Yen fixes her fishing net on her boat. Most of the Vietnamese in Cambodia are stateless residents and live in floating settlements of dwelling zones on water which don't require citizenship papers.
Yen fixes her fishing net on her boat. Most of the Vietnamese in Cambodia are stateless residents and live in floating settlements of dwelling zones on water which don't require citizenship papers.
Photograph by Alina Fedorenko

Immigrants Find Homes in Colorful, Floating Villages

Photographer Alina Fedorenko documents the daily lives of villagers living in Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake and river system.

Without an easy answer to her own roots, photographer Alina Fedorenko is drawn to exploring the concept of home. Born in the former Soviet Union, her parents moved to Berlin, Germany in 1991. Fedorenko’s homeland became the independent state of Ukraine.

“A traditional home where you were born and raised never existed for me,” says Fedorenko, now 32 years old.

In her series “Icons on Water,” Fedorenko looks into the living spaces of stateless Vietnamese immigrants living in the Tonle Sap lake and river system in Cambodia. The families build floating dwellings on top of waters where citizenship papers are not required.

A single mother, Fedorenko traveled to Cambodia in 2016 with her young son, Romeo. She discovered the floating homes when her cab drove past them. Intrigued, and able to relate to the feeling of statelessness, she and Romeo returned to the homes and photographed them over the course of four days.

Access to the homes was easy, says Fedorenko, recalling the home owners’ open and relaxed nature. Plus, with Romeo at her side, or more likely on her back, “people trust me” and “we instantly have something in common,” she says.

Despite being built on the water, the floating villages operate similarly to villages on land, says Fedorenko. There are grocery stores, schools, barbers, temples, and even a place to play soccer.

“I’ve always been curious about how people who have less in life live, and how they arrange their lives in these special conditions,” says Fedorenko. She believes each floating home has its own story and visually reads the spaces like a diary. Each detail, the way objects are displayed, the textures, the bright colors of the walls, it all comes together to “tell a story about the family and what they care about, and how they operate in their daily lives,” she says.

“Every time I entered a home it was like a ‘wow’ effect for me,” she says of how beautiful the spaces were. She remembers the ways the wooden floors creaked and their silky surface, like they were oiled every day.

Fedorenko was also pleasantly surprised by the way the families—sometimes four generations at a time—lived and supported each other. “They have different relationships than we do in Europe where most of the time we try to leave [home] as soon as possible,” she says.

“It’s a magical world gently rocking on the water ... every home has a beautiful soul.”

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You can see more of Alina Fedorenko's photographs on her website here.

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