walls and prayer flags (first inspired by the Buddhist retreat in Tuscany, Italy). Buddhist shrines, spirit houses and Buddha trees were my first focus in Thailand and Laos; Cambodia for the temples at Angkor Wat, tree roots and lone sugar palms dotted across rice fields.

NC. What have been some of the photographic highlights during this time?

SL. There have been so many photographic "high" points for me over the last few years of travel: our joint trip to Mungo Lake in New South Wales and the "sandstorm weekend" at Wilson's Promontory in Victoria. Photographing prayer flags at 16,300 feet along the passes in the Markha Valley, Ladakh is also a fond memory. Angkor Wat still remains singularly the most significant place for me.

NC. There is a strong spiritual influence in your recent work, images of Buddha statues, prayer flags and temples. Has your time in Thailand and Cambodia been a major influence on your choice of subjects or did you choose these countries for their potential subject matter?

SL. Initially I was drawn to these places because of their deep Buddhist significance. However, the longer I spend there, the more immersed I become in the small things that make up everyday life. Thailand and Cambodia hold very different feelings for me. I live in Bangkok with my wife OH, we are currently renting an old house situated in an old part of Bangkok but close enough to feel and experience the progression of change towards a newer, more cosmopolitan city. I love Bangkok for its chaos, noise, pollution and the throb and flux of human activity. But I have only just begun to photograph it, in fact the last day before I returned to the UK to print for this year's forthcoming exhibitions.

I have many projects in mind to shoot in Bangkok, Cambodia (especially the Angkor Wat temple complex) and the nearby town Siam Reap is a significant project for me. I've made some 10 visits in the last two years and must have over 5,000 images. Cambodia has its own chaos. Despite its Ancient history (Angkor Wat being named as one of the Seven Architectural Wonders of the World) it has had a tragic history; Pol Pots' genocidal regime systematically stripped the country of most of its educated populace. In fact I read somewhere that 45% of the population is under the age of 14. Angkor itself receives 250,000 tourists a year with the aim of developing a hotel network to eventually receive over 1 million. This can't help but have a fundamental impact on the way I see and photograph the changing surroundings…

NC. There are a number of photographs of people among your mostly landscape subjects. There is a respectful intimacy and intensity in images like the man sweeping the temple, the monk at the window and the old lady at Angkor. Do you have a preference for photographing landscape over people and what do you aim to achieve when taking a shots with people as the primary subjects?

SL. Certainly with my work in Cambodia, people have become a major focus point. I still photograph the trees entwining the temple ruins (still trying to understand and capture their symbiotic relationship) but now I tend to look for the Khmers who inhabit the surrounding area. There is a lady who I have photographed several times within Angkor Wat itself and who has neither hands nor feet. Her history is still a mystery to me but each visit I to try to seek her out and even though I photograph her for only a few moments these images stay with me all the time.

Children are becoming an important project in their own right. There is a sadness, a poignancy, a sharp transition from childhood to adulthood which I feel compelled to record. Despite all this Cambodia always leaves me with a strong sense of hope and optimism. Watching hundreds of Khmers cycling back from a day's work, laughing, joking and always smiling seems timeless to me. I've tried to record it but the moments are so fleeting and what I get on film is not what I am feeling at that moment in time.

NC. I imagine it's a challenge to get an original take on places like Cambodia where the transport is limited and access is restricted to mostly tourist destinations because of the dangers of unexploded land mines. How much do you have to rely on local knowledge to find the most interesting subjects and what are some of your experiences travelling there?

SL. Without my friend and guide Sothea my access to the Khmer way of life would still be unexplored. Each time I go back he has found something else to show me and never fails to be amazed at the banal things that he takes for granted that I find so compelling. All the places I've visited have been de-mined so are relatively safe. Having an original "take" on something is hard I guess but I never really concern myself with it. I see so many things and record but a fraction of them in the available time I have. Shooting is always a very intense time for me.

NC. Your images of Angkor Wat are spectacular and you have made many visits there over the last few years. Since its rediscovery it has become a popular tourist destination through, amongst other things, Hollywood exposure with the film Tomb Raider, how much do you think has the place changed over this time?

SL. Everything changes. Certainly Hollywood films like Tomb Raider must have brought the temples to more people's attention. Change occurs in many ways for example there is the now a plethora of hotel structures being built (which is a photographic project in itself) each it seems trying to outdo its neighbour in grandeur and opulence, totally at odds visually with the beauty of the old Khmer ruins.

Certain parts of the temples are now protected by discreet rope barriers. Some wooden steps have been built to encourage more access in the wet season. This changes their appearance even if it's subtle. The saddest thing I saw on my last visit was a large party of tourists carving their names into the huge spongy tree roots at Ta Promh as if just to prove that they had been there. This was offensive but I stood transfixed and photographed them! Social comment is inevitably finding its way into my photographs. However, change in my own work occurs slowly and the move from empty barren landscapes to portraits was a big step.

NC. There is often a big gap between taking the shots and printing them. You must have thousands of negatives stored away, waiting for the decision "what to print"? It must be a daunting task on the one hand and a joy of re-discovery on the other.

Deciding what to print is often a very difficult but enjoyable dilemma! The images made for the Barcelona show were selected very specifically as they are being seen against the Pixies images. I'd like a show in Cambodia but the imagery I'd choose to print would be quite different.

The gap between taking the shots and actually printing them is frustrating but right now I see no way round it. My darkroom equipment is old, some of the Leitz enlargers are from the 1950's and wouldn't last long in the heat and humidity of my house in Bangkok. I have to make my own prints, it enables me to understand my work more and relate to the image. Ironic that when I print in England it always seems to be the winter - prints swirling around in less than six degrees a far cry form the heat in which I exposed the film. Eventually I am looking towards getting a 120 negative scanner so I can upload images on my site faster but I still have to process the film and right now I use an old formulae developer; PMK Pyro - not easy to find in downtown Bangkok!

NC. I know from your visit to Australia that you have been travelling vast distances and through difficult desert and jungle terrain. How do you get around and what equipment do you take with you?

In Australia I travelled as light as I could; two 120 Plaubel Makinas with fixed 80mm lenses (approx 40mm on a 35mm camera) and plenty of film, a small tripod and two spot meters. I had to review this when planning my first trip to SE Asia. Space and weight was a premium. Everything was shot handheld. The weight and bulk being 300 plus rolls of film in lead bags. I travelled with a Leica M6 with a 50mm F1 Noctilux lens (allowing me to shoot the interiors of the Gompas in Ladakh) and a Plaubel Makina 670. To shoot most of my work I chose a 50mm view (or its equivalent in 120 format) as it seemed to have become my standard way of seeing. On subsequent trips I added a second Plaubel, a Mamiya 7ii and a small tripod.

Last year I changed slightly favouring a Mamiya 6MF with a standard and wide angle lens and by trading in my Leica and lens I acquired a Nikon S3 35mm rangefinder with a 50mm 1.4 lens. Today I've just received from France a beautiful 105 Nikkor portrait lens (circa 1957) to go with it. A definite sign that people are becoming more important in my work! I am also currently researching the Fuji G690 rangefinder.

NC. What other places interest you as future subjects?

SL. Right now I could happily spend the next 5 years photographing Cambodia and Thailand but China also interests me.

This interview was conducted during January 2004 prior to an exhibition of Simon's work at the Iguapop Gallery in Barcelona Spain scheduled for March 2004. Neil Chenery is an artist and designer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia. He is also the web designer for

This article is © Copyright Neil Chenery 2004. All images are © Copyright Simon Larbalestier 2000 - 2004. No material contained in this article may be reproduced without the written consent of the author or photographer.