In 1994 we made our first visit to Cambodia. Here is the beautiful Ta Prohm, in Angkor. But we soon realised that the country was also full of sad, Unfinished Stories.
We were determined to understand the Country and its lovely people. And we started to see the still-present impact of the Genocide.
After Pol Pot died, in 1998, Ingrid and I funded a major primary school program in the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation Areas, administered by Save the Children.
We have stayed friends with everyone as they continued to dedicate themselves to education. But it has become clear that we did not do full justice to their stories.
From the beginning, we worked with the Khmer Rouge. We were the first non-UN /NGO ‘civilians’ to do that. They got to know us, including our then 10-year-old daughter, Victoria.
Cheat Chum was the Governor of Trapeang Prasat District, and an ex Khmer Rouge Brigadier. This is him, just a few months ago.
In 2000, Khmer Rouge villagers built a grass roofed school at Sen Sam, near Trapeang Prasat. Some teachers only had primary education themselves.
Today, it is a thriving school, and a source of pride for everyone. It is also a rare school in Cambodia jointly named for the Prime Minister Hun Sen and ‘foreigners’ – the Yates Family.
From the start, the MA has been a totally collaborative project. I photographed the stories from Sarath, our main character, using metaphorical traces of what happened.
The aftermath work of Sophie Ristelhueber and others really helped this development.
The series, ‘I Missed my Mother’, told of Sarath’s midnight walk through the jungle, evading wolves and the Khmer Rouge.
Taking this a step further, I used digital negatives.
Negatives are a representation of the hidden, which without developing we cannot see. Negatives require thought, interpretation, and study to extract meaning.
And negatives, in the Cambodian context, could also be an allegory for an appalling history.
In the most recent Work in Progress, I used Infrared.
The overall effect of the work is ghostly, eerie and has a melancholy sense of time.
The images are combined directly with quotes from the story, not as small captions.
This partly came about from research into the impactful and emotive work of Paul Seawright, Paula Luttringer and others.
Each image is ‘asynchronous’, as the text does not immediately explain the photograph, asking the viewer to ponder.
This also confirmed to me that black and white, rather than colour, is a powerful way to tell the personal tragedy of atrocities.
Moving forward, for FMP, I have investigated how best to print and market a book in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is one of two target audiences for my work, and I want to respect the country and its artisans.
I have also extended my local network to include bookshops, galleries, photographers, artists and the national archives.
One of our daughters, the same Victoria, is a professional designer. Given the timelines, we have already been looking at a range of inspirational work.
We have also started to create the first design drafts.
We have found a printer and publisher in Phnom Penh and are starting to work through the details of the book.
It will cover a short history pre-Khmer rouge, the personal stories, and what has happened in education since. The Minister of Education has agreed to write the foreword.
So far there are about a dozen edited and checked stories. These are all from the people that we have known since 1999. The stories range from the need to find food, to the horrors of execution and death.
This has been a very serious effort on their part, and it’s fair to say they are all very excited (and rather relieved) to finally get their stories out.
The initial page layouts use an infrared or negative image to accompany each story. The layout is deliberately spacious, and quite different to other books on the shelves in Cambodia.
Whilst I realise that quality might be harder to control, I am determined to make this locally available to the widest audience.
The work will hope to highlight educational success stories.
For example, Chinket Metta was a young pupil in that grass-roofed school, unbeknownst to us. He is now doing a PhD in Japan, in Law, in Japanese.
So, whilst the stories of KR times are terribly sad, the overall end-message is one of hope for the future.
In the past twelve months, I have also secured professional quality video interviews, for use in installations.
This is the first time my friends have made such videos, and it has been quite emotional but cathartic. Even Sarath’s 88-year-old mother wanted to get involved.
I have also started going through my archive materials. We recorded everything about the original project, with full cooperation and indeed encouragement from the Cambodian Ministry of Education.
I have all the slides, negatives and notes, although much scanning and editing is required.
As well as the book, I am planning an installation, probably in the Bath area, to reach the second target group – to re-examine the Genocide for an International audience.
I am continuing to research how best to do this. I was very impressed with recent shows such as those of Susan Meiselas.
Bath does not have too many high-quality venues, although the Royal Literary and Scientific Institution would be an excellent choice.
In an imposing building, with modern facilities, they have a very active gallery and talks program. It is well organised, spacious venue in which to exhibit all kinds of photographs, books, video and other artefacts to an inquiring audience.
In the past 12 months, I have also found myself invited to several local speaking gigs – including as it happens to the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution and several photo croups.
I have more planned and will showcase the FMP work
I have also been invited to participate in an upcoming RPS Contemporary Group magazine, featuring my latest work.
In conclusion, the MA project is a discrete part of a very long-term effort.
It has also energised me to consider doing something more formally in the teaching arena.
Amongst others, Gary McLeod has been ‘motivating me’ to consider teaching and writing on the ethical side of photography, post MA.
Thanks for listening.