Forty years after genocide, Cambodians use photos to face their past

PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Exactly 40 years since the murderous Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia, a British photographer has come up with a unique way to help Cambodians struggling to deal with their past - through family photographs.

Snapshots showing a couple atop a giant turtle, children in the all-black uniform of the Khmer Rouge, and a dog-eared identity card are all part of a collection compiled by photographer Charles Fox to document Cambodia’s turbulent past.

The online archive, titled Found Cambodia, traces some of the changes Cambodia has witnessed since 1975 when Pol Pot stormed to power and led one of the worst genocides in history.

Over four years between 1.7 and 2.2 million of Cambodia’s 8 million population died of torture, execution, disease, overwork or starvation as Pol Pot pursued a radical experiment to create a classless, agrarian society.

The photo archive is one in a raft of initiatives this year to help Cambodians cope with the painful business of reckoning with their history.

“Talking about the past is not easy in Cambodia but I found that people are willing to share their photos - and through them you can retrieve a lot of stories and preserve memories,” Fox told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

“There is a lot of trauma associated with some of the photos but also humor.”

Fox’s inspiration for Found Cambodia came from a chance meeting with a Khmer artist, Yanny, in London in 2008 who showed him the family photos his mother had saved over the years and brought to Britain.


Fox started tweeting one of these pictures every day, sensing there might be a bigger story to tell through the photos - and Found Cambodia was born.

He has now photographed hundreds of family photos supplied by local people and describes the project as a constantly growing archive of everyday photography, brought to light from people’s drawers, albums and closets.

So far, he has published more than 100 snapshots and studio portraits, with 300 to 400 more waiting to be uploaded.

Each photo comes with a caption based on a comment supplied by its owner to provide context in a society still struggling to come to terms with the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime.

“Collecting family photos and putting them on the Internet has been done before but I find this approach is lacking in context - there has to be a narrative as well,” said Fox, 35, in an interview in Phnom Penh where he lives and works.

Some of the images depict life in pre-Pol Pot times.

One of them, taken two years before Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot’s soldiers in 1975, shows a group of village children dressed in the black garb of the Khmer Rouge which had already established a presence in some rural parts of Cambodia.

Many youngsters from such impoverished villages would later be recruited as soldiers by the Khmer Rouge.

“I loved the black clothing then but now I hate it as it reminds me of a hard life of slavery and poverty,” one of the youngsters pictured in the photo recalls in the caption.

Another image shows of a couple super-imposed on a giant turtle, taken as a memento just before they went to Bangkok for the woman to receive cancer treatment, a type of photo montage that is still very popular in Cambodia, said Fox.

He said it was too early to tell whether the archive could serve to document socio-economic changes but that he hoped a clearer picture would emerge as more images are being uploaded.

“Just as an indication, you can see in the 1980s that there was a sense of rebuilding and reconnecting - there are many family portraits from that time,” Fox said.

“Then towards the end of that decade, material possessions became a focus - like pictures of new motorbikes and other things.”