You may not see elephants doing handstands or dogs jumping through hoops in the circus of Phare Ponleu Selpak, but what you will witness is the spectacular phenomenon that is social circus.
Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) is a non-profit social center and art school in Battambang, Cambodia. Translated as “the brightness of the arts,” the center, created by former Khmer refugees in 1986, offers training in fine and performing arts to disadvantaged youths with the core belief that art is a powerful tool for societal impact and the enhancement of well-being.
Upon visiting Battambang in early 2013, Hanoi-based photographer Jérémie Lusseau discovered PPS through a friend and past volunteer of the program. The school, built in a drained rice paddy, is unassuming yet contains an incredible array of professional level artistry. Jérémie remarks that “It was impressive to see so many artistic fields (circus, music, drawing, animation) and talents gathered in this place where you do not expect to find this at all,” and he sought to connect with the place’s dynamic atmosphere.
Jérémie captured a series featuring the young trainees of the program’s Circus school, Phare, who are trained in various disciplines such as juggling, acrobatics, aerial acts, clowning, balance, dance, contortion, theater and music. At the time of his shoot “The artists were a bit under pressure because they were rehearsing for a new show to come a few days after, but it was really easy to go around and to be forgotten.”
In order to visually capture the place’s character and that of the artists, Jeremie, who usually works in color, instantly felt that black and white was the way to go, “There is something about the place’s atmosphere which is timeless. And intimate also.”
It is in fact a transformative world, one in which marginalized youths gain a new sense of self, pride, autonomy, confidence and self-respect through their skills training, artistic expression and psycho-social support and come to realize their incredible potential.
It also provides a platform for students to explore their Cambodian heritage; they tell stories through performance themes such as domestic violence, substance abuse, HIV/Aids and human trafficking, in an effort to create awareness, share their history and re-discover their individual and cultural Khmer identities.
Check out more of Jérémie’s work here.