An Oral History of Photography During and After the Cambodian Civil War

An Oral History of Photography During and After the Cambodian Civil War

875 876 M. For. Film

“Well, because I am too old now, that’s why! Look, if you really want to know, it’s exhausting. You’ll see for yourself. All that travel, all that work… So, I am done.”

I wear the pout of a disappointed child. My photographic partner in crime is retiring.

Who am I going to nerd around with from now on? Filters and light and exposures, Cecil B. DeMille-style grand plans for the next wedding set. It’s as if the conversation had barely started. I turn my back for a minute, and this is it. Uncle-All-Things-Pictures, the DIY master of all image-thinking, has run his course.

“I’ll miss it, that’s for sure,” he concludes with an impulsive chuckle. A sixty-plus years old boy who never stopped being amazed by what started as quite a mind-bending job; making images in a land of no more images.

Hold on. Rewind.

Why did the images stop?

We’re in Cambodia in its very long 1970s. A place and time of civil war, and behind the heat of the civil war lurks the greater specter of global cold wars.

Photos disappear because of what they contain: the past, the land, ancestors, loved ones, all things of longing and attachment. It is a place and time of no more cameras; those are a technology of the West, the empire, the colonial. It is a place and time of no representation, a thing of the bourgeoisie. It is a place and time claiming to start all over. Year zero is now, and it promises a future.

Barely emerging from that land is something claiming to be peace, shyly crossing the threshold. By the 1980’s, it’s not quite here yet, but we’ll take it, since that’s all one gets. Barely emerging with it, barely recovering from the toll of family losses and absences, enters Uncle-All-Things-Pictures: then and now a public school teacher, then and now a respected Muslim thinker, then and now an admirer of whatever it is that modernity carries with her. Then and now, against all odds, an imaginative maker of images.

“There was no money at the time. Actually, let me take that back: they had just started reprinting  money (currency had been suspended during the regime of the  Khmer Rouge). In the city, they were producing new bills. But it’s not like after all those years of nothing to barter, we were about to actually carry money in our pockets overnight! So, I guess it was a time of money-for-all, except that for all of us, there was none”.

No cash.

No gold.

No sequins.

And yet weddings were about to light up the countryside again. People began to get back together, to gather, to groom around and bride about. There was a hunger for images; there were too many weddings with no camera. In those times, what was missing was a photographer.

“I always loved photographs and cameras. Even when I was little. When we were kids, we used to make pinhole cameras out of mud. My father was so intrigued by the upside-down impressions that he kept staring at them. And even during the war(s), I managed to keep family photographs from the old days, before the soldiers got hold of them [in their quest to start a revolutionary society from year zero, Khmer Rouge soldiers went through households to discard any traces of the past, and keeping family photographs was often dangerous]. For a while, I still had this portrait of my dad working in the rubber plantations and a photograph of my uncle in his athletic days at an international javelin competition. But even when the war(s) began to end, things were still rough; my teacher’s salary wasn’t enough to support my family anyway. That’s when I noticed that those photographers were sort of better off. So I thought I would give it a try”.

But giving it a try in the early 1980s, with the broken roads and shattered land, required more than it might today. It required talent, savoir-faire, daring, brains, and maybe a bit of chance too.

“Well, obviously, I had no camera and certainly no money to get one. So things were about to get tricky”.

On his way to becoming sort-of-a-photographer, Uncle-All-Things-Pictures set out to become sort-of-an-ethnographer. Observation and research gave him his starting point.

“I already knew what photographs looked like. Now I needed to look closely at what they were actually made of, how professional photographers were doing it. I decided to follow them.”

Uncle-All-Things-Pictures tags along: itinerant adventurers on the go thrown on a moto with gear around the neck, red dust all over their faces, torn-up flip flops glued to the brakes. Photographers were not exactly common. They were coming from afar to spend a few days working on a wedding, fed and lodged by the host, leaving only to return weeks or months later with the long-awaited bounty; half-filled albums displaying the few precious glossy shots that could be afforded.

“I really got interested in the cameras they were using and started to pay attention to… you know… What do they call those boxes where they show images for kids? [Uncle seems to be referring to something similar to Iranian shahre-farang or Japanese kamishibai: itinerant storytellers with a viewing box using still-images as a visual support to the narrative. In the 1980s-1990s, some international humanitarian organizations were using the medium for various awareness campaigns in remote areas of Cambodia]. And then I began to imagine doing all that on my own”.

Just like that, Uncle-All-Things-Pictures was going to make a camera. Still no money. But ideas. Uncle-All-Things-Pictures had a lot of those.

“I got some wood and built a little box. Then I added some old spectacles’ lenses. I managed to get my hands on some leftover rolls of film and found someone who could process it. That’s how I got my first camera to work”.

Curious neighbors come to observe but don’t really get it. “Go buy yourself a cow, man!”

The idea being that you get the cow, feed it, sell it back, make the money, and buy the camera. Nice and simple. Almost too nice and too simple for Uncle-All-Things-Pictures. So he kept on going with his very own pinhole camera and in time, all the neighbors wanted images. Just a few. And then more. And finally, a lot.

“My cousin, he had an old Rolleiflex. He had buried it somewhere to protect it from the soldiers, and when the war(s) ended, he was finally able to retrieve it. All beaten down and broken up, of course. But I figured I could work on it and finally get myself a real camera.”

A tiny little piece of wooden stick here, a thin line of iron thread there, and probably quite a lot of patience and tenacity, and voila! The Rolleiflex is back from the grave, ready to wink its dove eye shutter. Except that, by then, the medium format film that the Rolleiflex uses has completely disappeared from the barely emerging market economy.

“Here is what I did: I took some black fabric and glue and made a mask for it. So that instead of the large opening that allows the whole surface of the 6×6 roll to be exposed, I could focus the light on a 35mm strip”. A conversion that will, decades later, become the core principle of Lomography’s refurbished Lubitel, and a DIY process that is now the quest of many YouTubers.

The refurbished-plus Rolleiflex makes its way through a series of images before 1986 arrives and, with it, finally a bit of income accumulated through the selling of all those portraits. “At last, this is when I bought my very first ‘real’ camera. A Soviet Zenit. You would have loved it!”

My eyes turn to the ethnographer’s shelf and the Arax-CM, a re-cared-for Kiev88, the socialist understudy of the ubiquitous Hasselblad. I pause the note-taking for a second, for I can’t resist and must ask. “What happened to that wooden one, the one you made yourself out of scratch? Or even the Rolleiflex you refurbished?”

“We recycled them. There was no reason to keep them once I had a replacement, so I sold them for parts.”

But as film photographers know all too well, the picture is only half-made once we have a camera and film. How do you create darkroom magic when you have no darkroom, chemicals, or enlarger (or, for that matter, electricity and running water)? Magic will have to do…

“I went to the small town nearby once. There was a famous photographer there. The guy had quite a reputation… He was a character. I followed him in his lab to become his apprentice, and he was flattered, but it’s not like he was going to hand me the tricks of the trade. I just had to figure it all out by myself. Except, it’s seriously dark in the darkroom. You really can’t see anything!”

Learning in the pitch-black lab turned classroom, hands venturing into can’t-be-taught experiments. Observation switched to something beyond sight, attention beyond mere vision.

“I figured the trick must be in the numbers. It was all it could be about: the timing, the minutes, as important as measuring the right chemicals. So I started to count and take notes in my head”.

Uncle-All-Things-Pictures finally gets ready to leave and go home when the master-photographer comes with a departure gift in hand: some leftover chemicals. Shining silvery particles as an omen to a bright future. And more of the good stuff awaited Uncle once he got back to teaching: a few grainy paper sheets—or rather shreds—were waiting at the nearby printing store where the exam sheets were Xeroxed. Uncle-All-Things-Pictures is now ready to go full DIY mode.

“So, here is how it went. I do the whole thing with the paper, the chemicals and all, in the dark, counting in my head, with a little torch handy right next to me. But here is what I had missed; the prints could only be exactly the same size as the negative. It was impossible to make them any bigger. That was a problem. I was stuck”.

Uncle-All-Things-Pictures waits. Probably counting by the minutes until a solution comes. And one does, oddly dressed as a soldier.

“Where he got it from? That I have no clue. Back then, people got their hands on all kinds of stuff that had been left behind.”

Back then, the war(s) displaced both people and objects. So maybe the camera stood there, somewhere, abandoned. Perhaps the soldier had his own ways and got it by other means. Perhaps the camera had belonged to someone who’d “forcibly disappeared” as  happened again and again back then. Uncle doesn’t know, and who knows if the soldier himself did.

“Anyhow, that guy, the soldier, he had this Polaroid camera that didn’t work so well and that he didn’t know what to do with, so I got it from him.” Another drafty yet crafty conversion: an inverted camera hanging from high above, suspended on a wall. The bare bones of the most basic enlarger. “Of course, I still had to adjust the size, so I would play around with a stool and a pile of books, getting the image closer or further to the lens.”

It couldn’t be that difficult, right? A little before that, Uncle had improvised his very own darkroom with a blanket and a stool. “I was doing it, right there with my hands under the stool and the blanket, while chatting with friends visiting. They had no idea what was going on down there. I would always amaze them with the images coming out like a magic trick!”

Passers-by with no affinity for photography were not the only ones amazed. One day it is the famous master-photographer who stops by to visit. (Uncle says it as if it’s no big deal. Like it hadn’t taken days of bumpy travels on roads still prone to landmines’ explosions and conflicts’ eruptions to get there.) Uncle gives him a tour of the impromptu tricks and treats.

“It’s like his face enlightened and darkened at the same time, his body shivered. He said, ‘I have spent a fortune to set up my whole lab and you, you spent nothing and got it all done just the same!’”

A small fortune—just a tiny bit of one—will finally come to Uncle-All-Things-Pictures, as the demand for his refined techniques and know-how increases. And yet, himself restless, he couldn’t stick to what was then the bread and butter of any photographer; weddings. He was an image hunter.

“I would go around, take so many pictures of my kids, relatives, friends, neighbors. Sometimes I asked them to take a pose; sometimes, I would just go around and snap a shot as they went about their daily lives. I was so happy to get the pictures printed that I would just go all over the place to distribute them, so I don’t have that many left. But back then, people had lost most of their photographs to the war(s). The photos I was making were the very first images they were getting again”.

Camera-man on the road, in the trails, by the river, and through the jungle-plantations-paddy-fields commute, paying close attention to others, caring for what they looked like, knowing what they could be.

“Sometimes I would add some colors to make it a little more special, just a touch, you know… I used those old Chinese color inked sheets to work on the print in the lab to dress them up a little. Or even during the shooting itself, I would set up a whole scene with a tableau. I would either rent the backdrop or buy a secondhand one. Sometimes even, I would make one by myself to try things out; you can change everything with a tableau.

The word craft comes to mind. And care. An intimate knowledge that comes from the hands as much as from the heart.

Years later, and for quite a long time, I am lucky enough to learn from Uncle-All-Things-Pictures, his trade, his art, and his love for images. During those years, and at his side, I am encouraged and inspired not to leave analog photography despite the growing difficulty of acquiring and processing film within the country. Not because of the war(s) this time, but because of the collapse of the global analog industry as photography shifted to digital.

At his side, I was finally encouraged and inspired to conduct an ethnographic project as a wedding videographer working alongside rural teams of wedding designers, planners, arrangers, and photographers. And then just as the photographic, videographic, and ethnographic impostor syndrome was barely beginning to fade, just when I was about to start my year-long “internship” with Uncle (otherwise known to anthropologists as “the fieldwork”), he breaks the good news of his long-awaited retirement, the photographic business reduced to on-site operations (quick ID photographs, short textbook photocopies, international phone calls by the minute only).

“But who is going to teach me now if you stop?” I wail like a tiny little thing.

“I don’t know. I was pretty much one of a kind, that’s for sure!” A cheeky smile accompanies a dash of pride. “But actually, I was never taught. I never learned. I just tried things out. I always loved doing it and I still do. Just like you, right?”

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M. For. Film

M for filM’s journey into film photography can be best summarized in the wise words of Bilbo Baggins: “there and back again.” When she is not proposing undying love to her analog muse (or cursing it well into the afterlife), she works as an anthropologist here and there. That, too, is another thing she likes to love and curse daily. Oh well… M's instagram account is here

All stories by:M. For. Film

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M. For. Film

M for filM’s journey into film photography can be best summarized in the wise words of Bilbo Baggins: “there and back again.” When she is not proposing undying love to her analog muse (or cursing it well into the afterlife), she works as an anthropologist here and there. That, too, is another thing she likes to love and curse daily. Oh well… M's instagram account is here

All stories by:M. For. Film