Week Eight Reflections – Cambodia – My Practice

mickyatesCambodia, CambodiaFMP, Candid, Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Dark Tourism, Documentary, Ideas, Photography, Practice, Project Development, Reflections, Rephotography, SSWeek8, Stories, Street, SurfacesStrategies, Traces 2 Comments

Another intense week.

I left London on Saturday morning, having completed a 4 day, full-on shoot with Andrew Mlangeni. I arrived in Phnom Penh on Sunday 22nd, after travelling roughly 20 hours door-to-door, and dived straight into the project.

First, the week’s timetable:

  • Sunday 22nd: Meet with Sarath and Family, visit their farm. Meet and photograph neighbours, and begin process of collecting stories. I wrote about meeting the neighbours and hearing their stories here.
  • Monday 23rd: Phnom Penh, preparing project (and catching up with MA reading). Searched local art galleries, to no avail, for old photographs and memorabilia.
  • Tuesday 24th: Phnom Penh, photographing in the streets. Photographing context and traces.
  • Wednesday 25th: Drive to Siem Reap, with Keo Sarath and Beng Simeth, meeting Ung Sireidy. Video stories.
  • Thursday 26th: Drive to Anlong Veng (last holdout of Khmer Rouge, Ta Mok, cremation site of Pol Pot) and Trapeang Prasat.  Visited schools and documenting histories. Met many old acquaintances, ex Khmer Rouge areas.
  • Friday 27th: Drive to Angkor Chum District, again visiting schools and documenting histories. Again, renewed acquaintances from the past. Also, was able to shoot ‘reportage’ on Election parades.
  • Saturday 28th: Return to Phnom Penh. Total distance on the 4 day road trip – 1260 kms.
  • Sunday 29th: Election Day in Phnom Penh, and lunch with Sarath’s family and mother, Am Yon. Documenting, looking at old photographs, and deciding on next steps with the family.
  • I leave on Friday, August 3rd, so will be in Phnom Penh another week.

The objectives for this week were fivefold:

  1. Taking the lessons so far in how to improve my work, take new images, both of the ‘unfinished stories’ and ‘genocide traces’.
  2. Travel to the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation areas, to review progress, conduct ‘rephotography’, and take more careful notes about the key people that I know in these areas, and their histories – and meet new people.
  3. Make progress on the S&S Exhibition, Publication and Workshop tasks. And yes, Gary, they are ‘products’.
  4. Agree on immediate and longer term steps in the project with Sarath and family.
  5. Extend my range of contacts in the art and photography arena in Cambodia, and especially to track down memorabilia.

So, how did it go?

  • New Work. Time will tell, when I submit the WIP. I am certainly looking more closely at ‘traces‘, and am even more aware of pitfalls of ‘Dark Tourism’ imagery. Visiting the macabre spot that Pol Pot was created is not a normal tourist destination. How to document that? Watching a dog try to dig a hole in the mound led to an idea!
  • I have also been developing my candid portrait work – in two ways. First, stark, ‘mug shot’ like imagery, and second, environmental. Here is Ung Sireidy, who recently retired as the Director of the Provincial Education Office (PEO) in Siem Reap. I also videoed him, telling one of his stories.

  • I was also able to take advantage of the Election parades and voting, to extend my documentary portfolio. Whilst not strictly for the MA project, fun to do.
  • Re-Visiting. Done, although still many other places to re-visit on future trips. In fact, this trip exceeded expectations. Had I been travelling with my old ‘chip’ in my head, to figure out how to improve the school programs, that would have been a success too. There is still so much to do in Cambodia. I fact, at times I had to really push myself to remember that I was there as a photographer not as an educationalist.
  • Exhibition. I have already decided to create a mini-website for Landings. A marker is here, and the images will definitely change before the due date. I am exploring the ‘negatives’ idea, the hidden, the not obvious.
  • Publication. A breakthrough. Sarath and his Mother have so many stories, with so much potential, that we have agreed to publish a small book, properly, with some of these in 2018. It will be published in Cambodia, in Khmer (thank you Lukas and Cemre for that idea). In the next three months, Sarath will collect the stories. I already have some imagery, but might need to shoot more. Mary, Sarath’s daughter, will explore publishing options. Additionally, Sarath and family are searching through and sorting old photographs, as possible future source materials.
  • Workshop. Mixed. I have already planned a workshop on candid, documentary / street photography to one of my local photo groups in the UK. This should be on August 19th. It’s being publicised now, so we will see if there are any takers. I had hoped to do a small workshop in Phnom Penh, this week, looking at ‘the old and the new’ in Cambodia. Unfortunately, due to today’s election, I lost the participants. So I will try again on my next visit.
  • Agree on Next Steps. As above, that seems well in hand. Also, Sarath will be in Norway, speaking at the invitation of his old employers, Save the Children, in the late Autumn. Involving them in the project was actually part of my Oral Presentation thinking, so this looks on track. I am also meeting the Save the Children Country Director, Liz Pearce, in Phnom Penh, this week.
  • Extend contacts. Partial success. I have some new contacts in the area of memorabilia, and local photographers. Though it is proving difficult to meet them this week, I have some planned. I will know more by next weekend.

So, what are my reflections and learning on this week?

  • The stories are amazing, sobering, sad and emotional – and everyone is open to sharing. There is indeed truth in my thesis that these stories are hidden, for all kinds of reasons, including ‘survivors guilt’. Lukas was right that ‘outsiders’ can be a lever into the truth, if things are done properly. Once the subject is carefully broached, out the stories and memories come.
  • Education is not just about schools and teachers, but it is also about parents and life in general. This is not a subject for the Photography MA, but it seemed that a more holistic approach being taken in the Trapeang Prasat District was better for the kids (parents involvement , kids members of the Scouts). There seemed a rather classical ‘classroom/textbook’ oriented approach in Angkor Chum, and school rooms were not kept at the same standard. The school Principal of course makes a big difference. Simeth and Sarath will pick up on this at the upcoming National Education Conference that they are running later this week.
  • Another of my original themes, that Sarath and others responded to the Genocide by dedicating themselves to education, came ringing through. In meeting other figures involved, the discussion always went back to the need to educate – to be sure the kids know about the past, to help society build for the future. It was quite marked that the ex-Khmer Rouge people that we know have similar views.
  • Cambodian politics – it’s a metaphorical minefield, and not something I want to be involved in at all. But, as this weekend shows, it does affect how one can get things done (or not). And to what extent is my project about democracy? Open question.
  • There are hugely emotional moments, both ways. First, the recollections of what people had to do to survive are, at times, gruesome. Cannibalism comes up, and this speaks volumes about the reticence to now speak as survivors, even if they themselves did not do such things. We also heard the guardian of Pol Pot’s Cremation site, Khim Sourn, say that he should be better respected, as he protected the Country’s borders. That protection is a recurrent, centuries old theme.
  • Second, though, the positives can be equally emotional. In 2000, we visited, under Khmer Rouge ‘escort’ a school literally built of straw by the villagers. We then met the Trapeang Prasat District Governor, Cheat Chum, who was the previous KR Military commander, and also the Education Chief, Prach Sophorn. It was the first site we decided to build. We met Mr Prach again on thsi trip.

Here is the rephotography:

  • We met and talked with many parents. One in particular, Mrs Chheng Den, we had seen 3 times before. She has a son, Chinket Metta, who started his education in the villager-constructed hut. He was then educated in the new building. One thing led to another, and, after succeeding in his Masters, he is now doing a PhD in law in Japan. Her other children also attended the school and have good careers. Sarath, Simeth Sireidy and I all had to stifle a tear as we heard this. The power of education.
  • The stories themselves are key to how people think about the past. Do they suppress things, or do they ’embrace’ them, in the sense of moving on. And how do young people, the future of this Country, deal with that? Do they even know the stories?
  • There is a sense that things never change. How does my project address that?
  • It’s bloody hard work. I had planned things fairly well, and most things worked out. But a continual attention to detail is needed, as is constant communication with the people who are part of the project – whether in terms of our day’s goals, or in the fine points of posing or being video’d. Maybe I am doing too much (rhetorical)?
  • That said, the project is beginning to feel more substantive. I can now ‘feel’ how it might develop. It’s less intellectual, more instinctive in how I am addressing the image making. And I can ‘see’ my audiences clearer – both in Cambodia and in Europe.
  • My people skills are continually pushed. This is partly because my Khmer language ability is just not there, and I am reliant on both interpreters and personal gesture to get my points across. It is exhilarating when it works, but tiring, emotionally and physically.
  • My cameras performed well, even in 34C and 95% humidity. They were literally continuously covered in condensation at Ta Prohm.
  • Much like last week’s shoot, I feel comfortable knowing using my equipment, varying the tool depending on the need. I love the SL for documentary work, for it’s speed, although the M’s are better for closer in, more relaxed portrait work. What is also good it that the sensors (and that of the Q) provide almost identical colour and image quality in any given conditions, making post processing a little easier.
  • I continue to feel that this is a candid, naturally lit, colour project – other than the ‘trace negatives’, of course. I am building a library of ‘traces’ images, to work with when back home.
  • I have experimented with black and white portraits this week, but I found them wanting.

So, I guess I can sum up this week as both successful and challenging.


Header: Keo Saroeurn (school principal) & Chheng Den (parent), at Kroursa Yates School (Family Yates School), near Trapeang Prasat, Oddar Meanchey Province, Cambodia

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