Photojournalist’s Unwavering Lens Captured Wartime Suffering

In 1987, a young American photojournalist headed to Thailand to document the precarious life of Cambodians in refugee camps along the border.

Stefan Ellis had seen films about the Khmer Rouge regime and was eager to understand what was happening to those who had fled a country mired in war.

A Cambodian refugee camp in 1987. (Stefan Ellis Collection/Bophana Center)
A Cambodian refugee camp in 1987. (Stefan Ellis Collection/Bophana Center)

What his photographs captured were the dire circumstances of everyday life, and the tremendous fear and deep sorrow of those who survived the starvation, beatings and executions that had claimed so many lives.

Just 21, and right out of university, Stefan Ellis wrote to a friend that he felt he had become “the keeper of information that was so much more important than myself” and in documenting “the suffering and the unheard cries of the Cambodian people,” he knew that he “would never be the same again.”

What Stefan Ellis saw would haunt him the rest of his short life.

“People had been in the camps for many years and there had been no reporting, really, on those camps,” his father, Bob Ellis, recalled on Tuesday. “He was very concerned.”

The younger Ellis’ first stop in Thailand was the large Site II camp. He also managed to enter Site 8, which was under Khmer Rouge rule, so that his photos would better document the precarious situation in which tens of thousands of refugees lived.

Mr. Ellis donated an archive of the photos to the Bophana Center this year to mark the 20th anniversary of his son’s death. An exhibition of the work, entitled “Thai Border Cambodian Refugee Camps,” opens tonight at the center in Phnom Penh.

The refugee camps in Thailand were a product of the conflict that tore Cambodia apart in the 1980s. When Vietnamese forces along with a Cambodian battalion fought their way into the country and ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in January 1979, tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to the Thai-Cambodian border. They would spend years in the camps, at times on the front line, often living in appalling conditions.

Forced to follow the Khmer Rouge, they found themselves under the same rule they had hoped to escape, Stefan Ellis wrote in an article in The Boston Globe in October 1987.

Supported by China, the Khmer Rouge had relocated to Thailand and rearmed. One refugee camp—Site 8—allowed visitors, but three others were barred to outsiders. Even in Site 8, Stefan Ellis wrote in his story, “disappearances and interrogations are common place and numerous beatings and executions have occurred.” But since those camps housed civilians, they received U.N. food supplies, he explained.

Seng An, a refugee in the Site II camp. (Stefan Ellis)
Seng An, a refugee in the Site II camp. (Stefan Ellis)

The young photographer researched the camps as much as he could, his father recalled, but his investigation had not prepared him for the pain borne by every Cambodian he met.

“I came across Seng An by accident,” he wrote in the Globe article. “It was after I watched her cry miserably, as she relived the night her brother was murdered, that I set out to find the handful of Cambodians who made the dangerous trek through the jungles, minefields and Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese patrols to the comparative safety of [non-Khmer Rouge] camps.”

Stefan Ellis would later write to a friend about his encounter with Seng An. “In a state of shock, I walked out of the hut…. I sat down on the side of the road and began to cry in anger…. The terribleness and pointlessness of all the suffering I had been feeding off during my stay in Thailand tore at me.”

After his trip to the camps, Stefan Ellis embarked on a rich career covering events throughout Asia, Russia and Israel. His photos and articles appeared in publications ranging from Time magazine and The Bangkok Post to the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

In 1991, Stefan Ellis opened the news bureau of the Agence France-Presse in Phnom Penh. He would remain in the country until after the 1993 national elections. “I think the best part of his career was when he was in Cambodia,” his father said.

Although his son covered war zones, Mr. Ellis said, “he wasn’t after danger so much as he was after the people in the place: the story of the people, particularly the aftermath of war—what happens when it’s over and the people are left with so little.”

Stefan Ellis eventually returned to the U.S. and looked into working in television in New York. “I’m having a hard time coming home,” he is quoted as saying on a website dedicated to his work. He committed suicide on December 7, 1996, at the age of 31.

In his refugee-camp photos, Stefan Ellis truly captured people’s feelings beyond the facade they presented to the world, said Chea Sopheap, executive director of the Bophana Center.

The exhibition opens tonight at 6:30 p.m. and runs through January 16.

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