To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place.
— Elliott Erwitt

Someone I know once said everyone has a story.

That is why I love interviewing people.

I met Theak a little over six years ago and I have watched how he turned a hobby into an art.

Photography is his passion and it shows in his work. I still don’t understand how National Geographic hasn’t hired him.

Whether because of my past, or in spite of it, I love to travel. – Theak Chhuom

Here is my follow-up interview with Theak as we chat about his travels, his camera and how they have opened up whole new world.



Theak Chhuom

World Traveller and Photographer

Instagram: @theakchhuom | Ottawa, ON

You have an amazing story of how you came to Canada. Your parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime when you were just an infant and sought refuge in a Buddhist monastery, and later in a refugee camp in Thailand. In 1979, you and your family arrived in Canada as landed immigrants. How do you think this life experience influenced your work as a photographer?

Our brain has a funny way of protecting us from certain memories. I have a difficult time recalling details from these events; however, my mother has relayed stories from time to time.

I once took my parents on a hike through Gatineau Park, which I love to do, and while walking through the trails, my mother mentioned it reminded her of the time soldiers stopped and picked up whomever they saw on the road and drove them deep into the forest where they’d have to guide themselves back.


Simply because they could.

This was but one part of their journey to “freedom” and, of all the things they endured, this would probably be a minor inconvenience.

In Thailand, at one point, my brother and I were separated from one another. We were too young to remember but he stayed with my mom, where she lived and worked, while I stayed with my father in a Buddhist monastery, but this is another story.

How has this influenced me as a photographer?

We all have a story to tell, and when I take photos, I want to be able to tell a story. When I first started, it was for the joy of it. I would take numerous photos but there was little meaning behind them.

But as I’ve aged, and hopefully have matured through the years, I noticed I was able to tell a story through some of my favourite photographs.

I feel there’s more meaning behind them.


You and your camera have travelled to Iceland, Jordan, Lebanon, Lima, Cuba and Cambodia to name a few.
I love your travel portfolio from Cuba – the photos are incredible. It is a country that has been frozen in time – the cars, the architecture – it’s enchanting. How was it travelling in Cuba – the people, sights and food?

Ah Cuba! It has always been on my bucket list, and I know for a lot of others as well.

As you are aware, Obama recently visited Cuba (last year) which brought more attention to the country. Easing of travel restrictions for Americans was in part why I wanted to visit as soon as possible. I wanted to visit Havana before it got (even more) crowded.

The Cuban people are very friendly. They make do with what they have and in some ways it reminds me of the things my parents went through in Cambodia.

Havana (more so in the Vedado area) would be a paradise for architects. There is a lot of political history there and it is reflected everywhere you look, from Spanish influenced architecture to more modern day designs. It’s a field day not only for architects, but history buffs, and photographers etc.

I am not a car buff but that doesn’t mean I did not appreciate them. I was in awe, and like the architecture, this was a paradise for me to capture. They call mechanics here magicians because it takes pure magic and a lot of skill to keep the old cars running since they are unable to import parts.

On a side note, I kept thinking about the movie American Graffiti, and how it would be nice to ride in one. One of my top moments was a night time drive back to the hotel along the Malecon in a vintage Ford/Chrysler. I have a (somewhat blurry) photo of that evening and it was such a beautiful moment. The windows were down, the cool breeze filling the car and a view of a crescent moon hovering above the cityscape. I took a few photos and then enjoyed the short ride while hand surfing out the window of course!


I love the photo of the elderly woman smoking the cigar with the big red flower fastened to her head. Can you tell us a little about it?

Street photography is something I’m not especially comfortable with. If you look at my photographs, they are predominantly landscapes and cityscapes. It’s because I can take my time, frame and then shoot. I have a difficult time photographing people/locals as I don’t want to intrude.

With this lady, I approached her, using my rough Spanish of hello and how are you (which, by the way, I always learn wherever I go!) But this time I had a guide and she explained to me that some women will dress up in “traditional” clothing for people to photograph to make extra money. You see, Cubans have a monthly allowance given to them, but it’s not enough. Tourism brings in a lot of money and for some this is a huge supplement to what they are given.

I apologize that there is no beautiful story of how I happened to notice some local in their traditional garb just sitting there. But that is the story behind the photo. I learned something new and after taking some quick snaps, I smiled and said, “Gracias! Buenos dias!”


You also do a lot of architectural, landscape and nature photography. How difficult is it to get lines, shapes, light and shadows to work together in a photo?

Some may say that I’m lazy but I work with (natural) available light that is given to me.

When travelling, I like to travel light. I now have the Fuji X-T1 with the 35mm (50mm once you apply the crop factor) and I must say I take more travel photos with this than when I used a full frame camera. I am very happy with the weight and the quality of the images. I like a bit of noise in my images and am not always concerned with “sharp” photos.

Perhaps that’s why National Geographic hasn’t recognized me!

In all seriousness, you shoot with what you have and sometimes it is just with one lens. My legs are my zoom. I don’t have a wide angle, per se, so I concentrate on parts of the architecture or the landscape that catches my attention. I’ve realized I don’t need to show the viewer the whole picture when an arch of an entry way, or the way the light is cast through a window, will do. Don’t get me wrong, I am always wishing I had brought this lens or that lens but then, when travelling, I probably would not enjoy lugging around so much equipment.

It’s all in the framing and what you want to show. It’s also in the editing. You can correct the lines, you can lighten an area or darken other areas.

What would you like the viewer to focus on.


Because we are a fashion, hair and beauty blog – I had to sneak this question in. In December of last year, you had the opportunity to photograph Paul Mason at Strellson Canada in the CF Rideau Centre for a charity event for CHEO. How is it being on the other side of the camera when working with models?

I love it. I enjoy being behind the camera. I enjoy thinking about how the light will hit someone. I enjoy thinking about how to edit a photo.

Some people are naturals in front of the camera, like Paul. He knows his stuff and it was very easy. He’s a good looking man and the camera loves him.

I always have ideas in my head, and again, I’m too lazy to bring lights so I must be creative in how I shoot. It’s the same way when you do bring lights, you must be creative as well. You need to know how light bounces. You can add or take away light here and there – a lot of creative people out there that can do that. Since a majority of my work is landscape then I play with what’s out there.

A good example was in Iceland. It was cloudy most of the time but I loved that. I always kept my eyes peeled for when the light would shine through the clouds, silhouetting some parts and highlighting others, like the caps or a side of a mountain. This to me is what I look for as it draws your attention to that area.



There were too many questions to fit into one interview – so this will be the first in a series. So please keep checking in to read our next chat with Theak!

I hope someone from National Geographic reads this post and hires you, but until then, tell our readers how they can purchase your prints.

I know I’m not your typical interview so thank you again for wanting to do another with me. And you are too kind with the compliments. I enjoy sharing my photos and through them I hope people want to head out and visit each place.

I am currently updating my website,, and can be contacted through there.

They can purchase any of the photos on the site directly through me, again, by using the contact me page.