As noted in the previous post, Cambodian photography is developing, though it’s clear that the hiatus of the Khmer Rouge years and subsequent Vietnamese administration left a hole in the story of photography in the country.
Zhuang Wubin, in ‘Photography in Southeast Asia‘ (2016) makes the point that a strictly linear look at photographic development is inappropriate. Much ‘Cambodian’ photography reflects journalist practices, often either taken by or inspired by ‘Western’ photographers. And the spectre of the Tuol Sleng ‘mug shots’ sits heavily both in the global perception of Cambodia as a society, and in the hiatus in domestic photographic development.
Yet there are earlier works, such as George Groslier who commissioned a series of images of the Royal Dancers (1927), which recorded the performing arts of the country. Groslier was the founding Director of what eventually became the National Museum of Cambodia. Later, picture postcards became a preoccupation of both French and domestic photographers, for tourist consumption. Interestingly, whilst female nudity was rarer (unlike, say, in Indonesia in the early 20th Century), the Cambodian Royal Family were happy to be depicted. Film also played a big role in the artistic life of Cambodia, before the Khmer Rouge – King Sihuanouk himself was a keen movie-maker.
During the American Bombing, and Khmer Rouge war, news photographs were largely taken by locals – foreigners had to travel on the ground, with none of the relative ‘safety’ of defined battle lines in Vietnam. And many died.
Wubin argues that there is therefore a multifaceted background to the development of photography in the Country, and that the impact of the Tuol Sleng images cannot be ignored.
Heng Sinith (b. 1964) emerged as one of the first to pursue photojournalism, and collaborated with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) on an exhibition of mid-level KR Cadres (2002). He was not attempting to ‘normalise’ the KR, but he was cautioning against an over-simplification of history – good, bad, black, white. The image here is by Wubin, from the 2014 group exhibition on Cambodian photography since 200, Yunnan, China. Sinith works for AP.
Sinith is clearly directly dealing with the Aftermath of the Genocide, from a human perspective.
Mak Remissa (b. 1970) had formal photography training, and started working for Reuters in 1997. From 2006 he has shot for the European press Photo Agency (EPA). In 2005, he made ‘When the Water Rises, The Fish Eats The Ant; When The Water Recedes, The Ant EatThe Fish‘. This is based on a Khmer proverb, and effectively reflects the circle of life. Remissa says:
In Cambodia, if you say something directly, people will become defensive. They will ask ‘Who are you to say that? Are you God?’. On the other hand, if I use photography, people will accept my message with a smile. (pg 251)
Remissa’s work, using allegory, is visually extremely literate, and his use of abstraction to tell his story is challenging to his audience.
The formal photo-journalist tradition was very much alive in the history of Cambodian, domestic photography. Still, both Sinith and Remissa used photography and art to address issues of importance to them personally.
To be continued …
Wubin, Zhuang. 2016. Photography in Southeast Asia: A Survey. Singapore: NUS Press.