Unfinished Stories from Cambodia – A Prayer from Hell

mickyatesCambodia, Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Dark Tourism, Documentary, Genocide, History, Ideas, Photography, Practice, Presentation, SPWeek8, Sustainable Prospects, Unfinished Stories 3 Comments

I have been asked to do a talk at the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute, on December 10th. I was approached to do this after the presentation I gave to the Royal Photographic Society, in Bristol, a few months back.

The requested focus is on my black and white digital negatives, though I will cover more than that.

This seems timely, given today’s news from Cambodia about the Khmer Rouge trials.

This, plus a pitch to a couple of galleries, led me to do a better synthesis of what I am up to.

My wife Ingrid and I have been visiting the country since 1994, and founded a successful, sustainable primary school program in 1999. This was the same year that the Khmer Rouge finally stopped fighting, despite the Genocide (1975-79) being halted two decades earlier. Securing broader funding, the primary school program reached c. 85,000 children at its height. Ingrid and I were awarded medals of National Reconstruction by the Government. In the course of the project, we worked with and got to know many local people, including ex-Khmer Rouge.

I am now revisiting the subject to tell the untold stories of people who survived those terrible times, and who dedicated their lives to education as a way forward for the Country.  

This is their story, not ours.

I am creating film interviews, a book of their stories and, of course, a photographic record – of the individuals involved, the schools, and the historical context. We plan to mount an installation in Phnom Penh at the end of next year, and hopefully other venues in due course.

We find that the country has still not fully come to terms with what happened, so we call the project ‘Unfinished Stories’. The project is not about Genocide per se, rather that is the context for the focus on the personal stories. I believe that context is essential as unfortunately we in the West seem either not to know or to forget. 

One strand of my project thus explores the physical traces of the Genocide, which sit in the background of these personal stories. I am working with a unique ‘digital negative’ aesthetic. The impact of the Genocide is still in all kinds of ways hidden. It is visible only in traces, both physical and psychological. I am doing this as as negatives, because that is exactly what they are. Negatives of human atrocity. Negatives of personal tragedy. And negatives require interpretation. They are a step in the process of seeing, not seeing itself.

The current WIP is the background to one such story from Sarath, the main ‘hero’, at the time a teenage boy who left a Khmer Rouge work camp to go to his mother, to see if she was still alive. It is also the basis for the talk


I will be going back over all the materials and previous talks, to create something that will, I hope, be of interest on December 10th.

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