While five current and former officials at human rights NGO Adhoc languished in prison, where they remain today, Miguel Jerónimo decided to bring attention to the people whose lives have been touched by the human rights workers.
So he picked up his tool of choice: a camera. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the officials’ detainment, the Phnom Penh-based photographer opens his photo exhibition, I Am The Five, featuring one portrait for each day in pre-trial detention.
At The Mansion, where the exhibition will be on display until April 29, five vacant chairs sit in one room, while a colourful series of portraits captures Cambodians from all walks of life.
Yet out of all these portraits, only five faces are to be found – those of the detained officials Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Lim Mony and Ny Chakrya.
As a photographer, Jerónimo hopes to share the emotional side of the detentions by providing an avenue for Cambodians to show their solidarity with the five activists, as well as to give a voice to their families and friends, who have had to deal with the year-long absence of their loved ones.
“We just had Khmer New Year and they are in jail, so the main message is about sending our support to them, to show them they are not forgotten,” he said.
“People outside are still thinking about them and their work, and honouring their commitment to defend dignity and human rights.”
The four Adhoc staffers were charged with bribing a witness in a scandal involving Khom Chandaraty, the alleged mistress of opposition party president Kem Sokha. Chandaraty had initially sought help from the Adhoc figures but later accused them of instructing her to lie about her involvement with Sokha.
Ny Chakrya, former Adhoc official and National Election Committee deputy secretary-general, was charged as an accomplice.
In each of Jerónimo’s portraits, the subjects hold a cut-out with one of the faces of the five detainees. This way, it is as though the subjects themselves have “put themselves into the shoes of the [workers]” and identified with them.
Although the project is not officially connected with the organisation, Jerónimo went in and around Phnom Penh with staff from Adhoc to the communities affected by a range of human rights issues to look for participants for the project.
All of the subjects have somehow had their lives touched by the work of the rights advocates, having had to deal with issues such as poverty, forced evictions, human trafficking and other human rights abuses. “They knew the importance of the work of these activists, so they were willing to participate to somehow send a message of support to them,” Jerónimo said.
Of all the subjects he photographed, a tuk-tuk driver in the Boeung Kak community – where residents were evicted en masse to make way for large-scale development – stood out to him in particular. This man expressed that he “really felt the work and what they did” and wanted to have portraits with all five of the cut-outs.
“Most of the people were really feeling the importance of what the activists did before and why they were in jail, and they wanted to show their support When these five activists are in jail, it’s [as though] all these people somehow get their freedom restrained [as well].”
Explaining his vision for the layout of the exhibition, Jerónimo elaborated that the small installation of empty chairs symbolises the absence of the activists, while the scale of the project and its 365 photos envelops the viewer upon entry.
“I want the [viewer] to feel the overwhelming sense of support for the activists,” he said.
The photo exhibition I Am The Five opens at The Mansion Heritage Bar today at 7pm, and will run through April 29. Family members of the five detained human rights activists and the photographer will be speaking at the reception.