Cambodia: Images Past & Present (Introduction to London Exhibition, 1981)

…an unremarkable title, as good as any, I suppose; but the word “images” is important. Because photographs are just that – black and white patterns on pieces of paper which isolate instants in time, and which have as much potential for the selective distortion of reality as for the revelation of truth.

I’m not a professional photographer, so my pictures may convey a different side of Cambodia to that usually presented by the media. I was working as a volunteer, so I took photos when I had the time and the opportunity. Some of them could be called ‘snapshots’ (a derogatory term in the photo world). So be it. In many ways they are subjective because I took them and I edited them; but they are not political, sensational or melodramatic. I’m concerned with people; and the tragedy of Cambodia is one of ordinary, gentle, peace-loving people who were swept up in a conflict of political ideologies of which they had neither knowledge nor understanding, a conflict then exploited by foreign powers to its bitter end. All these people wanted to do was go on growing rice and catching fish.


My awareness of the visual impact of ‘images’ made me uneasy about my own… for example, if you’ve come to associate the word ‘Cambodia’ with pictures of starving, emaciated human beings, what will your reaction be to seeing so many smiling faces? If they’re having a hard time, surely they should look sad? Well, Cambodians often smile. They seem to smile much more than we do. Whether it’s the enigmatic smile of the god-king, of the Buddha faces on the temple towers, of the guide who took me to the temple… or the smiles of the kids in Khao I Dang, or the orphans in Nong Chan – where there are Cambodians, there are usually plenty of smiles.


Another thing disturbs me. When I look at the faces in those photos taken only six or seven years ago, knowing what has happened since, I have the same kind of feeling you get from looking at faded pictures of long-dead relatives… I am keenly aware that those people probably no longer exist – except as ‘images’, traces of black and white. Their bromide smiles are death masks.

The more recent photos (I realize the word ‘present’ in the title isn’t strictly accurate – but the situation hasn’t changed since last year) have a different feeling. They show the survivors of a decade of war, oppression, famine and disease. They are safe for the moment, but for most of them the future holds little to inspire optimism. So why do they smile?


I can’t say I know – but I have a few ideas. Cambodians seem to have a capacity for channeling their consciousness into the present, instead of dwelling on past tragedy or worrying about the future. Yet there’s more to it than that. Sometimes people would smile even as they related the most tragic experiences to me; I think they did it partly because they didn’t want me to feel bad or uncomfortable, and partly to cover their own emotions. Then again, most of the people in these pictures are simply enjoying themselves, while they can…


   “Time seems to have stopped here. I can no longer tell who is helping whom, or who is learning from whom…”


…wrote Kenji Nishizaki, a fellow volunteer and friend on 17th March 1981. Exactly a month later, he was brutally murdered by robbers in the border town of Aranyaprathet. He had been a volunteer for almost a year.


This exhibition is for him and the Cambodians.


                       (Colin Grafton, September 1981) 

© Colin Grafton

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