On Monday, 10th December, I did a presentation at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, noted here.
It was entitled Cambodia – Unfinished Stories, A Prayer from Hell.
I covered three areas:
- The Cambodian Genocide – antecedents, short history and effects.
- The Yates Family Primary School Program in the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation Areas, from 2000.
- A Prayer from Hell – my MA documentary project.
I will not detail slide-by slide from the presentation, but the event did seem to provide a kind of punctuation point for the MA work of this year. It linked my family’s almost 25 year history with the country and its people, with the MA project and, equally importantly, my current understanding of photography. The way I now consider and talk about photography is changing, as is hopefully the way I create images.
I opened with Robert Frank’s quote ‘Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference’. This sums up where I am in my photography, as a documentary story teller.
Cambodia & The Genocide
The presentation started by covered the history of the Genocide, including the events that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. A disaffected peasantry, the rise of communism across S.E. Asia, a corrupt Government, and the the ‘secret’ American bombing of Vietnamese supply trails in Cambodia, killing tens of thousands of Cambodians, during the Vietnam War, were all causes.
The Khmer Rouge, whose leadership was highly educated and influenced by Mao’s Cultural revolution, were originally seen as liberators. But on the day they entered the capital Phnom Penh (17th April, 1975), they ordered everyone to leave. There were about 2 million residents of the city. City people were dubbed ‘new people’, and were sent to work camps across the countryside. Educated people were often killed, as ‘enemies’ of Angkar’s plan to take the Country back to Year Zero, a self-sustaining, agrarian society.
The plan was a massive failure, but in the process an estimated 1.7-2.0 million people died – some estimates go higher – out of a population of around 8 million.
Tuol Sleng, in Phnom Penh, and once a primary school, became an infamous interrogation and torture centre, leading to people being killed either there or at Cheoung Ek (The Killing Fields). Over 16,000 people entered Tuol Sleng, had their photograph taken, were interrogated, tortured, confessed and killed. Only a handful survived because they were ‘useful’.
There are an estimated 20,000 mass grave sites across the country.
After the Vietnamese stopped the Genocide by invading Cambodia in 1979, the Khmer Rouge, in alliance with King Sihanouk, became the representatives of Cambodia at the United Nations for the next decade. And the KR maintained a hold over two areas of the country – west of Siem Reap and North, alone the Thai border. These eventually became ‘Reconciliation Areas’, after Pol Pot died in 1998.
Even today, only a handful of Khmer Rouge leaders have ever been brought to justice at the UN-Cambodian Government Tribunal.
An early history that I wrote, still broadly accurate, is here.
Our Education Program
In my Oral Presentation for Sustainable Prospects, I noted a blurring of my educator role with that of photographer.
From late 1999 through 2003, my wife Ingrid and I founded and funded a Primary School program in the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation areas – buildings, libraries and teacher training. On the ground, the program was managed by Save the Children (Norway) led by Sarath – which is how we first met him. An area covering over 30,000 children was in this ‘Yates Family’ project. Children’s school attendance more than doubled, grade promotion almost doubled, and drop out rate more than halved – and girls results matched boys.
We then helped secure significantly more funding from the Japanese (Government) Social Development Fund (JSDF), administered by the World Bank. In fact, there were two, sequential phases to that JSDF program, the first extending coverage of children by over 85,000.
We documented the project over the years, in words and pictures.
There were also several personal success stories to note, beyond the statistics. This includes the story of Chinket Metta. He was a young boy in the first grass roofed school we encountered, in Trapeang Prasat, in 2000. Chinket went to the Yates Family Primary School, eventually got a University scholarship and is now doing a PhD in law in Japan in Japanese.
During question time, I noted the role of our then 10 year old daughter, Victoria. On our very first visit to Trapeang Prasat, March 2000, we encountered Cheat Chum (pictured in the header). He had been the District Khmer Rouge Military Commander, and was now head of the District Government as part of the Reconciliation process.
After the visit, we stopped en route back to Siem Reap, to discuss action steps, with a key question being do we trust the people to help get the results we were after. In discussion Vicky noted that Cheat Chum had arrived alone to our early morning breakfast, and was happy to wait when told there was a queue by a young lady serving the food. Vicky concluded he didn’t need any kind of escort, there was little fear, and the villagers were happy to tell him what to do! We concluded that we could trust.
The first schools were built, and the rest is history. Cheat Chum became a good supporter and personal acquaintance over the years.
The moral of the story was that there is always truth to be found, whether as an educator, philanthropist or photographer. Just because it was a Khmer Rouge area didn’t necessarily mean bad people everywhere. There were thousands of regular soldiers and civilians hopelessly trapped by the war.
My Photography & The Project
The talk then gave a short review of my early photography history – rather classic travel photography, which eventually led to an interest in documentary.
I asked the audience why we find it easy to take pictures of ‘the locals’ when we travel, but are nervous about shooting in our home town? A short and thought provoking discussion on both ‘the imperial gaze’ and the historic role of the ‘white male’ photographer ensued.
I also offered short overviews of ‘dark tourism‘, ‘aftermath documentary‘, contemporary documentary and the use of novel image making techniques to better engage viewer participation and debate in deciphering the work and its meaning.
There is no likelihood of newsworthy ‘iconic images’ to tell aftermath stories and capture an audience’s attention. I mentioned such as ‘The Hindenburg Disaster’, by Sam Shere (1936) which everyone in the audience knew. Thus, new photographic strategies are required.
The presentation went on to show my current progress, including filming intensely personal stories from Sarath, Am Yon and Srey Toch, Sarath’s sister. I showed some first cuts, in Khmer, without subtitles, though these seemed to stand alone. The project is allowing the family to ‘go public’ with things that have kept hidden, for all kinds of reasons. And there is much emotion being realised.
I also showed the entire series as a video, to music, which I described as ‘designed to provoke’.
In my Oral Presentation, I noted that there are two audiences for my current MA project, and that the work needed to be sufficiently different to attract both.
‘It is about the Unfinished Stories of people that we have known for almost 20 years, through our school building program, who survived the Khmer Rouge Genocide.I want to be bring their stories to new audiences, with thought-provoking work, to get people to reconsider the Genocide and its implications today.
In Cambodia, I want to contribute to further opening up the discussion about this painful subject, which is often hidden.
Internationally, I want to reach an audience who may have forgotten (or not even know) about the lessons of the Genocide.
This will necessitate a book and an installation, firstly in Phnom Penh, and then internationally’
This is where my ‘educator’ and ‘photographer’ roles blend.
My conclusions from this are that:
- Getting out these ‘Unfinished Stories’ is a personal mission, for me and the family.
- Sarath and family are, mostly for the first time, able to properly record what happened to them.
- ‘Aftermath’ documentary cannot rely on ‘iconic images’, as in newsworthy captures.
- It needs to be a thoughtful process of story telling, with a coherent and engaging series of images and other media.
- Respect is everything – for the subject, the context and for the audience.
- Intimacy (meaning rapport and understanding) is central to how I want to progress my portrait work.
- The Audience is critical. There is a triangle of subject-photographer-audience which needs continual assessment.
- To engage these Audiences, in today’s surfeit of imagery, new methods are required, both in making and displaying work.
- Research and empathy is critical, not least to avoid cultural stereotyping, and to avoid jumping to conclusions.
- Collaboration is the only way to make this multi-layered project happen.
- I would not have been able to offer such coherent photographic analysis prior to this MA.
- In that regard, perhaps the biggest ‘a-ha’ moment was Flusser’s description of the ‘apparatus’ of photography, in all of its aspects.
I want to thank Gary, Cemre, Krishna and Jesse for all their efforts to both teach and push me along. And I also must say that my Cromarty colleagues are a brilliant bunch, both to work alongside with and as friends. Thanks especially to Ashley, Gem and Danny for ‘telling it like it is’. Cheers, guys.