Still Life

When he was a little boy, Kim Hak remembers digging up an old perfume bottle buried in the ground. He recalls an old kettle his family used to boil water. These objects, scattered in the photographer’s home while he was growing up, are among the few his family took with them as they fled their Battambang City home to the countryside during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Such objects form the subject of Mr. Hak’s latest body of work, “Alive,” exhibited in Gallery 1961 as part of the 10th annual Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, which opened Saturday and runs through December 6.

‘Betel Nut Cutter and Betel Nut,’  part of photographer Kim Hak’s ‘Alive’ series. The cutter was among objects carried by Gnet Yorn, who passed away in 2004 at age 93, during the Khmer Rouge regime. (Kim Hak)
‘Betel Nut Cutter and Betel Nut,’ part of photographer Kim Hak’s ‘Alive’ series. The cutter was among objects carried by Gnet Yorn, who passed away in 2004 at age 93, during the Khmer Rouge regime. (Kim Hak)

For the series, Mr. Hak photographed everyday objects: scarves, notebooks and ornaments. But he didn’t select any old junk. These were items people hurriedly carried with them as they were forced into agrarian lives under the Khmer Rouge—trinkets turned treasure by the force of history.

“‘Alive’ is my personal concept to reveal the intimate memory of old photos and usual objects entrusted to me by local Cambodian families, forty years after the Khmer Rouge regime,” Mr. Hak said in an email.

“In 1975, at the fall of the Lon Nol regime, people couldn’t carry so much of their belongings. They just brought along some clothes, cooking utensils, a few jewelries and, above all, some photographs in order to remember the loved ones,” he said. “All these photographs and objects are deeply significant. They are evidence of the past time in history.”

Last year, the photographer published his first photo book, “Unity,” which commemorated the funeral of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk. His current project, however, is much more personal. Mr. Hak began work on the series in January, moved by his own family’s memories.

“Since I was a young boy, in Cambodia, I have often heard my parents, siblings and relatives as they shared their past and painful experiences,” he said.

‘Fish Oil and Smoke’ by Kim Hak. The bottle, once owned by Gnet Yorn, was used to provide light, as there was no electricity in the countryside under the Khmer Rouge. (Kim Hak)
‘Fish Oil and Smoke’ by Kim Hak. The bottle, once owned by Gnet Yorn, was used to provide light, as there was no electricity in the countryside under the Khmer Rouge. (Kim Hak)

The 33-year-old Mr. Hak was born two years after Vietnamese troops captured Phnom Penh in 1979, bringing an end to Pol Pot’s regime. But stories from those dark decades continue to resonate with him, hence the exhibition’s title.

“War can kill victims, but it cannot kill memory of the survivors,” he said. “The memory should be alive and known and shared.”

Mr. Hak’s project is ongoing, and he is still scouring for objects and stories from as many families as he can. “Now, it is a race against the clock because living witnesses are gradually disappearing,” he said.

The stories of these objects are among the diverse tales told by photographers—hailing from countries including India, Colombia and Ukraine—taking part in the 2014 Angkor Photo Festival, which encompasses various galleries and public venues, as well as a workshop program.

This year’s festival received more than 1,750 submissions from about 85 countries, winnowed down to 14 exhibitions and other series projected onto walls and screens set up throughout the city, according to the festival’s program coordinator, Francoise Callier.

“My main criteria is always good story-telling,” Ms. Callier said. “At the same time, we recognize the importance of our role in discovering new work from young photographers, unknown stories and emerging talents that are not yet known on the international stage.”

A photograph from ‘Here Come the Monks,’ a series by British photographer Luke Duggleby. (Luke Duggleby/Redux)
A photograph from ‘Here Come the Monks,’ a series by British photographer Luke Duggleby. (Luke Duggleby/Redux)

Though the festival has an established tradition of merging art and social issues, this year’s iteration is particularly socially conscious, with the artists tackling a range of local and global topics.

British photographer Luke Duggleby’s “Here Come The Monks” captures Cambodian monks’ efforts to protect Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley from a proposed hydropower dam project.

In “The Pink Choice,” Vietnamese photographer Maika Elan—an Angkor Photo Festival workshop alumni—took portraits of gay couples in moments of intimacy; a taboo subject in socially conservative Vietnam.

German photographer Sandra Hoyn’s “Children for Rent” is an evocative expose of India’s orphanage business.

And renowned Chinese photographer Fan Ho uses shadows and light to capture Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s while the city—gripped recently by pro-democracy protests—was on the verge of becoming a metropolis.

 

A photograph from ‘The Pink Choice’ by Vietnamese artist Maika Elan (Maika Elan/MoST Artists)
A photograph from ‘The Pink Choice’ by Vietnamese artist Maika Elan (Maika Elan/MoST Artists)

The festival this year also boasts two special features: the “GreenLight Series” promoting photo stories focusing on environmental concerns, and the “Impact Project,” which presents visual narratives of individuals or groups making unique contributions to society.

While the photographs alone are insightful and thought provoking, the festival also facilitates exchanges of ideas through its workshops, of which Mr. Hak is an alumnus.

On offer during the festival are discussions including “Asia Perspective: Startups, Social Media and Photography,” on how new technology affects the work of photographers, and lectures including veteran war photographer Patrick Chauvel’s presentation on “Ceux du Nord,” a rarely-seen collection of images of the Second Indochina War by North Vietnamese photographers.

[email protected]

© 2014 – 2015, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.