It seems that we are working to fix and heal the illness of our parents’ generation.
Young Cambodian photographer, Kim Hak, delves deep into his country’s history with his photography stories. His series Unity documents the time when Cambodians were united in their grief over King Norodom Sihanouk’s death, while his latest work Alive is a poignant and powerful exploration of memories through banned objects that survived the Khmer Rouge. Internationally recognised with awards, exhibitions and commissions, he continues to explore the meaning of memory, loss and healing from his base in Phnom Penh.
How did you get started with photography?
In 1990, my family moved from our house in Phnom Penh to a smaller flat. I collected all black and white family photos from the 60s to 80s and put them in a box. I used to take them out and study them. I learned about the lives of my family because of those photos. So I became interested in photography.
In 1998 I finished my high school degree. I wanted to continue my studies to be a photographer. But there was no course in Cambodia at that time, so I studied tourism instead and worked in the tourism industry for several years.
In 2006, I got my first negative film camera. Without knowing anything about photography, I started to shoot. Those images were often bad, out of focus. In 2008, I got my first digital camera, but I was still an amateur who loved photography. The same year, I learned more about photography via two important photography festivals in Cambodia; the Angkor Photo Festival and Workshop and Photo Phnom Penh. I knew I wanted to quit my office job. I saved for one year, as I was sure I would face difficulty in my first step in changing careers.
I learned about the lives of my family because of photos. So I became interested in photography.
In 2009, I quit my job in order to attend a basic photography workshop in Kuala Lumpur, followed by another workshop at the Angkor Photo Festival. That was with Antoine d’ Agata. Working with him changed my life because I learned to build photo stories. I attended many more workshops in Bangkok, Singapore, Phnom Penh and Kep, with many leading international photographers such as Francoise Hugier, Alex Webb, Giulio di Sturco and others. Luckily enough, most of these workshops were free.
Through them I was able to network with photographers in the region. Since then, I have kept on studying and producing projects.
Why did you want to become a photographer?
First, I know that I love history. Photography plays an important role as a documentation source of history.
During the Khmer Rouge, to hide their previous background, my parents as well as other Cambodian families, threw away many old photos. Otherwise, they would have been killed immediately if only one Khmer Rouge soldier had found out who they were, especially well-educated people, former members of government, army officers, teachers, doctors and so on. Leaving their homes, they abandoned many things. They certainly took a big risk to keep some of their photographs to carry along their memory.
They buried them under the ground near the place they were staying during the regime. Time and time again, they went discretely to check if these precious fragments of their past life were still there.
Working on my latest project “ALIVE”, I discovered something I didn’t know before. I thought my parents could just dissimulate some pictures in their clothes. Reality was more poignant! All photos were covered in plastic. They buried them under the ground near the place they were staying during the regime. Time and time again, they went discretely to check if these precious fragments of their past life were still there.
Through these black and white photos, I have learned about my parents’ life during the Golden Age of Cambodia in the 50s, 60s and 70s. My father had fun with friends when he came to study at Indradevi High School and later on at Agriculture University in Phnom Penh. He drove an old fashioned motorbike (what I would do myself, years later)…“Like father, like son”. I also have a photo of my mother when she was fourteen from a photographic studio in Battambang. I can see how she was so beautiful. Fortunately, this unique portrait remained from her youth.
If you have chance to visit Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (known as S21) in Phnom Penh, you will see a lot of photos of victims taken before they were executed. One image made me think a lot with tears in my eyes. It is the image of the lady named Chan Kim Srun (taken on May 14th, 1978) when she was carrying her own sleeping baby before her execution. Her expression depicts to us so many things, which we just can’t describe in words.
You have cited Antoine D’ Agata as an influence in your photography; he was your tutor at the Angkor Photo Festival workshops in 2009. What was the experience like and what did he teach you?
Before taking workshop with Antoine, I have never taken any class on how to build a photography story. It was the first time for me and it suddenly changed for me the process how to work. He helped us to find ourselves.
We were divided into small groups. When the workshop started, we had to give the idea what topic that we were going to work on. Each day, we had to shoot and focus on our topic and come back to the workshop class every morning to get the feedback or critic or what is missing for shooting the next day. In the workshop, it is more than just my topic but how other participants worked too. The struggles they faced. Many of us shot day and night. Antoine kept his eyes on us. In the night, out of the workshop class, we still met to discuss. It was a tough one and I loved it.
This is what I always remember from him “Art is always something happening.”
During our workshop class, some participants came with beautiful stunning images. For us, we looked and we said, “Wow.”
But with Antoine, he sees something different as he didn’t see anything happening. Then, he started to explain that in art or photography, there is always something happening or something behind the image. This is what I always remember from him “Art is always something happening.”
Imagine a strict world that you need to throw away the images/ photographs to survive; you will feel how horrible it is. It would be impossible.
For your project Alive, you documented personal belongings of Cambodian families, hidden during the Khmer Rouge regime. It is both a personal project as well as one pertaining to the history of your country. Can you tell us more about it? Why did you feel it was important to pursue this project? What difficulties did you face doing the project?
“ALIVE” is my personal concept to reveal the intimate memory of usual objects entrusted to me by local Cambodian families, forty years after the Khmer Rouge regime.
All these photographs and objects are deeply significant. They are evidence of the past time in history. War can kill victims, but it cannot kill memory of the survivors. The memory should be alive, known and shared for the current research of human beings, and the preservation of heritage for the next generations.
To find the objects, which still stay with original owners, is the difficult part. After talking with each of the owners, I figured out what is important memory.
Each image looks quite simple, but behind this simplicity, it was a long process and took a lot of thinking to work on it. That’s why for two years, I got only 30 photos for the series and I am still working on it.
I have been searching for some objects, which I learnt about from my parents, for two years but can’t find them.
- My uncle was killed because he wore glasses, so they considered him a well-educated person.
- People were killed because they listened to songs before the regime.
- My mother had hidden a watch in order to look at the time, and she almost got killed for it. The watch was lost after the regime.
To me, this historical story needs to be completed within its timeline.
I was asked, “What about memories with other objects of survivors who were former refugees at the border camps and have fled their homeland Cambodia to live in others countries as Australia, France, and The United States?”
With the collaboration of the Jorng Jam project, after my art residency this year in Brisbane – Australia, I have produced some photos from there.
And I want to continue this project in France and United States.
In France, I have relatives who live in Paris, Lyon, Nantes, and Strasbourg. I visited them for the first time in 2011 when my project “ON” was shown at Photo Quai in Paris. It was a great chance to meet up with my aunt and her children. In 2012 I went back again when Branly Museum in Paris collected and showed my series “Someone”. Then, in 2013, I went over with my parents and my relatives showed us their old photos and the things that they brought to France after escaping the Khmer Rouge. This gave me the idea of extending “Alive” to France and wherever the Cambodian people live today.
I want to have own voice to talk about my own country to the world.
A lot of your work – such as ON, Someone and Alive – revolves around memory, why is this theme important to you?
For me and other young Cambodians born just after the war of Khmer Rouge regime, the loss, pain and suffering of our parents’ generation is a reality. This is what our families shared with us of their memories. So, it is reflected in our work as well.
I often talk about this with my friends. It seems that we are working to fix and heal the illness of our parents’ generation.
Your work has been exhibited internationally – France, Australia and Singapore – and you are the recipient of several awards. As a young photographer, how do you get your work noticed?
As a Cambodian photographer, I have decided to live and work based in Cambodia and to produce works from here as I know the geography, history and people well. So, it is easier for me.
After a work is finished, I would show it to the public for local Cambodians to get their reactions before submitting it to international festivals outside of Cambodia.
I want to have own voice to talk about my own country and share it with the world. We can have expats who talk about us as the eyes of outsiders, but we need eyes and views from the inside to talk about ourselves too.
What are you busy with now?
My series “Alive” is an ongoing project until I have enough material for my next book publication.
At the same time, this year, I started work on my new project entitled “My Beloved”. I photographed diverse landscapes around Cambodia 40 years after Khmer Rouge took power. It is a personal journey, which I have tried to put the link between my previous and current background together, Tourism and Photography. The work is mostly done. For this project, I shot with negative films. Rolls have been developed. Now, it is time for editing.
I will try to make exhibitions locally first from a selection of the work. Then, I will see if they are enough for the next book project.