Art consultant Nicholas Coffill gathered, sourced, and annotated over 300 photographs from around 100 Cambodian and foreign photographers in a unique retrospective of Cambodia’s visual history, presented in Photography in Cambodia: 1866 to the Present.
The book’s objective—to curate known, rare, and never-seen-before photographs telling a visual story of Cambodia—and scope are ambitious. Coffill and his business partner established Bambu Stage, a theatre company in Siem Reap, in 2015. Coffill shares in the book’s introduction that while preparing a traditional puppet show, he came across a photography volume in a local bookshop, which prompted him to further explore photography’s creative potential in relation to theatre. This led to research for a one-hour show, and, after six years, Photography in Cambodia.
The book is chronologically divided into nine chapters, according to royal reigns and political regimes, which can be broadly clustered in two phases in terms of motifs and authorship: colonial and post-colonial. Coffill shares that no Cambodian photographer can be traced before 1972, an important element when determining who tells Cambodia’s story and when.
Coffill discusses the traditional triptych of Cambodia’s visual identity, namely the temple complex of Angkor Wat, the royal portraits of the country’s kings and the often macabre imagery associated with the Khmer Rouge regime and genocide. In positing this iconography, he challenges us to reflect on the notion of monolithic representation and complex legacies.
Cambodia is among few countries that feature a historical monument on their national flags. As such, the symbolism of Angkor Wat in shaping classical and modern nation-building cannot be overestimated. In an otherwise turbulent recent history, the site conveys stability and pride, harking back to the times of the Khmer Empire of the 8th-15th centuries. Pre-pandemic, local and international visitors rushed en masse to the temple complex before sunrise to take a popular shot of the site lit with a golden promise of dawn.
The book reviews the world of wealth, power, and patronage, through elites—whether the monarchy, colonial authorities, local bourgeois, and ethnic minorities, such as a Burmese family controlling part of the gem trade. From King Norodom’s uncertain gaze wearing a French officer uniform in 1866 to contemporary Cambodian photographers such as Pech Sophea (born 1998) and Neak Sophal (born 1989), Photography in Cambodia gives credit to big and small history, covering determining moments as well as landscapes and peoplescapes, photojournalism, every day street scenes, funeral processions, animated food hawker joints, and more recent artistic projects.
The convergence of photography, history, and politics in Cambodia is, tragically and unavoidably, vividly incarnated during the years of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), which the book addresses sensitively. The Khmer Rouge genocide killed an estimated 13% to 30% of the Cambodian population at the time. Few visual archives exist of the collectivized villages where starving people worked to death. Extant visual documents belong to two categories: propaganda praising the regime, and documents of victims and survivors. In the latter, we see the full set of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and its cadres, far from the staged pictures of their utopian society. Interrogation rituals directly incorporated the use of photography in torture centres such as S-21, located in Phnom Penh’s former Toul Sleng high school (now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum). Faces of men, women, boys and girls, pre or post-beatings, were meticulously registered. Their headshots-mugshots, facing the camera or in profiles with their heads carried by an iron brace, included an identification tag and shock by their seemingly infinite numbers.
Coffill writes that French photographer Joseph Ferdinand Perrot first recorded Cambodian prisoners this way in 1923. For many surviving families grieving an unbearable loss, the portraits are often the last images of their siblings. Yet we perhaps know little about the process behind these photographs and the technical people involved, which makes Coffill’s attempt at opening painful archives a welcomed glimpse into a machine of horror.
The photographers unloaded the film from the cameras at the end of the day, developed the negatives, and made prints to show brother Duch to prove the process of confession had been completed. The size of the prints varied. The materials were in short supply, the photographer Nhem En cycled around Phnom Penh, ransacking abandoned commercial studios for film, photographic chemicals, and paper.
Coffill brings photographers Ho Van Tay and Dinh Fong—who helped uncover the harrowing reality of S-21 documenting the prison’s appearance when Vietnamese troops entered Phnom Penh in 1979—out of anonymity. The book recognizes the significance of initiatives such as D-Cam to digitize photographs and other archives since 1992 and its direct contribution to evidence-building under the Khmer Rouge special tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), in addition to the Phnom Penh-based Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center whose mission is to educate the public about the past and preserve archives. The photographs of the Khmer Rouge period are a reminder that as artifacts of trauma and memory they sharply contrast with the romanticism of early 20th-century postcards and the souvenirs of adventure-seeking foreigners from the earlier chapters. Photography is a potent medium that often sits at the blurry edge of fabrication and truth.
Coffill has assembled a wealth of material, yet the book’s premise, suggesting that each photograph captures a spirit of the time, carries an inherent limitation. Cambodia’s visual history should be appraised in conversation with other arts and heritage, such as the country’s music, moving images and other performing and visual arts.
Photography in Cambodia lays out an impressive collection of visual anecdotes and scenes in an engaging and informative coffee table book that is engaging and informative. Coffill manages to convey not only an illustrated and researched history of Cambodia through notable figures and events, but also sketches a photographic history of Cambodia touching upon techniques, professionals and amateurs, styles and motifs, and how these shaped our gaze and story-telling. A discussion on the extent to which technology influenced photography in Cambodia could have provided additional insights on how to “read” photographs and it is hoped that the discovery and resurgence of new archives will prompt to add if not to revisit how visual stories are told.