I have just been honoured to receive the Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society (FRPS) for my Unfinished Stories work in the Contemporary Photography category. This project is on the personal stories of friends who survived the Khmer Rouge Genocide. The first and last images of the panel are shown below. The full Fellowship Panel and Statement is here:
Despite all of the tragic issues with the Covid 19 Pandemic, I must admit that my photography has prospered during lockdown. Last Spring I created a daily series of images, which became a book Coronavirus UK published in a now-sold-out limited edition (details here) and which was featured last summer on the RPS Contemporary Blog.
I was also able to use the time to reflect on how best to move my passion for photography yet further forward. I decided to embark on a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), using my Cambodian work. I was already an Associate (ARPS). The impact of the pandemic and its terrible death toll has been profound on us all. But the horror of a totally man-made Genocide begs different questions.
Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 – 2.2 million people in their attempt to create an agrarian society cleansed of the urban intelligentsia. Forty years later the Genocide’s devastating impact on Cambodian society still resonates. What happened to the individuals that survived those horrific times has largely been left unspoken.
Our collective memory of the Genocide is driven by the images of ‘mug shots’ of victims of the Tuol Sleng torture facility and skulls from the Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’. Those accused were meticulously photographed, tortured until they confessed, and killed. The camera was in effect their executioner.
Yet there are almost 20,000 grave sites which go unnoticed and are mainly unmarked.
Prince Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia neutral, but he allowed Vietnamese supply lines to cross the country during the Vietnam War. US bombs killed tens of thousands of innocent Cambodians in a vain effort to disrupt these trails. This helped push the population towards the Khmer Rouge, which was a tragic error.
The Genocide was stopped in 1979 by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, although their army only left the country in 1989. Still, very few of the original Khmer Rouge leadership were brought to justice. The UN backed tribunal only opened investigations in 2007.
The complex story of the Genocide is thus today buried in an anonymous landscape.
From a personal perspective, my wife Ingrid and I have a fairly long-standing relationship with Cambodia and its people.
In 1994 we first visited as tourists with our then young children. Some parts of the country still saw fighting between the Royal Cambodian Army and the Khmer Rouge. In fact, we heard shell fire when we were visiting the famous Angkor Wat temple on a lovely blue-sky day. This prompted our interest in the country and in researching its history.
Until the death of Pol Pot in 1998, parts of the country remained under Khmer Rouge control. Reconciliation with the rest of Cambodia only started then. In 1999, Ingrid and I founded a primary school program in the northern Reconciliation Areas, along the border with Thailand. Working in collaboration with Save the Children, the Ministry of Education and even some ex-Khmer Rouge, the partnership helped rebuild the local education system. Keo Sarath and Beng Simeth led the programs, and these two men feature in my subsequent documentary photography.
My recent Fellowship submission was thus something of a punctuation point in our family relationship with the country, although the work itself is very much about our friends who survived the Genocide. They had not spoken out publicly before.
I joined the RPS quite some time ago and attempted the Associate Distinction in 2010 via a book submission called Smile. It failed. The feedback was that whilst the images were fine, there was a mismatch between my statement and the photographs. Lesson one: seek advice.
In 2014 I went back, with another, much bigger book of street photography called Mobiles, Music and Merriment. I sought the Licentiateship, which I received.
Mick Yates. 2014. Mobiles Music & Merriment. Available here https://www.blurb.com/b/5554200-mobiles-music-and-merriment
I have always been a photographer to one degree or another and have been lucky to work and live across the world. Travel and street images abound in my archives. I learnt darkroom skills as a student newspaper photographer, and generally shot slide film before moving to digital in 1999. I still often shoot film, though, depending on the task at hand.
In 2018, I decided to learn more about photography, and I started an MA at Falmouth which I had seen publicised by the RPS. I agreed with our Cambodian friends on a rough project outline and an intensive series of visits to both record their stories (some with video) and experiment with different photographic approaches.
Almost from the first of these visits, it became clear that, despite its power to judge, the camera also has limitations in telling complex stories. I was also acutely aware of ethical considerations in portraying Genocide, and I did not want to fall into the traps and tropes of ‘dark tourism’. At every stage the effort was collaborative with our friends and various Cambodian experts and institutions.
I settled on the idea of photographing today’s landscape as the visual centre of the work and linking back to the rather anonymous history of the Genocide. These landscapes included sites of atrocities which are rarely visited today. Initial work using portraits or other more traditional documentary techniques just wasn’t creatively ‘cutting through’.
Aftermath photographers such as Sophie Ristelhueber (Fait) and Judy Glickman Lauder (Beyond the Shadows: The Holocaust and the Danish Exception) were inspirational in this endeavour. After much experimentation, I chose infrared for its power to show ‘hidden’ detail in the forest, whilst actually at first looking like ‘traditional’ black and white. I wanted intrigue and not exaggeration.
During the MA, I also researched the use of text with photographs to overcome the camera’s story-telling limitations. Works by people such as Karen Knorr (on Belgravia) and Paul Seawright (Sectarian Murder) were instructive.
In my images, the rather beautiful Khmer script is used to respect the storyteller whilst also anchoring the geographic location of communal suffering. A small English sub-title aids the non-Cambodian audience. The resultant series, in chronological order of events, combines present-day photographs of an historical landscape of death, made real with narratives of personal pain in that same landscape.
I want people to stop and ponder as they saw the work, and frankly it didn’t really matter whether they started with the text or with the image. In the 2019 exhibition at the end of the MA, I watched people’s eyes go back and forth between the two in a gradual unveiling of the story. That and feedback in the visitors’ book suggest that the approach worked.
Mick Yates. 2019. Unfinished Stories: From Genocide to Hope at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.
The 2019 exhibition is here:
There is also a short video which accompanied this show, in which Sarath recounts one of his harrowing tales. It is available here:
At the time of the exhibition, I also published a book titled Unfinished Stories; From Genocide to Hope. This is dedicated to our friends and tells their stories in full. There is a foreword from the current Minister of Education. It is not a pure photobook but is more an illustrated history of the Genocide made real with personal biographies.
Mick Yates. 2019. Unfinished Stories: From Genocide to Hope. Available here: https://www.mickyatesphotography.com/Unfinished-Stories
The design is by our youngest daughter Victoria, who is a professional designer, and the book was printed in Cambodia. We opted for an ‘English-only’ presentation after consultation with our friends and booksellers in Phnom Penh. It is on sale in the UK and in Cambodia, and via my website.
My Fellowship submission uses a slightly different selection of the original MA images. Learning from previous mistakes, I sought advice via the RPS online system. I have been very impressed with both the positive changes in the RPS and the way the institution has totally embraced online communications and engagement – whether via the RPS Distinctions group on Facebook or the Zoom-based advice and assessment process. Originally, I was thinking of applying in the Documentary category, but discussions lead to a decision to apply in Contemporary given the complexity of the story and the mix of photographs and text.
I would like to single out the excellent advice (and on-point questioning) from Richard Brayshaw FRPS which in particular helped better connect the Statement of Intent to the work. In my mind, getting that connection right is key to the Fellowship process.
I was honoured to receive the Fellowship on April 22nd. I admit that I was rather taken aback by the positive comments that the work garnered, both at the assessment and subsequently on social media. It has been an emotional but rewarding experience.
In last year’s RPS strategic review it was noted that there are 11,000 current members world-wide – of which there are 3, 300 Licentiates LRPS; 2,3000 Associates ARPS ; 655 Fellows FRPS 655; and 190 Hon Fellow HFRPS (photographers such as Don McCullin, Susan Meiselas etc).
Stepping back from the photography, I would also like to say that Ingrid and I are very grateful for this platform to enable us to continue to reach new audiences about the Genocide, and most importantly to tell the stories of our friends.
Thank you, RPS.
Again, the full Fellowship Panel and Statement is here: