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photos/Blainor McGough
photos/Blainor McGough

A talk with Somira Sao

By Blainor McGough

Over the past year, photographer Somira Sao has been steadily and methodically building an expansive Web archive of Portland’s creative landscape – its people, places and events. Approximately 8,000 of her photographs are tagged, organized and stored on a searchable Flickr site where one can view portraits of visual artists like Brendan Mullins, Christopher Keister and Sara Crall, and musicians like Citadel, Moses Atwood and Threads. The site has received over 56,000 visits so far. [You can visit it by clicking here.] 

Sao lives in Portland and holds a day job at Portland Pottery. She is about to depart on a major journey. Sao will return next month to Cambodia for the first time since she and her family fled the Khmer Rouge and escaped the Pol Pot dictatorship in 1978. There she will spend a month reuniting with family while exploring and documenting her childhood home.

The Bollard: How many pictures do you take in an average day?
 I used to take 500 a day, but now I take about 300 – depends what’s going on in town or how social I’m feeling.

Are you documenting or are you making art? 
Both. I do not set up lighting or background. It’s wherever I happen to be, I just always have the camera. I just shoot a lot.

What do you photograph in Portland?
What I shoot is artists, performers and musicians. These are the people I’m attracted to. You have all these people you walk by on the streets in Portland and you don’t quite know what they’re doing, but you might have one facet that’s revealed to you, and then suddenly another – everyone is so multi-talented. It’s the hidden facets to all the people who live here that attracts me, those hidden skills. It’s people who are doing something. 

What will you photograph in Cambodia?
The capitol city, Phnom Penh, where my parents lived. My goal is to document that city and the people there. Then I’ll go to the place where we hid for a year before we could get out to Thailand. 

How did your family manage to escape Cambodia? 
My dad had gone ahead to the Thai border and found a way out. It was four-day trip. My mom carried me three days on foot. On one day we were smuggled in the back of a truck by some soldiers she had bribed. If we had been caught by the Vietcong or Khmer Rouge, we would have been killed.

Your mother was very brave.
My mom was a seamstress, and she had created this outfit for me with all these hidden compartments. She had sewn gold jewelry in the seams, and different precious stones, black stones she gave me later from Cambodia. 

We were on the road and some people came back and said, ‘the Khmer Rouge soldiers are coming.’ She hid me in some bushes on the side of the road and told me to be quiet. The soldiers held their guns to her neck and told her to give them everything she had that was precious. So she gave them what she had in her pockets… and they let her go.

At another point we had to hide again from the soldiers in the jungle at night. Suddenly we realized there were maybe 500 other people hiding. It was dark, and you could hear all the night creatures, all the owls, yet you could look around and see all the whites of people’s eyes. And no kids made a sound. She said it was the creepiest moment ever.

Do you try to be invisible when you are taking photographs?
Well, it’s easier now than it was – it’s not like [using] the big old SLR [camera]. I don’t use flash, so sometimes people don’t even know. I prefer shooting one person, and shooting people I know. I do take photos of strangers, but I feel my pictures come out better with people I actually know. I have to be intuitive about someone’s feelings. 

Did anyone ever react badly to having his or her picture taken?
At the Gillian Welch show there was someone in the crowd who told me not to stand anywhere near him because the LCD display was ruining the whole night. Other than that, people barely notice digital cameras anymore.

What other cameras do you have?
I have a Nikon F-100, which is really nice. I have a Pentax K-1000, my very first camera that my dad bought for me. I have a bunch of Polaroid cameras, and two medium-format Yashicas.

Who are your favorite photographers?
I like Nicolas Nixon, Bill Brant, James Nachtwey, Sally Mann, Cartier-Bresson. The thing about Nixon is that he did a series called The Brown Sisters, a documentary of these four sisters, one of which he ended up marrying. He took their portraits in the same position over the course of 20 or 30 years. He did a flipbook of them, through their pregnancies, their aging and fashions.

What is your favorite picture that you took? 
A portrait of my family’s hands.

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