Robert Frank said, “Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference”.
Whilst I expressed the same thoughts in my first Oral Presentation, this last trip really brought the point home.
This project has always been a personal mission, an incomplete story. But this time, I felt that my role as a photographer is merging with my ‘historic’ role as an educator. I can’t just observe – I am ‘in’ my project.
First, a recap.
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.
Research & Inspiration
In my youth, I was drawn to photographers such as Don McCullin. For a while I seriously considered photo journalism as a career. I felt the need to get out there, and find the truth for myself. But I guess life prevailed.
Still, a documentary ethos has been with me as long as I have been taking photographs.
From our first Cambodian visit, in 1994, I documented what we found, with words and pictures. However, I didn’t really capture individual stories.
So, throughout the MA I have been researching documentary, aftermath techniques, and conflict photography.
The work of Lyndsey Addario and James Nachtwey always hold strong attraction.
Both are on the front line of world events. And both have a wonderful sense of timing.
Addario is especially good at isolating detail to ‘complete’ a visual story.
I do however find that Nachtwey’s best work carries a more emotional punch. He combines strong graphic composition, with juxtaposition of subjects to create tension.
The work of Chris Hondros is also inspiring. Besides taking strong, journalistic images, he actively went back to help the people he photographed. A blend in his professional and personal roles, perhaps?
Moises Saman’s book ‘Discordia’ is one of the most beautifully produced that I have come across this year. Interestingly, he successfully mixes colour and black and white in the same book, a challenge that I also face.
And I must mention Roman Vishniac’s work, currently exhibited at the Photographer’s Gallery.
It is the best show that I have seen this year, and shows that it is possible to both document a story and create beautiful, candid portraits.
At Photo Paris, I met with Max Pinckers, this year’s winner of the Oskar Barnack Prize, from Leica. His work in North Korea used exaggerated lighting to draw attention to an otherwise banal environment.
His work has some similarities with Richard Mosse.
They both use ‘faux colour’, ‘Faux lighting’ to tell their stories by challenging audience perceptions.
That’s exactly what I am trying to do with my work.
My last Work in Progress told Sarath’s story, as a teenager, walking through the jungle, evading the Khmer Rouge, to check that his Mother was still alive.
I employed ‘traces’, implications of the journey, rather than ‘classical’ documentary.
This owes much to the work of Sophie Ristelheuber and others.
To avoid the cliché’s of ‘Dark Tourism’, which I originally fell foul of, in ‘Landings’ I explored an even more experimental approach.
I used ‘digital negatives’ – designed to both provoke the audience and create a need for active participation in the deciphering of the imagery.
Antony Cairns’ practice is relevant. He makes film negatives and then does various manipulations, digital and physical. Intriguing images, though I find his approach rather observational. The stories lack humanity.
I have thus been experimenting with the idea of combine the ‘traces’ documentary style, with ‘digital negatives’ – putting humanity into those negatives.
I am aware that my WIP will be controversial – some seem to like the challenging aesthetic, whilst others find it ‘too beautiful for the subject’, ‘gentle’, or, frankly, just inappropriate.
Still, I feel that it does provide a challenging and unusual imagery. I love the debate it provokes, as that is exactly what I want to kick start.
A Prayer from Hell
Youk Chhang is the Director of the Documentary Center of Cambodia. They have the world’s largest collection of archival data on the Khmer Rouge leaders and Genocide.
He showed me the one of the Rolleiflex cameras used to take the Tuol Sleng ‘mug shots’.
Michelle Caswell, in ‘Archiving the Unspeakable’, noted that once a photograph was taken, the inexorable bureaucratic process of torture, confession and execution took place. The camera was part of the apparatus of killing.
I shared my ‘Landings’ work with Youk.
He pondered – and described the work as ‘A Prayer from Hell’. We immediately agreed to use that as the title of my new series.
What has happened this module?
This module I have shot a wide range of new work – documentary including schools, traces for the Work in Progress.
I have also visited ‘hidden’ Killing Fields that tourists very rarely see
And I have made some new, more intimate portraits (but not enough).
I collaborated with local professionals, to finalise high quality video of several of the personal stories.
And I extended my network in Phnom Penh. I started to get to know book printers, publishers and marketeers.
There are not many Galleries in Phnom Penh, but there are some good ones, so I did the rounds once more to scope out opportunities.
I also met several local photographers and artists.
Whilst painters such as EM Riem are dealing occasionally with the Genocide issue, there is not a lot of exploration by photographers.
Mak Remissa uses allegorical images to explore social issues, and I think that does have bearing on my project. I’ll meet Mak next time.
There is a well-established annual photo event, the Phnom Penh Photo Festival, and I intend to explore that next year.
At the Festival, I met another exhibitor, La Mo, whose show ‘Kindness’ was a fascinating take on how people helped each other during the annual floods.
We are discussing the idea of shooting collaboratively next year.
I have a reasonably good online profile, reflecting my business interests and long-standing ownership of various web sites.
However, I need to build a much stronger photographic brand.
I have created an artist’s statement, reflecting work this module on my ‘photographic DNA’ and thoughts on my future practice.
And it’s already helping me to revamp my website.
I’ve also conducted several, fairly successful experiments on Instagram, documented on my CRJ.
Looking forward, there are many things to work on in 2019.
Firstly, whilst I believe my portrait work is starting to show more intimacy, I do not yet have a consistent way of ‘seeing’ and working inside the documentary.
I will continue to do ‘mini’ portrait and storyline projects to develop my skills.
Secondly, my ‘digital negatives’ can be considered ‘digitally contrived’ and a little sterile. Thus, I plan to experiment with film in 2019, and other manipulation techniques.
Thirdly, Jesse and others have challenged me to better define my post MA Practice.
I have no intention of becoming a full time ‘professional’ photographer, although I do want to approach the assignments that I take on a professional basis. I also want to be ‘seen’ as someone who delivers high quality work.
Fourthly, I need to practically Cambodian project happen. That is a lot of work.
And finally, I need to start looking at my archives, to see how best to use that work in the overall project.
2019 will be a fascinating if challenging year.
Thank you for listening.
Addario, Lynsey. 2018. Of Love & War. New York: Penguin Press.
Cairns, Antony. 2013. LDN. London: Archive of Modern Conflict.
Caswell, Michelle. 2014. Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Madison: University Wisconsin.
Greenough, Sarah. 2009. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. Washington: National Gallery of Art/Steidl.
Hondros, Chris. 2014. Testament.Brooklyn: Powerhouse Books.
Nachtwey, James. 2017. Memoria. Roma: Contrasto.
Ristelhueber, Sophie & Mayer, Marc & Ladd, Jeffrey. 2009. Sophie Ristelhueber: Fait (Books on Books). New York: Errata.
Pinckers, Max. 2017. Red Ink. Ghent: Max Pinckers.
Saman, Moises. 2016. Discordia.Treviso: Grafiche Antiga.