Angkor Thom Through a Viewfinder

posted by Kristy Densmore

Chhen, my guide, waited patiently as I bent down on one knee, hunched my back, and snapped another photograph with my camera pointed to the highest tower of Angkor Thom. Pointing to a spot in the city, he said, “Take a picture here.” Chhen understood my obsessive documentation and pointed out key photo spots as they came along. I was grateful for his patience.

Experiencing an area through a camera becomes an intensely personal experience.

My first photograph at Angkor Thom was the “big picture:” a front gate view of the compact, multi-layered city in its entirety. I stood at a distance and let the wide-angle lens take in the scene. Through the viewfinder, the ancient city looked like a miniature model built with little sandstone blocks. My ring finger put pressure on the shutter release, and I focused in on the towers backed by an overcast sky. As I pressed down, I heard the click of the shutter closing.

One memory down.

I pressed the preview button and looked at Angkor Thom sitting in my hands as if it was my possession. The ancient, stone city became precious to me in that moment. I felt as if I had a purpose lying within the maze-like walls and intricate inscriptions- it was my turn to lend a new photographic perspective to the city.

When I reached the top of the city, I took a picture of the surrounding area filled with swarming tourists.


The ground appeared far away in the image. The distance left me feeling more connected with the city. Looking down at my feet, I noticed how the cool stone supported me; I felt grounded.

Chhen verbally guided me through the religious stories inscribed on the walls. I felt overwhelmed as I looked down the corridor, relief sculptures in story mode as far as I could see. Bringing my camera to my eye, I felt at peace. I viewed individual carvings up close through the camera. I identified with them as I saw each intricate detail. Buddha’s face became ingrained in my memory.

When walking down a dark tunnel within Angkor Thom, I came across a nun praying to Buddha. I snapped photos of her and the statue: straightforward, from the ground, standing tall. Different angles for a different emphasis. I zoomed in on her face. I captured the essence of the room. I shot from above to show a unique perspective, often missed by the average onlooker.

The nun gathered three incense sticks in her hand and pointed at me, inviting me to come pray. I looked around in confusion with heavy camera gear drooping from my body. I didn’t want to part with my camera, so I slung it around on my back and bowed on the mat in front of Buddha. I felt disconnected. As I bowed in unison with the nun, holding the incense between my praying palms, my camera moved against my body, falling around to my front. I couldn’t get in the zone. My camera was a barrier to Zen.

As I walked outside of the city, I approached a giant Buddha statue. Three nuns sat on mats of various colors on the platform before the statue. Again, a nun invited me to pray.

Approaching the mat, I stripped off my gear. The nun looking at my cameras in as much amazement as I looked at her and the surrounding relics. Feeling freed, I took the incense and bowed. I felt at peace. I closed my eyes, and having ridden myself of site, the sound of the nun’s voice speaking prayers flowed freely through my ears.

Using all of my senses, I made my own mental pictures of Angkor Thom.

Sometimes the camera may need to be put away in order to transcend the act of looking.

Buddha staring over Angkor Thom


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