Posted with his wife to the north-east Cambodian town of Kratie, Roberts began to notice the hundreds of hand-painted signs advertising goods and services as wide-ranging as hairdressing, dog-meat and spit-roasted pigs.
Roberts says hand-painted signs were common in Cambodia up to the arrival of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. The signs, and the people who painted them, were targeted by the regime as they exist at the intersection of arts and commerce – both things the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy.
There was a revival of sign-painting after the regime was toppled, but they now face another threat, from technological and economic development.
Roberts says, ‘The loss of hand-painted signs marks a distinct period in countries’ economic development. It is the point at which access to technology and rising labour costs tip the balance in favour of mechanical or digital formats.
‘In the UK this happened in the middle of the last century, in Cambodia it is happening now.’
Roberts has spent his time in Kratie photographing and documenting more than 170 different signs, from the Kratie Dara Pich music group to the Da modern barbers (public phone service also available).
Roberts also tracked down some of the painter responsible for the signs, such as Kratie’s leading artist Sai Sokheang.