Found

When Charles Fox began documenting old Cambodian family photographs, his initial aim was to capture the country’s social transition through the lens of these intimate snapshots.

“I was interested in people’s own narratives as opposed to a narrative that I would create through photography,” the 35-year-old English photographer said.

Chonburi refugee camp, Thailand, 1981 - We were used to having our pictures being taken when visitors came. We always flocked toward the foreigner. We had gotten so used to being abused by the Khmer Rouge that foreigners always felt safe to approach—they felt like the good guys. (Vira Rama)
Chonburi refugee camp, Thailand, 1981 – We were used to having our pictures being taken when visitors came. We always flocked toward the foreigner. We had gotten so used to being abused by the Khmer Rouge that foreigners always felt safe to approach—they felt like the good guys. (Vira Rama)

Mr. Fox first came to Cambodia in 2006. After returning to the U.K. two years later, he met a Cambodian artist in London. “We became friends and I’d go over to his family home and we’d look at photographs and that’s how the project started,” he said.

“I became interested in the idea of how a lot of these images are printed—they are the only copies; and also the memories—the legacy of these pictures are fading really fast,” he said.

When Mr. Fox came back to Cambodia in 2012, he began trawling for family photos, mostly in Phnom Penh and Battambang, photographing and posting them on a blog.

His digital archive, “Found Cambodia,” is now a searchable website of such found vignettes. As the project grew, it began to take on more layers of meaning.

Kep province, 1968 - Before the civil war, we made a family trip to either the beach or Siem Reap every year. Two or three cars would travel down and we would spend two or three weeks together. We would take a lot of cooking equipment with us and cook as a family. The Indian influence was still prevalent in our cooking style. I remember the good seafood, the curry power made by hand. I went to Kep five years ago in 2010 to see if I remembered anything, but the memories had faded.
Kep province, 1968 – Before the civil war, we made a family trip to either the beach or Siem Reap every year. Two or three cars would travel down and we would spend two or three weeks together. We would take a lot of cooking equipment with us and cook as a family. The Indian influence was still prevalent in our cooking style. I remember the good seafood, the curry power made by hand. I went to Kep five years ago in 2010 to see if I remembered anything, but the memories had faded.

One morning, Mr. Fox woke up to an email from Vira Rama, a 49-year-old Cambodian man who had escaped the Khmer Rouge regime and settled in California.

“It just said, ‘I saw your project, sounds really interesting, I have some pictures, I’d really like to share them with you,’” Mr. Fox said.

When Mr. Rama’s family fled the Khmer Rouge, they brought two things: gold and their trove of family photographs, bundled in plastic bags.

This story of displacement, of people and of photographs, was common to many Cambodians during those years. Like other symbols of prosperity and family life, photographs were either destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period, or, if they survived, were scattered.

Lumphini camp, Thailand, 1981 - In the crammed hangar waiting to go to the Philippines. Our sponsors made sure we were ok. This picture of my brother Mony Roth Rama was taken by colleagues of our family sponsor.
Lumphini camp, Thailand, 1981 – In the crammed hangar waiting to go to the Philippines. Our sponsors made sure we were ok. This picture of my brother Mony Roth Rama was taken by colleagues of our family sponsor.

“There’s this idea in photography of the ‘found picture’…. You come across a cache of photographs, you share them,” Mr. Fox said. But there’s now a second meaning.

“When [Mr. Rama] spoke to his mother about it, she said, ‘Oh, “found,” as in if our pictures are there, maybe people can reconnect with us so they can find us?’”

“I prefer her version,” Mr. Fox said.

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