Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia closed itself off to the world under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, an ultra-communist regime driven to purge the country of the corruption of the ruling elite and return it to an agrarian utopia. The reality, though, cost the lives of almost two million Cambodians through sickness, starvation, and murder.
As a photographer working intermittently in Cambodia since 2005, I have in recent years questioned the role of photojournalism in representing the nation’s traumatic history. In an extension of my practice, I began to gather found family images from the 1950s through the 1980s. I wanted to understand the daily life of this period before and after the Khmer Rouge regime, and to find a way to enable these important histories to be questioned, away from the media-dominated narratives. Interviews with family members about the photos provided the opportunity for the spaces and events within and around images to be discussed and contextualized. The result of my research with family photographs was the development of the Found Cambodia archive and the artist’s book Buried, showcased here.
Found Cambodia is an online archive that houses family images pre– and post– Khmer Rouge. In a reaction to the removal of historical artifacts from Cambodia, no original image is ever kept; photographs are only scanned or photographed and then presented together with background information from their owner. This action asserts the importance of the material image in cultural heritage. More than a hundred families are represented within the archive, with images coming to light often through conversation. Alongside the fragmented archives, there are moments when individual family collections are so complete that they warrant their own discussion. Buried is such an example.
Buried explores the narrative of the Rama family, who hold an intimate collection of images from before and after the Khmer Rouge. During the first two years under the regime, the Ramas buried their family photographs along with some jewelry. They were wrapped in a plastic bag and placed in a jar in the ground beneath their hut in Ou Sralou village, where they had been relocated by the Khmer Rouge from the city of Battambang. The family chose to hide the photographs because the village leaders would conduct random and unannounced searches, targeting “city people” as they looked for evidence that tied them to their lives before their relocation. After the Khmer Rouge killed the family’s father, Krishna Rama, in 1977, their mother, Kimpean Ky, dug up the photographs as she feared the rest of the family were under threat of execution. They fled to other villages in Battambang province, eventually making their way to refugee camps on the Thai border. During the family’s escape to the camps of Thailand, the photographs were water-damaged in the monsoon season of 1979. Some of the photographs were so damaged that the Ramas had to discard them. The Ramas continued to collect images of life in the camps and eventually of their resettlement in New Orleans, in the United States. Of the immediate family of nine, eight miraculously survived the conflict: Kimpean Ky (who passed away in December 2019) and her seven children, consisting of five sons, Monyrath, Vira, Raya, Sundaram, and Nadirak, and two daughters, Sundary and Ratha. I have worked closely with the family since 2015, slowly understanding their narrative and finding a suitable method of presenting the collection.
All of the extended captions are taken from conversations with Vira Rama. The handwritten captions were from Monyrath, Vira, Sundaram, Nadirak and their cousin Chandra. Vira has become the custodian for the family’s images; he also continues to photograph key family gatherings as a way of extending the family’s narrative.