Interview with Mak Remissa

mickyatesCambodia, Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, Education, Genocide, ICWeek10, Informing Contexts, Khmer, Photography, Society 6 Comments

Mak Remissa is arguably the most successful and important photographer working in Cambodia today. He is a working photojournalist, and is heavily involved in the ‘fine arts’ scene. His personal work addresses social issues, and I have previously written about some of his projects.

I am in discussion with Remissa and others about a collaborative exhibition in 2020.

This week’s task includes:

  • Source and post an interview with a practitioner who interests you and informs your practice in some way.
  • Be alert to how they describe the intent of their work, and how they explain the visual choices they have made to realise this. How do they reflect on and evaluate their work, and do you agree?
  • Consider these and provide a brief evaluative summary.
  • You should also specifically identify and reflect on any ways in which this might inform the development of your own practice. You might also highlight any particular issues / themes which you think are useful and have synergies with your own practice

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I will start with my summary and views.

Having talked directly with Remissa, I know that he sees allegory as a way to reach his audience in Cambodia, rather than more indexical work. Artistically, he also wishes to do something different to his photojournalist ‘day job’, and it was quite telling to read ‘artist’ on his business card, not journalist.

One of his early series, Fish and Ants, was based on Cambodian folk tales. His work is rooted in Cambodian culture, though uses imagery which attempts to challenge the viewer to ‘think twice’. The idea is of the circle of life, and Remissa wants us to think what that means to each of us, today.

‘When the water rises, the fish eats the ant

When the water recedes, the ant eats the fish

Remissa manipulated photographs, a step forward from the already abstracted images in his earlier Water is Life series.

He was not yet using the cut-out silhouettes which are a hallmark of his work today. Remissa described this as a desire to use black in the Left 3 Days (Khmer Rouge) series – representing those times but without falling into the macabre. He recognised that those times were in the past. And, as he said in the video interview below, he was originally uncertain how best to proceed with a project about which his knowledge was only from his childhood.

As a Cambodian, Remissa is deeply aware of the current state of the culture in the Country. And, whilst he can also explore opportunities not always readily available to ‘outsiders’, he is very much aware of its limits. From his 2007 interview:

‘Cambodians have to wake up and realize that we Cambodians are of no less value than the foreigners. We might not be as good as them at something, but we might be better at something else. For instance, when I offered photo classes no one would come to learn because I am just another Cambodian, which would not have been the case if I was a foreigner’.

Remissa volunteered to me that he saw similarities with my ‘negatives’ work – alluding to events, moving across time, without depicting some kind of reality which neither of us could actually ‘know’. He recognised that the Khmer Rouge times are never properly discussed today in Cambodia, and was therefore seeking ways to engage his audience, rather than turn them away with overly graphic depictions of those terrible times.

Remissa’s artist statement on Left 3 Days, and subsequent video interview, tell a very personal story about the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. He describes how he felt ‘release’ as he produced the work, something I recognise in Sarath and others that I am working with. So many of these stories remain hidden, and are psychologically wounding, even today.

Yet, the images do not ‘illustrate’ a detailed timeline or specific incidents. Rather, they suggest a collective trauma. In my view, therefore, the work is to some extent representative of all Genocides.

The series is of its time, with shapes recalling the 1970s, yet is also of today, in its modern, graphic style. Remissa’s aesthetic is art, rather than photographic representation. The images are deceptively simple, yet complex in their detail. Background, cutouts, smoke, atmosphere.

Left 3 Days are part of Remissa’s biography, though it alludes rather than describes. He therefore starts from a slightly different place to me, as I am wishing to narrate more directly Sarath’s autobiographical Unfinished Stories.

That said, in my latest work, I am moving along a path which allows the personal stories to be ‘included’ in an image, whilst also letting that same image stand for all Genocides.

When we talked about collaborative work, he suggested that a mixed (Cambodian/Foreign) ‘older’ generation might be able to better engage young Cambodian photographers in exploring Khmer Rouge times than either could do alone. Much food for thought.

Remissa’s work is highly relevant to the development of my own.

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Interview with Mak Remissa, 2007:

Q. What inspired you to study the arts, and more specifically painting?

A. The Khmer Rouge, one of the bloodiest mass murdering regimes in the history of mankind, killed everyone that had higher education. Some survived, like the painter Mr Vann Nath who used his paintings skills to record all the killing and torturing activities of the Khmer Rouge, was not killed. For that reason I realized art is a skill that is useful for everyone and everywhere in the world.

Q. Do you work only in Cambodia or abroad as well? And have you held any exhibition, nationally and internationally?

A. I was given the opportunity in 1997 to study photojournalism in Thailand which allowed me to come back and start as a freelance photographer. As a freelance photographer I had clients from various parts of Cambodia and the world, including UNDP, UNESCO, PLAN, REUTERS, Bates, etc. Since coming back from studying in Thailand I have travelled all over the world to capture pictures for the world to see. I have also done many exhibitions of my photos nationally, and internationally – Canada, USA. In 1997, I won first and third prize at the National Photo-Journalism competition.

Q. What do you think that made you become so successful?

A. Besides the experience and good skills that I have, my success has been made possible by two reasons; one is because I am Cambodian. International firms, as well as NGOs love to hire a Cambodian for jobs in Cambodia, as long as you have the skills they need. They understand that no one understands Cambodia better than the Cambodians themselves. Second reason is because I ask lower prices for my photos than foreigners ask!

Q. So what does it mean to be a Cambodian artist?

A. Cambodians have to wake up and realize that we Cambodians are of no less value than the foreigners. We might not be as good as them at something, but we might be better at something else. For instance, when I offered photo classes no one would come to learn because I am just another Cambodian, which would not have been the case if I was a foreigner. That’s the psychological thought that most Cambodians have. But I am very proud to be a Cambodian artist. I am the pioneer in this profession and I am very proud. I only wish that all other Cambodian artists feel the same as me.

Q. What have you done to help bring this profession to the attention of the young generation?

A. I have given lectures at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and put up many exhibitions to show the values of professional photographers. In the future, I plan to open a photography school, where I hope I will pass on my knowledge and skills to many more people. I am really worried that after my professional life is over, there will be no one to continue

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Mak Remissa interview on his work Left 3 Days, 2015, for ITA:

Mak Remissa ITA from FPmag on Vimeo.

‘I would like to do something on the Khmer Rouge story, but I feel that it was a very mixed story. At that time I felt scared, because I didn’t know what war looked like, as I was young at that time’.

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Mak Remissa. 2015. From the Series, Left 3 Days.

Mak Remissa, written artist statement on Left 3 Days, 2014.

‘Like other Cambodians, some of my family members died from the killing, starvation, forced labor and torture under the Khmer Rouge regime. Most of those who have survived the regime do not wish to recall such painful memories nor do they try to remember in order to avoid continued emotional suffering. Therefore, the story of the genocide that happened between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia has faded gradually away from people’s mind, like smoke being blown away by the wind. Indeed, we, Cambodians, don’t want such a tragic and painful event to ever happen again in our motherland. That is why, right now, in order for the next generations to know our history so that it won’t disappear with the passage of time, it is important to reconcile the victims with the view of mending their fragile memories and emotional suffering.

“Left 3 Days” is a keyword to recall some memories during my childhood at that time; particularly on 17 April 1975 when Khmer Rouge troops took control and occupied the capital city ‘Phnom Penh’. On that day the earsplitting gunfire shots could be heard for miles around the city. For every shot fired, a shiver would run down my spine. The soldiers clad in black -most were very young – ordered all residents to leave their homes for three days, even patients had to leave the hospitals without any clear information. My family hide in our house over a night, hoping the situation may change for the better. However, to our dismay, the capital city that was once so lively and rich with life became a ghost town.

As ordered, everyone was evicted out of the capital city. The only living human beings left were the Khmer Rouge troops that kept searching for any people who remained, they went from house to house. Due to the worsening situation, my father decided to leave Phnom Penh the next day. My parents and other family members left the city carrying heavy and overburdening belongings.

We headed out of the city, along the national road “3”, walking to Angkor Chey district in Kampot province, my father’s hometown.

Crowds of the city residents walked from dusk till dawn. Some would wander around with no clear destination in mind. If one of them was too tired, they were not able to rest, for the Khmer Rouge troops were chasing behind them and forcing them to continue onward. Whenever night fell, people would rest by the roadside. Many dead bodies lay on both sides of the road and corpses would float upward in ponds, lakes and water canals. Due to the severe drought and corpses floating in what little water sources were left, finding drinking water was extremely difficult.

Words alone cannot describe the horror and pain inflicted on each and every family. What has been described is just a fraction of the events which occurred and a glimpse into the primary plan of the Khmer Rouge to evict the citizens from Phnom Penh to rural areas.

I wish to dedicate this work as a memorial to my respectful father, grandfather and three uncles as well as all the victims who died during the heinous Khmer Rouge regime’.

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Sandro Iovine, on ‘Left 3 Days‘, 2015:

The great emotional intensity that accompanies Left 3 Days takes therefore all its vigour in the contextualisation, and the whole work seems paradoxically to reverse the concept of eidetic memory. If in fact with this definition we identify that mental image which is formed following the exposure to a painting or a photograph, and which tends to lose strength in a short space of time, in this case it is the mental image, which generates the physical destined to persist in time. And in this genesis even the cathartic function is expressed by the creative act, thanks to which the mental image of an incomprehensible tragedy starts to melt at the very moment when the memory begins to take tangible form through the construction of the photographic image‘. (2015)

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Biography from Asia Motion

Mak Remissa is regarded as one of the most successful Khmer photographers of his generation. He credits his first and third place awards in the 1997 National Photojournalism competition, held by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and chaired by Phillip Jones Griffiths, as a major catalyst in his career.

Currently working as a photojournalist for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), his work is often seen on the international news wires. His 2005 fine art photography exhibition, titled after a traditional Khmer proverb: ‘When the water rises, the fish eats the ant; when the water recedes, the ant eats the fish’, was shown in Phnom Penh galleries like Popil and Java, as well as at the Angkor Photo Festival.

Born in 1970, Remissa and his family were moved from Phnom Penh five years later by the Khmer Rouge and relocated in Takeo province.

In 1995, he graduated in Fine Art and Photography at the Royal Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh, and his work soon appeared in numerous publications such as Cambodge Soir and the Phnom Penh Post.

He has also worked for Reuters and other organisations. Remissa has exhibited his fine art photography in Cambodia, France, Canada and the US, and after spending a few years in Canada, he has returned to live and record events in the country of his birth.

Seven pieces of Remissa’s Fish and Ants work was recently made part of the Singapore Art Museum’s permanent collection.

Mak Remissa has been a member of Asia Motion, Cambodia’s first photo agency, since 2010

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Mak Remissa. 2005. From series Fish and Ants.

Mak Remissa. 2009. From series Water is Life.

Mak Remissa. 2015. From series Left 3 Days.

Mak Remissa. 2018. From series Hunting to Shooting.

Images from AsiaMotion

Exhibitions:

  • Water is Life. 2011. Hotel De La Paix, Siem Reap, during Angkor Photo Festival, sponsored by AIR France.
  • Water is Life. 2011. Institut Français de Birmanie (formerly Alliance Française), during Yangon Photo Festival.
  • Water is Life. 2012. In the Ruptures and Revival: Cambodian Photography in the Last Decade exhibition in the ICA Gallery2, Institute of Contemporary Arts, LaSalle College of the Arts, Singapore.
  • Fish And Ants. 2013. In the Life Being, Earth Being exhibition in the Theory of Clouds Gallery in Kobe, Japan.  Life Being, Earth Being exhibition was a group exhibition showing work of Hajime Kimura / Andrea Star Reese / Abir Abdullah / Remissa Mak / Zalmai.
  • Water is Life. 2014. At the Xishuangbanna Festival, China.
  • Fish & Ants. 2014. In GETXOPHOTO festival, Bilbao, Spain.
  • Fish & Ants. 2015. Nominated as one of the best exhibitions, among 200, at Dali Photo Festival, China.
  • Left 3 Days. 2015. At The French Cultural Centre in Phnom Penh, during PhotoPhnomPenh 2015.
  • Left 3 Days. 2015. In exhibition Renaissance in the Phnom Penh pavilion during the 4th edition of Lille 3000.
  • From Hunting to Fishing. 2018. At National institute of Education, Phnom Penh, during PhotoPhnomPenh 2018.

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Header image: Mick Yates. 2019. Mak Remissa.

BROUWER, Andy. 2007. Interview with Mak Remissa. Heritage Touchstone Magazine. Available at: http://andybrouwer.blogspot.com/2007/10/mak-remissa-importance-of-photography.html (accessed 20/01/2019).

IOVINE, Sandro. 2015. Mak Remissa: Left 3 Days. FP Magazine. Available at https://www.fpmagazine.eu/eng/Mak_Remissa-25/Last_3_Days-1/ (accessed 28/01/2019.

MAK, Remissa. 2014. Left 3 Days Artist Statement. Angkor Photo Festival & Workshop. Available at: https://angkor-photo.com/programme/remissa-mak-asia-motion/ (accessed 20/01/2019).