Does it look good? Photography in Cambodia: 1866 To The Present

Currently running at Meta House in Phnom Penh is an exhibition, Photography in Cambodia: 1866 To The Present, which accompanies a newly published book of the same name.  The sumptuous and handsome volume is the brainchild of Nicholas Coffill, and has a rather unusual genesis – it came out of a stage performance entitled SNAP1 – 150 Years of Photography in Cambodia, that started in 2016 at Bambu Stage in Siem Reap. 

“I decided to turn the show into something a bit more permanent,” says Nicholas.  “I put three solid years into it, and then off to the printers and the post-production.  I really enjoyed it.  I’ve been involved for a long time in the museum world – there are often great catalogues of collections, and I’ve seen some beautiful books about photography in Australia and India, but Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries just don’t have anthologies of their photographic history. I thought I could do that – I know where most of the collections are, if I don’t I can just ask more friends.” 

And the response?  “It’s selling like hot cakes. I imported 500 five weeks ago and have none left. I had to bring in the last 400 from the publishers in Singapore, they just arrived a week ago and they’re all being shipped off to local bookstores and hotels of repute.  So it’s going really well.” 

The format is one that seeks to link the photographs to their time and their significance.  “I wanted a book that a reader – Cambodian or expat or traveler – could look at, dip in, look around, put down and do something else, come back, open up, read another little story. The text provides context for the object rather than being about the object itself.  This is basically the history of Cambodia from 1866 to today with only 100 words a page.” 

A fascinating theme of the collection is the changing look of the Angkorian temples from the middle of the nineteenth century on – we’ve all seen endless photos of Angkor Wat and the Bayon, but here they are seen from different views, at different times and stages of reconstruction, and frequently capturing observations by contemporary visitors. The photograph used on the front cover is illustrative.  “You can date many photos by what people are wearing.  We spoke to a few costume specialists and they said oh, perhaps 56, 57, perhaps 61 – late 50s cool.”

The photograph as found object also has its place.  “There’s two found objects in the exhibition, both discovered within a few weeks of each other.  There’s one portrait with a rice paste smeared on it, found in the streets in Phnom Penh by Taber Hand about three months ago, and we couldn’t work it out.  I’ve since spoken to a few older Cambodians and read a few books about funerary practice, and we believe this photograph was probably taken in the 60s or early 70s of a young boy and he probably died this year.  During the long period of mourning any mirrors or glassy surfaces would have been covered with powder or fabric, so the soul is not confused, and goes back to heaven rather than going through this strange vortex. So this was an attempt to cover that up.  Why it was then discarded we don’t know. This photograph now has a second life as a piece of memorabilia.” 

Another angle of the nature of photography rises to the surface – the changing meaning and purpose of an image.  “A photograph of a young Cambodian taken at S21, it’s an ID photograph, a document of the processing of people.  When the Vietnamese came the photographs were collected, cleaned, copied, and put on display and became objects more about education.  Then they were used as evidence in trials at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  Then they were reproduced again and put on large boards and taken around to villages outside Phnom Penh by DC-Cam and used to educate villagers about what was happening with the Tribunal, and to encourage discussion and healing, so they become a tool of sociology: here is the grandmother, here is the son, what are your experiences? Do you have any photographs in your own family that you want to bring out and talk about?  And now it has become a psychological tool of memory.

“Here’s an image of Son Sen, one of the Khmer Rouge leaders, that was displayed in the S21 genocide museum in the early 80s, and over the next decade Cambodians mutilated it, writing vulgar comments across it.  The photograph in the book of the vandalised image was taken by the Catalan photographer Dani Planas Labad in 2007 – so how do you document that? This is a cut-out of a much larger photograph, many people have torn and written on it, thrown their emotions into it.  Is it still a photograph taken in 1976?  Is it a photograph reproduced in 1984?  Is it a damaged photograph that’s has been photographed 15 years ago?  How do I date it?  I like that kind of challenge.” 

The Defacing of Son Sen’s Photograph. Toul Sleng (S-21) Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh. 2007. Dani Planas Labad.

In conversation many favourite choices spring up as examples.  “There’s a photo from the early days of colour printing, inside a French restaurant, Café de Paris, on Post Office Square in 1966.  You can see the early 60s light fittings, a Miro-esque painting on the raw concrete floor, and exposed bricks.  Most photography books are full of the best of photographs, by the most well-known photographers, good quality prints, and some would say why are you putting crap photographs like this in?  But I have no qualms about including social history. No doubt this was taken by a Cambodian rather than French photographer, working for Kambuja Illustrated Monthly, one of the popular magazines at the time.” 

Patrons dining at the Café du Paris, Phnom Penh. 1966. Photographer unknown. Kambuja Monthly Illustrated Review, October 15, 1966. Center for Khmer Studies Library, Siem Reap.

So what were the selection criteria for images to be included?  “A photo that really catches the eye, or that captures a really important historical or cultural moment, or knowing the reputation of photographers that had a good eye.  Just using those rough three choices really helped to fill out the bulk, and then it was just a case of idiosyncratic things to put in the big pile, and laying out pages, seeing how they work, seeing rhythms or counter-rhythms. 

“When it came to twenty-first century and contemporary photographers working now in Cambodia I passed the curation over to Jessica Lim of the Angkor Photo Festival and Workshops, and just peppered in some social history stuff, like dental x-rays, found objects, thus breaking down the structure of the photographer as artist and showing a richer stream of imagery.”

Photography in Cambodia: 1866 To The Present, all 1.3 kilograms of it, is now available in Phnom Penh at the Minimalist Café & Bookshop, Gallery Pi-Pet-Pi and the National Museum for $39.99.


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