PhotograPhy asian art 17

by Zhuang Wubin

The dislocaTion created by the Khmer rouge (Kr) and the subsequent Vietnamese rule has made it extremely difficult to situate the works of cambodian documentary photographers today within its own historiography. Before the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, there were local photographers who worked for the news agencies and the army. one of them was Van im, who covered the civil war in the 1970s on the side of lon nol. now based in california, he seems unwilling to talk about his experiences in that era. Possibly the most famous photographer of that era was the late dith Pran (19422008; b. siem reap, cambodia), whose work as the fixer for new york Times (nyT) correspondent has been immortalised in the film The Killing Fields. With his passing, nyT produced a multimedia presentation of his photos in cambodia before the Kr takeover, and in america, where he shot for the paper since 1980. unfortunately, there are only three of dith’s images on the civil war, which makes it difficult to comment on his photography before he fled cambodia in 1979. Between 1975 and 1979, the Kr maintained a meticulous archive of portraits for the prisoners who arrived at Tuol sleng, the extermination centre in Phnom Penh. The function of the photographs was documentary. however, the experience for the subjects was clearly intimidating. it was an extension of the omnipotent power of the Kr. heng sinith, one of the first photojournalists to emerge in the post-Kr era, has articulated this sense of confusion and anger in his personal work, The Victims of History: Voices of the Khmer Rouge Victims and Perpetrators (2002). his colleague Mak remissa has used a Khmer proverb as the starting point for When the Water Rises, the Fish Eats the Ant; When the Water Recedes, the Ant Eats the Fish (2005). The personal project talks about Mak’s anxiety about cambodian politics, which is still dominated by former Kr cadres. on the other hand, all the featured photographers in this article have been born after the fall of the Kr. in their lifetime, cambodia has gone from a country without stable electric supply to one where people can ‘get 100 TV channels from the sky’. Broadly speaking, their personal projects no longer deal directly with that turbulent era. While their enthusiasm in discovering the medium is clearly evident, this does not mean they have abandoned the humanism that the genre has been somewhat associated over the years. In Walking Through (2008), Vandy rattana (b. 1980; Phnom Penh) addresses a potentially sensitive story – the mismanagement of cambodia’s rubber resources – with beautiful, almost scenic shots of one such plantation at Kompong cham. Focusing on the workers’ lives, Vandy writes of the serenity that he felt when he saw the ‘huge, green and gentle’ plantation. he could see his country’s physical wealth. it was deceptively reassuring because the photographer was clearly aware of the siphoning away of the plantation’s revenue. his anxiety is evident in the images. Vandy’s interest in photography blossomed almost naturally. Growing up in the 1980s, his family had very little. his father had a few communist magazines in French and a russian book on henri Matisse. That was it. Vandy’s source of images came predominantly from films: ‘in the late 1980s, we started to have access to some Vietnamese and soviet films.

Funeral, Battambang Province, from Transportation. Image courtesy of Chan Vitharin

out of nowhere
Documentary PhotograPhy from camboDia
By the 1990s, it was already fairly easy to find indian films. i must have watched over 100 indian movies then. if you owned a Vcr player at that time, 100 people would automatically show up at your house. i didn’t, but my neighbour, a custom officer, had one. i became an expert operator of his Vcr player. if you had money then, you could “hire” someone to do that for these “screenings”. When i started photography, all these filmic images came back to me’. at the start of 2005, his communication teacher gave him a yashica FX7 and a 50mm lens. later the year, he would meet with erin Gleeson, an american specialist on cambodian contemporary art. she would spend several weekends talking to Vandy about the basics of photography. and she would champion his experimentation with the medium. over the years, Vandy has also picked up pointers from Phnom Penh-based photographers like john Vink and stéphane janin. Within his generation of photographers, he has been the first to emerge on the international front. his work has since been exhibited at Ke center for the contemporary arts in shanghai, 10 chancery lane Gallery in hong Kong, and during the noorderlicht Photofestival at the netherlands in 2006. Known primarily as a documentary photographer, Vandy’s work stems from a broader, existentialist concern: ‘What details make us cambodians? i want to reveal the internal, to archive cambodia as much as i can. it’s not for me. We have to tell the world who we are.’ This is clearly the starting point in Chess (2006), in which Vandy photographed, for a period of six months, his friends in the neighbourhood playing chess. awakened by their loud proclamations of checkmate every morning, Vandy would focus on their gestures, expressions and fashionsense, drawing up an archaeological by cambodian photographers. chhin’s initial impetus for picking up photography was to use the medium to aid his artistic practice as a painter. now, he sees it as a medium by itself, despite recognising the influence of painting on his photographic practice. The painting is never flat, explains the painter-cumphotographer. it is always constructed from blocks and chunks. This is what he tries to replicate in the quality of his images in Old Building (2007). shot using a self-constructed pinhole camera, he documented the buildings that were being destroyed around Phnom Penh in the name of modernization.The length of exposure for each image, which is between 30 to 40 seconds, allows the artist to optically ‘erase’ the human presence. it is an act of retaliation, putting the responsibility of destruction on the shoulders of mankind. despite his age, chhin is clearly aware of the massive changes that have taken place in cambodia over the last few years. The phenomenon is also not lost on lim sokchan lina (b. 1987; Prey Veng Province, cambodia), who addresses the country’s changing lifestyle in several of his projects. in Beauty Salon (2007), lim documented his relative’s beauty parlour to examine the new culture of visiting such facilities in

A red ant carries a dried fish on a string at Preakompeus village, Kandal province. From ‘When the Water rises, the Fish eats the Ant; When the Water recedes, the Ant eats the Fish’. Courtesy of Mak Remissa

collection of details in his frantic search for the cambodian identity. some of them were students. others were involved in different professions and a few were unemployed. But when they sat down for a game of chess, they would forget everything – what they ate earlier, or how much they earned that day. Winning the game was the only thing that mattered. at that time, Vandy didn’t know much about photography. he was just driven by a “crazy” desire to keep working with the medium he has fallen in love with. Whether it is art or documentary is really not the point. a few years younger than Vandy, chhin Taing chhea (b. 1984; Takeo Province) graduated in 2006 with a degree in modern painting from the royal university of Fine arts (ruFa). From september 2006 to june 2007, he participated in janin’s photo workshop at le Popil Gallery. Founded by the French photographer, the now-defunct gallery featured several exhibitions

Cambodia has gone from a country without stable electric supply to one where people can ‘get 100 TV channels from the sky’

cambodia. The development is fed by a new sense of beauty, which has been brought into the country partly through cable channels. lim does not critique. instead, he takes a similar approach to that of Vandy rattana in chess and focuses on the details that construct the story. an economics student at norton university in Phnom Penh, lim has had an affinity with the arts through his uncle, cambodian artist leang seckon. Whenever there is an exhibition, leang will bring along his nephew, partly to give lim the opportunity to practise his english with the expatriates. When lim joined janin’s workshop, his uncle was very supportive. Prior to that, not unlike cambodians of his generation, lim’s contact with photography was a few random family snaps. The medium’s association with memory continues to be the key feature of photography that draws the young artist. in Four Gifts for the Monks (2009), lim returns to Mealom Village where he grew up as a kid to document the annual Buddhist festival of sending offerings to the monks. While participation is voluntary, his grandmother wants to take part in the rituals this year because two of lim’s uncles have fallen sick. she hopes to bring good luck to the family. The basic function of lim’s work is to document the festival, in which the villagers follow dharma talks in the day and enjoy food and alcohol at night. however, it also gives him the opportunity to make mementos of his relatives. having left the village for many years, it is something that he clearly relishes. again, the joy of discovering the medium is apparent in the work and his starting point is entirely personal. a freelance photographer for The Phnom Penh Post, lim explains: ‘By pushing myself to do documentary work, it has brought me closer to the society. Photography has helped me understand my country better.’ The desire to see cambodia is shared by many of the photographers featured in this article. even in Garment Factory outside Phnom Penh (2008), which is a commission by the boss of a chinaowned production facility, lim remains grateful of the opportunity to see how his fellow cambodians work. he was not given a lot of time during the shoot. But the photographer sees the idea of work as a form of culture that is always evolving. This is where he situates the assignment. Together with lim, Vandy and chhin are members of Stiev Selepak, which means ‘art rebel’ in Khmer. Founded in 2007, the collective represents a paradigm shift in Khmer art,argues Gleeson.Traditional Khmer culture favours the ensemble. Working with the masses is the highest calling for an artist. individual expression, which is key to the contemporary art practice, stands against the grain. on one hand, having the collective allows them to pool together resources. on the other hand, they hope to show that ‘individualistic expression is for the masses, too’. since the start of 2009, they have also founded sa sa Gallery, the first artist-run space in cambodia. it is housed in a small annex of Bai Tong restaurant at no. 7, street 360, Boeung Keng Kang, Phnom Penh. as a venue, sa sa Gallery is not exclusive to its members. in fact, Vandy hopes to feature works by other cambodian photographers. an example is Kosal Pisey (b. 1982; Kandal Province, cambodia), whom he regards highly. There are very few cambodian photographers who have received formal education. Kosal is
Continued on page 18

january 2010

18 asian art PhotograPhy
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one of them, having studied at the national superior school of Photography in arles, France. nevertheless, it may not be easy to convince Kosal because he has become somewhat dispirited in recent years. When he returned to cambodia in 2007, Kosal and his classmates from arles set up the country’s first independent photo agency – the Melon rouge. unfortunately, after investing money and time, the agency has been taken out of his control. his nonKhmer ‘friends’ now run the business. Kosal is back in France, doing his Master in law and Finance of development. hopefully, Vandy’s enthusiasm will rub off on Kosal. Before leaving for arles, Kosal was studying French in a cambodian university and working as a journalist. That was when he came in touch with local and foreign photographers who got him interested in the medium. after participating in a workshop at the French cultural centre, Kosal continued to learn under john Vink. his early work, like Pailin (200203), is rooted in the tradition of humanist photographers. drawn to the gem miners in this former Kr stronghold, the work articulates contradictions that he felt in a place of war history and where people flock to nowadays to make their millions. still, like most photojournalistic work, its starting point was to record something external. as an institution, the arles school adopts an almost reactionary stance against journalistic work. But Kosal took it as an opportunity to evolve: ‘To be honest, i was actually keen to see what would happen to my work along the way. now, i realise photography is more than just information. it’s about the photographer – his ideas and thoughts. Photography is from within, generated by something external.’ during vacation, when he was back in cambodia, Kosal would use the opportunity to visit different parts of the country. The pictures he took during the trips would lead to slow steps (2004-06), his graduation work at arles. setting out without a narrative in mind, he would stay longer than planned in places that attracted him. Taking as many pictures as possible, the only rule he had was to not have any rules. sometimes, he would talk to people whom he chanced upon. sometimes, he would ‘pose them a little’ for a shot. unlike robert Frank, who was living out the death of the american dream when he drove across the country to make The americans (1955-56), Kosal’s Slow Steps is romantic and contemplative. The title indicates the pace he took, which allowed him to be an attentive observer, and mirrors the way he carefully deliberated his ideas, one after another, in his head. The work is presented in a handmade book, which has its own pace. as such, viewers are able to choose the speed in which they would go through the work.The editing that he has done is not to create a documentary narrative in its most traditional sense. The connections between the images are visual and conceptual. in slow steps, Kosal is striving for a certain grace and poise – what he calls the ‘right distance’ between the photographer and his subjects. it is a metaphysical ‘distance’ – between the strong and the soft, the present and the absent. in some pictures, he would shoot without showing the faces of his subjects. in other images, he would do portraits of people caught in their own world. in a way, slow steps is an attempt to explore the issues of objectivity and subjectivity in photography. By using the poem of French writer Maria de los angeles at the start of the book, Kosal elaborates his ideas. ‘While she addresses the reality of cambodia through images and metaphors, the beauty of her poetry is that you can never be sure whether she is referring to herself or her subjects,’ explains Kosal, ‘This is also how i work as a photographer’. clearly, his education at arles has given him a different understanding of photography. it will be a pity if he really

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Chhim Theang, 43 years old. Theang is seen making a fish basket with his wife (background) in his house at Kampong Chhnang, some 100km west of Phnom Penh, on July 2002. Image courtesy of Heng Sinith and DC-Cam

The international NGOs continued to fly in white, predominantly male, photographers from the West to do work in Cambodia

Jaipur Literature Festival
21 to 25 January 2010

The festival programme includes readings, talks, literary lunches, debates, performances, children’s workshops and interactive activities held at the Diggi Palace in central Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Full details on the festival’s website
january 2010

decides to give up photography due to the debacle of Melon rouge. Much younger than Kosal, Pha lina (b. 1986; Kandal Province, cambodia) is at the start of his photographic education. But his enthusiasm is second to none. Pha’s parents passed away when he was very young. Growing up in the province, he lived with his uncle and aunt. his family didn’t own a camera. But they had family snaps, some of which were taken by his teacher from school. his uncle worked as a truck driver and fisherman before passing away in 2009. his aunt delivered babies in the village. When he reached 18, Pha was sent to an orphanage in Phnom Penh, so that he would have the opportunity to attend high school. The orphanage gave him accommodation, food and clothes. in 2006, he met Mak remissa, who was then freelancing as a trainer for PhotoVoice, an nGo from uK that trains people who have been the traditional subject of documentary photography into its creators. The nGo did a nine-month workshop for some of the residents at the orphanage. That got him hooked onto photography. at the end of the workshop, the nGo organised an exhibition in which Pha made us$1,400 through print-sales. after giving the nGo a cut of 50 percent, he still had enough to buy a motorbike. But he had no way of making a living as a photographer. The international nGos continued to fly in white, predominantly male, photographers from the West to do work in cambodia. like the case of Bangladesh 20 years back, the nGos assumed that local photographers didn’t exist. in recent years, the excuse has changed: majority of world photographers simply do not have the eye. Thankfully, Mak managed to introduce him to Cambodge Soir and Pha has since been contributing images to the cambodia-based French paper. he also works occasionally for local nGos like reyum, a research agency focusing on cambodian arts. in My Family (2009), Pha engages in photographic autobiography, paying tribute to his ever-supportive family members. The existentialistic concerns in Vandy rattana’s Looking In (2005-06), which is also autobiographical, are not immediately evident in Pha’s work. however, the approach is straightforward and the tenderness is more heartfelt. clearly, photography is still a men’s game in cambodia. alongside chan Moniroth chiart (b. 1980; Phnom Penh),

who adopts a more conceptual outlook, Thy heang (b. 1984, Phnom Penh) is one of the few female photographers active in the country. even though her parents have received very little education, they have always allowed Thy to choose her life. drawn to documentary photography, the cambodia-born Teochew works as a communication assistant in a local nGo, making it harder for her to find time and pursue personal projects. like most photographers, Thy associates the medium with the preservation of time and memory. in Sugar Palm Producer (2007), she follows the life of a villager in siem reap who produces sugar palm to supplement his income as a rice-harvester and noodle-maker. What draws her to the man is not the harshness of his life, but the fact that he is a practitioner of a dying skill. The project was shot during the angkor Photography Festival workshop, where she felt neglected by the facilitators. as a beginner, she had no one to turn to when she was stuck. The cliques that the more exposed photographers already had within the festival left her with no opportunity to interact with her peers. Thankfully, chan helped her out. she was a participant in the previous edition and a volunteer in 2007. all in all, Thy learnt very little out of the debacle, apart from realising the complicated nature of the photojournalistic industry. on the other hand, her experience with janin was much more gratifying and she produced Fortune Tellers (2006-07) during the workshop. at the ‘graduating’ exhibition, Thy showed different-sized portraits of the fortune tellers in Phnom Penh alongside a mural of the things that they use – urns, poker cards, Buddha images – for their work. according to Thy, cambodians prefer to believe in the fortune tellers rather than themselves. she is sceptical but she remains non-judgmental in the project. in fact, Thy entertains the idea that people may actually relieve stress or find solace from the fortune tellers. They are the unofficial counsellors of Phnom Penh. her starting point was to create a ‘realistic’ portrayal of a ‘cambodian’ wayof-life. again, photography is used to preserve something intangible. as such, she did not see the need to limit herself to one protagonist, so as to document his or her daily life. in their modest ways, Thy and her peers have been using the language of documentary photography to tell important stories. From the private to the eternal, these stories no longer address the Kr tragedy directly. like young photographers around the world, they are drawn to what they see on a daily basis. For the parachute curators, it seems as though these photographers have emerged out of nowhere.The dislocation created by the Kr is often used as an excuse not to partake in serious scholarship and to start the historiography of cambodian photography in the 1990s. in the end, it is a comforting mythology to have, particularly for those who seek to undermine the autonomy of cambodian arts.

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