Week Four Reflections

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This is a rather delayed post on last week’s reflections, as it has been a busy (thankfully, productive) trip, so these comments are in the form of a diary. I would liken much of the trip to a detective investigation rather than a series of photo shoots. I was also able to deepen my local knowledge and network of contacts on the ‘arts scene’.

First, I had arranged to meet local photographers. Last trip I met La Mo, and this time he, Mak Remissa and I had lunch to discuss my project, their work and possible areas of collaboration. Remissa is one of Cambodia’s leading photographers working today, being both a photo journalist and a fine artist. He and La Mo are intrigued by my project, and were most encouraging.

I had shared my work with La Mo last time, and Remissa also liked the ‘Prayer from Hell‘ work that I had created for the last WIP. He and La Mo singled out a few as ‘favourites’. Ironically, that including this one, which was not so well received at Falmouth:

I shared some early infrareds, and the rationale. We talked specifically about ‘cultural appropriateness’ for a Cambodian audience – both felt that the negatives and the infrareds take a new look at history, in ways that could engage a local audience and get them thinking. They both liked the close-in work, with these semi-abstract images particularily asking questions of the audience, with their metaphorical meanings.

Remissa actually saw some similarities with his own ‘Left 3 Days’ work, where he used black and white cutouts on a coloured background to tell the story. He suggested that the two sets of work, whilst course very different, could happily coexist on exhibition together.

Mak Remissa. 2014. Last 3 Days: Shadows of Khmer.

He floated the idea of inviting young photographers to be part of a group show with us, as hardly any deal with the Genocide history or aftermath. We will see if we can develop this idea for 2020.

Remissa is also on the selection committee for the annual Phnom Penh Photo Festival, so I will explore whether there are opportunities.

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Sarath and I made a road trip to Battambang, the region where he was sent to work during the Khmer Rouge years, 1975-1979. Whilst he has been back a few times, this time we were searching for specific sites from his past.

Perhaps it was fate, but when we stopped at a gas station in Pursat Province, just on the other side of the road was another one – and Sarath remembered that was where he stayed with his mother in 1979. The Vietnamese had taken over the country in January of that year, and there was chaos as everyone tried to return home, with nothing in the way of transportation.

Sarath and Am Yon had walked from Battambang to Pursat, taking about four weeks. They knew that they could not make it alive to Phnom Penh, so they stopped at the gas station, for about a month. There were many bodies in the town, and Sarath recalled sleeping under a makeshift net to avoid the flies. He foraged for food, whilst his mother looked after their place and pounded husks to provide meals. Eventually Am Yon persuaded a Vietnamese army truck to give them a lift south.

The gas station looked remarkably the same to Sarath, other than branding and newer pumps.

Pursat – Shades of Ed Ruscha?

In Battambang, with the help of Hout Bun Thoeurn, Director of Anlong Vil secondary school, we visited the Por Khnong Pagoda. Mr. Chhun opened the stupa where some of the human remains are kept. Battambang was the deadliest Province during the Genocide, with an estimated 800,000 deaths.

We also tracked down another unmarked Killing Field, around an old Chinese cemetery, Mong Chen Hill (in the Prokearb Village, Roung Chry Commune, Thmor Kol District). We were guided there by Svay Pov, Director of Roung Chrey secondary school. He told us that the wife of a former director of the Provincial Education Office was killed there by the Khmer Rouge. For decades, though, no one ever visited – although a couple of the Chinese graves have been refurbished and re-used.

Mong Chen Hill

Am Yon had told us of a Khmer Rouge Hospital that she was at, in the hills of Battambang. This was the area where Sarath was forced to work – and also the location of his story ‘I Missed my Mother“. None of the family had been back, so we went looking. I will not go over all of the details, but quite extraordinarily we met Ngoung Koeung (header, above), a former Khmer Rouge administrator, who still lives near where the ‘hospital’ was (Phnom Tepadey). He was happy to be interviewed and photographed, telling us he joined the KR in the 1960s, as he ‘hated’ Sihanouk, and that he was now 80 years old. He still had the bearing of a soldier. I shared early versions of this work at the webinar with Michelle.

Whilst neither he nor Sarath remembered each other, Sarath mentioned the leader of his Mother’s Commune at that time, a man called Hom. Ngoung said he worked for Hom, and he was a ‘good man’. Sarath had seen Hom being taken away with his family to be executed, by the Khmer Rouge in the 1978 purges, so he told Ngoung what had happened. Fate, I think.

Sarath will return to get more facts, probably with his family.

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Back in Phnom Penh, I met again with the DC-Cam people, including photographer Makkara Ouch and the Founder/Director, Youk Chhang. Makkara has just completed a new book, which he gave me, which was a lovely gesture. Youk and I discussed the DC-Cam Genocide education programs, and where there might be synergies. He also gave me some ideas on how to get more information about Sarath’s father, amongst other things.

Later in the week, I visited most of the major exhibition venues in the city, some I had been to before, and some not. This included Meta House (German Cultural Institute), SA SA Art, Institut Français, and Bophana. I had a very long and helpful conversation with Lyna Kourn, the PR head for Sa Sa Art, one of the city’s more interesting venues, about the arts scene in general.

I also met with Bandol Teav, the printer/publisher I have chosen, to discuss the project, the timeline and likely book design. Bandol confirmed that, unlike the concerns expressed by Monument Books about Cambodian printers, her company can deliver hardbacks to a good quality. Our daughter Victoria is a designer, and is considering possible layouts as I write. Shortly after I get home, I will do a proper synopsis and book outline, to share with Bandol, for updated costings.

So, a busy and I think very productive time.

I feel quite comfortable with the direction of travel of the project. I am grateful for the local feedback to date, and the offers for ongoing dialogue and possible collaboration. It is clear to me that Cambodia is my primary audience. I am blessed with an ever increasing range of contacts, and even after 25 years of experience with the country and its people, I am still learning.

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Header: Mick Yates, 2019, Ngoung Koeung (Khmer Rouge Cadre), Battambang.