•Portrait • Fine Art • Street •Documentary • Video •

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from the foreward to Phnom Penh: Life at Street Level

by Liza Simon

I got to know Jeff DePonte as a talented documentarian capable of raising his camera lens to his even-keeled eye and making the best out of a not-so-good situation.  The situation was this: I hired Jeff when I was tasked with producing a short documentary meant to slap a happy face on an ill-fated college prep program in a gritty public school district where college was a sketchy concept at best.


The class was in a portable, a trailer-like structure, like something you would expect to find on a construction site. The teacher, in fact, had the demeanor of a foreman, work-weary but duly programmed to bark directives at her presumed subordinates: a dozen or so 16 year-olds.  It was after lunch, when Jeff and I walked in for the first shoot. Most students were enjoying their post-pizza snooze. Not very photogenic subjects by any measure.  Undeterred, Jeff honed in on a considerably less somnolent girl who was driving her desk across the linoleum, as if it were a kiddie bumper car in one of those old amusement park pavilions.  As Jeff trained his lens on her, she flopped her hair over her face and held out a woven leatherette bracelet.  


Jeff kept rolling. She leaned back, giggled and stared at the ceiling, as if deciding whether to mock him or herself. Jeff was undeterred. Finally, this errant adolescent settled down and sighed a long natural sigh.  It was only for an instant, but it was a poignant moment. Less than two seconds of this footage made it into the final product, but it was a compelling two seconds and I felt that Jeff’s determination in getting this two seconds was impressive.  


That’s when I realized that Jeff does not work on preset.  His camera is an extension of his eye.  His eye is an extension of his sense of wonderment.  He can get a great image, but he also has the wisdom to know the difference between image and identity and he has the patience to let the latter shine through. What a virtue! In this globalized world, we are living in a blizzard of images of one another, but unless we delve deeper into the context forged by experience, we may as well be wielding our cameras like caveman clubs.