A Photographer, by Photographers

mickyatesCritical Research Journal, Documentary, Exhibition, FinalMajorProject, FMPWeek24, Installation, Photography, Project Development Leave a Comment

One of the most humbling things that has happened during the BRLSI show has been the reception that my work has got from other photographers.

Perhaps for the first time I feel almost comfortable calling myself a documentary photographer, not because of any impending qualification but because my work is seen as a ‘proper’ body of photographic work by others.

Many have asked ‘what’s next’. The reaction the the work has served to intensify my plans to seek other venues in 2020. It has also started me thinking what other projects I should be doing. So much of my energy has been wrapped up in making Unfinished Stories happen that I do, however, need  a break first.

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Giles Penfound, professional photographer, previously UK Army Combat photographer, wrote:

Today I had the great pleasure of visiting this remarkable exhibition in the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute by Mick Yates with my friend Chris Waddell.

There are so very few photo exhibitions which are not only beautiful, engaging and though provoking and even fewer which are all that as well as being important.

Mick’s work is one of those very rare bodies of work that is in my opinion all of this and so much more. It has lit an ember in my thoughts & heart which I know will grow in significance and meaning far beyond the prints on the wall.

The testimonies of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge Genocide and Mick’s exquisite images juxtaposed with the insane doctrine of the perpetrators is chilling; however a light of hope is evident in the work of Mick and his Wife with the people of Cambodia.

If you have the time I urge you to visit and see for yourself.

Thank you Mick, it was wonderful to get to see and chat with you again & a real treat to experience your remarkable work.

Giles Penfound

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Prof. David Lewis-Baker, photographer and retired Professor of Political Economy, University of Warwick, commented:

Genocide is about both remembering and forgetting. Any artist approaching the subject must confront this paradox.

Yates’ work achieves this difficult balancing act by representing the Cambodian Killing Fields today as idyllic rural settings, made strangely sinister by the use of infrared.

Images of past Genocides and mass burials are evoked through monotones of silent and empty landscapes, offered as a form of emotional remembering of the absent figures reduced to ashes beneath the crops and trees. At the same time they represent the equal necessity to forget, if not forgive, without which reconciliation and the rebirth of Cambodian society would be impossible.

Photography is usually best suited to remembering, by capturing or recording the present and the past, however imperfectly. Forgetting is much more difficult for photographs to achieve. But Yates’ work achieves this by depicting a calm, perhaps too calm, countryside under which the dead nourish the trees and crops above.

Ultimately, his work offers a pictorial metaphor of Genocide via the now silent fields of death, creating a form of visual silence greatly enhanced by the use of infrared. This asks questions about the past violence as well as the need to forget, if not forgive, the brutal crimes against humanity that took place in these now silent and beautiful places.

There is an almost religious intensity in these images which silently evoke the cries of the tortured and dying lying silent and fixed beneath the calm surface of these beautiful landscapes. While these images do not allow the past tragedies to be erased, they leave open the door to reconciliation, via a photographic language evoking loss but also hope!

When the captions from victims who survived are added to the images the result is a powerful evocation of these cruel and unjust past events.

Prof. David Lewis-Baker

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Fellow MA student Ashley Rose:

Unfinished Stories: Cambodia from Genocide to Hope by photographer Mick Yates opened this week at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Society.

It is not an exhibition of ‘dark tourism’ and avoids the tropes commonly associated with stories about Genocides. Rather one is confronted with a series of indexical infrared landscape photographs whose indexicality reveals exactly nothing of the story to the point that they almost become abstractions.  It would be quite easy to dismiss them as “just another landscape photo”, but that would be a mistake. They are each, on the surface, stunning beautiful images. They completely belie the fact that beneath the surface of both the image and the place itself horrific things have happened.  The incongruity is arresting. The viewer is pulled between the abstractness of the imagery and the concreteness of the accompanying Khmer and English words, which too are non sequiturs having nothing whatever to do with the photograph itself.

The photographer, through his long involvement with Cambodia and people like Keo Sarath and Beng Simeth involved in the rebuilding of the education system there, has captured in his imagery a metaphor of the situation in Cambodia today.  On the surface it is a beautiful and vibrant place, but just beneath the surface lurk and linger remnants of the horrors of the past, not only for those who were fortunate enough to have survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and for whom the memories are all too real, but for generations that have come since who had no first-handexperience. It sits like the skeleton in the cupboard everyone is too afraid to open.  It is like a filter that cannot be removed from the Cambodian lens and it still colours day to day life in palpable but mostly unspoken ways.

Yates’ interviews with long time friends, colleagues and survivors who now after more than 40 years are telling their stories for the first time allow us to begin to understand the horrors and the aftereffects of the Genocide on Cambodia and its people.  It allows us to begin to make sense of the non-sequiturs in the images and accompanying words.  

This is an extensively researched project and the history placards and displayed ephemera help to contextualise the exhibition.  The book delves into even more depth on the history of the Genocide, and its impacts on specific people as related through their stories of survival and the work they have undertaken since to rebuild an education system that was a principal target of the Khmer Rouge Genocide. It is a beautifully designed and printed book which, while written in English, was printed in Cambodia as an important element of Yates’ overall project.

The final incongruity involves the venue itself, decorated for the Festive season while displaying an exhibition about the Cambodian Khmer Rouge Genocide and its aftermath. Yet perhaps it too can be viewed through a metaphorical lens in that this season represents rebirth and renewal and is itself a great symbol of hope. Hope is what Yates, his family and Cambodian friends and colleagues like Keo Sarath and Beng Simeth have been trying to build for the past 20 years and that work continues.

Ashley Rose

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Header: Giles Penfound, 2019. Mick at BRLSI

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