Food markets the world over are often very similar places. Outside of the more polished, and middle class inner-city farmers’ markets that have become so popular in western cities, the older-style markets can have a very familiar character. They are crowded and busy; practical rather than pretty; no-nonsense, down to earth, and often messy with food scraps littering the grimy floors. No amount of scrubbing and hosing can quite clear the stains nor remove the lingering smells of fish, fruit and vegetables. They are also often dimly-lit places, with bare globes hanging from high warehouse ceilings, or fluorescent lamps suspended over the stalls. And the people who work there are a special breed of trooper – hard-working, early-rising and more often than not, looking like they’ve been through the wars.
Before I was born my father used to work at Paddy’s Markets in Sydney, doing twelve-hour shifts after working as a journalist to earn extra money. His stories of how hard the work was seemed incredible to me at a young age – throwing fifty kilogram crates of pineapples from trucks, slogging it out all night without sleep – and visiting the markets was made more interesting by these accounts. Since then I’ve always felt a respect for market workers, who exuded an admirable roughness and toughness – broken toothed smiles, calloused hands, dirty clothes, pens and cigarettes behind ears. They were friendly and generous to me as a child and formed, in my young mind, a lasting working-class archetype. My dad, being an old-school socialist, always taught me to respect the workers.
This shot was taken in the covered market in Siem Reap, Cambodia and it reminds me of just how exhausting, demanding and tedious this kind of work is. One can hardly blame this lady for taking a well-earned nap in the uncomfortably heat under the sun-baked roof. As much as I enjoyed its colourful shabbiness, I found it difficult to spend much time in here on account of the smell of decomposing seafood which I can still recall with disquieting accuracy; a rich fug of putrescence; sickly sweet, like a warmed and suppurating aquatic durian. I did wonder how the workers could stand it, but in a town with such awful levels of inequality, with the disgusting decadence of the tourist streets right next to the crushing poverty of the less fortunate locals, marginalised by the riches of Angkor Wat, I guess at least these people were luckier than those left on the outside by the tourist economy.