I have asked several people for feedback and / or reviews of my work.
I know some but not all of these people personally, and it is an eclectic group – artists, photographers, academics.
Local artist and polymath Richard Young was the first to reply. I am grateful for his thoughtful response.
We live in a world with a history that is decorated with wars incited by religious, political or egotistical ideological differences. Rarely does war have an elegance where the period following the event has a beneficial impact on the people. There are scars that sit within the people, memories of places bloodied by events that are now transitions of memory. Those who are remote from the bloodshed read or see news as it happens, make comment, abhor the tragedy, they move forward and the public memory fades to become words in history books, whether truly reported or distortions. These events become ‘Unfinished Stories’. The question is how important are they today, do they cast relevant questions about today and our future?
For the ‘Unfinished Story’, we have Cambodia at a time when the demise of South Vietnam was a resonant failure for the Americans, hidden from view, secretive. The ethnic cleansing of intellectuals by the dominant left wing and re-education and elimination of dissent by the Khmer Rouge regime lasted a relatively short time. Mick Yates’ work is designed to amplify and preserve the memory though narrative both visual and captioned through places and events providing an eerie calmness and contrast to the violence, fear, insecurity and anxiety experienced by the victims of the Khmer Rouge and for what was their reason? The native captions reinforce their locations, the translations are for us the historical observer, we must take them to heart for our future. The narrative comes from witnesses or participants that bring the history towards the present. The images use the Infra Red part of the visible spectrum, a distortion of the truth, another perception by a electromechanical device and not our own. Printed in Black and White, are they a truth?
The Photographer has a historical relationship with both the country and the people, his passion is well illustrated. There are no images of the people who live today, just a remnant, certainly the witnesses need to have their memory preserved. This opens questions around witness and deception, the doubt argued around responsibilities. Where is the relevance in these images to contemporary injustices, the strong statement that the activities inflicted by the Khmer Rouge were not in fact punished by the world. Is the true symbolism the caption and not the image, could the images have been in a wood near Milton Keynes? Clearly, there will be no closure to this work and the story is not finished, there will be similar stories elsewhere, in war zones, in unjust cruel regimes. Is this simply a moment in history?
Dr. Richard Young, Artist and photographer – website
Talking in more detail on this with Richard, his last point is really pushing on ‘what question am I answering?’ with this work. Is there some deep truth, related to today, which I am seeking to expose?
At this point, I think not, as to a large extent the work in the UK context is educational rather than political. In Cambodia, the work is cathartic for the individuals concerned, and serves as a further body of work opening up the Genocide history for today’s audience. Perhaps, though, neither are enough. I will ponder.
Cemre Yesil also replied:
I think you made a good decision of contextualising your images with text.
However, although it might be a bit late for you to reconsider this, I think some of your images are a little bit too repetitive. i.e: the last two images. Although they share a poetic consistent visual narrative, I wonder what you left out from the earlier selections. Maybe you can relook at what you excluded and reconsider replacing some images that has different feelings.
The way you photographed the landscape is beautiful; you are somehow beautifying a landscape filled with pain; but you can expand this with different visual connotations. For example; number 6,8,11,13 provide a variety of different feelings or sensations through different textures and surfaces. So maybe a suggestion I can make is to relook at the overall selection and get rid/replace the very similar ones.
Does it make sense to you?
The statement is well written.
Cemre Yeşil Gönenli, photographer and publisher – website
I will look again at the final image choices for the FMP submission.
A comment within another email from Sarah Lee, professional photography who works with the Guardian.
It’s a powerful project. I really like it. And particularly like the way you’ve presented the text with the initial Sarath/ Simeth quotes and then the translation.
Are you exhibiting it in London at all? I’d love to see it “big” so to speak.
My plan is to use the BRLSI show and installation shots, and the book, to ‘merchandise’ other shows in 2020.
Tony Cooper was regional organiser for the Royal Photographic Society, and sent this:
As you know I have been following your Cambodian Project for some time and it is gratifying to see it in its developed form.
By definition, you were unable to capture the horror of the killing fields as events unfolded, and so you come to a calm peaceful landscape inhabited by ghosts who speak through the quotations you cite. You revert to a technique where beauty can be torn back to reveal the horror beneath. Like Sirens luring Jason and his Argonauts towards the rocks with the magical beauty of their songs.
The glow and luminance of the infra-red images bestow an out of this world atmosphere of (mainly) beauty, calm and open landscapes where man has not intervened to the detriment of nature. The quotes bring home the reality that these are tightly defined spaces where dark tragedies happened.
I could image these 20 images projected in a still and darkened room with the quotes overlaid and broadcast as speech. A powerful message indeed.
Thank you for allowing me to comment on what must be an immensely personal body of work.
Tony Cooper ARPS, AWPF
Jim Brogden is the Programme Leader MA Film, Photography and Media at the University of Leeds. He commented:
In relation to the slowly emerging sequence of monochrome images, which included the subtle typographic quotations (at the bottom of the white space), this implicit (time-based) revealing of the photographs was more suggestive and less indexical than your other vivid examples from Cambodia; and for this reason, this suggestive sequence ‘speaks’ to other experiences of Genocide in its pursuit/re-presentation of absence, whilst allowing the ineffable horror to be imagined through the spectator’s individual encounter with the work.
Dr. Jim Brogden
Dr. Paul Ashley, Editor of RPS Contemporary Magazine, Cambridge.
I was immediately engaged when you sent me examples of your work in Cambodia. I spent time there as an aid worker in the eighties in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, and I met and worked with many people who were deeply affected by it. I also returned to the country around the time that you and your wife started your school programme. I was therefore particularly interested to see how you had approached your photographic project; I found myself in sympathy not just with your observations, and your reaction to the people you worked with, but also with the conceptual approach to your photography. It is easy to forget that 40 years have passed since the time of the Khmer Rouge – two generations. A straightforward documentary project would have resulted in continual intrusion by the here and now of the second decade of the 21st century; the abstract approach of combining monochrome unpeopled landscapes with the words of those affected keeps the focus on the 1970s.
I am not sure how important it has been for you to use infrared photography. I suspect you might have achieved a similar result without, but I have no quarrel with your choice or the effect.
Your project left me wanting to know more (as it should do): more about the people who are telling their stories, what they looked like then, and now, and perhaps a more continuous narrative of their time under the Khmer Rouge and since then. But that is more about how the project you have started could be developed in other directions; it does not mean that the part of it that we published in the journal, or that you show on the Falmouth website, should be elaborated – they can readily stand alone. I hope you will provide more material, though, in another format or medium, and at another time.
Dr. Paul Ashley
Once the work was installed at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (December 5th – 19th) I received these reviews:
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.
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.
Dr David Lewis-Baker
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.
Header: Richard J S Young