French photojournalist Pierre Toutain-Dorbec's work contrasts life in Khmer Rouge commando camps with refugee camps along the Thailand border.
A young Khmer Rouge fighter (left) and Cambodian refugees both photos featured in the photo exhibition by Pierre Toutain-Dorbec.
An exhibition showcasing 35 black-and-white photographs taken in 1979-80 by French photographer Pierre Toutain-Dorbec opens today at Phnom Penh's Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre.
Presented in collaboration with the Human Rights Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, and funded by the Open Society Justice Initiative, Confronting the Past: The Aftermath of the Khmer Rouge Regime provides a singular close-up of life at a Khmer Rouge commando camp, as well as rare insights into the initial refugee flows across the border to Thailand.
Toutain-Dorbec, who will not be present for the exhibition, worked as a photojournalist in Cambodia when the pictures were taken.
He isn't quite sure how he managed to get so close to the Khmer Rouge during such a tumultuous time.
"I think the real question is why they let me go with them. I have no answer, sorry," he wrote in an email.
Commenting on the juxtaposition between depicting life first under the Khmer Rouge and then in refugee camps, Toutain-Dorbec said:
"Pictures of the Khmer Rouge were taken leisurely at a Khmer Rouge camp inside Cambodia, where they were sleeping, and making ... arms like punji or landmines. It is an intentional juxtaposition because it was like that. All those events were happening at the same time, in [the] same period, at more or less the same place (inside Cambodia or along the Thai border)."
A joint effort
Surprisingly, Toutain-Dorbec's photographs have never been showcased in Cambodia. In fact, it was rather by chance that they come to be exhibited this time, too.
Patrick Vinck, director of the Initiative for Vulnerable Populations at the Human Rights Centre at Berkeley, explains how he happened to meet Toutain-Dorbec while doing research for his centre's Cambodia project.
"[Toutain-Dorbec] told us about his experience in Cambodia as a photojournalist in the mid-'70s and early ‘80s. ... We saw his pictures and we thought they were amazing. Also, they had never been shown here in Cambodia," he said.
"We thought they provided a somewhat unusual perspective, in the sense that I think there have been quite a few pictures of the conflict itself and what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime, but very little about the late ‘70s and the refugee movements, especially across to Thailand, and what the life of those refugees was like," he continued.
The artist himself hopes the exhibition will help Cambodians face their past.
I think the real question is why [the khmer rouge] let me go with them. I have no answer, sorry.
"A genocide has been committed, so like many people concerned by human rights [and] peace, I try to speak clear and loud. That is because I think that silence is not a good answer after a genocide. A way to avoid other genocides in the future is, maybe, to talk about previous genocides," he wrote. "Through this exhibition, I want to say never again."
Vinck reasons along similar lines.
"The commonality between our research project and Pierre's pictures, we felt, is this process of looking back to what happened and how was that period, and at the same time looking forward to the future; how knowing what happened and admitting what happened and taking accountability for what happened contributes to [post-conflict] reconstruction," he said.
The exhibition and his centre's research project are complementary, he said.
"Art can bring emotions that a dry, scientific report cannot do. It is a more graphic and direct representation. You see things. It draws you in. You can spend 10 minutes looking at a picture, and it echoes something you can relate to," he said.
Showcasing loss and hope
Photographs of the Khmer Rouge featured in the exhibition include close-ups of child soldiers with guns, war-elephant patrols and soldiers seemingly on the run.
"The mood in the camp was extremely sad, a deep sadness. The feeling was reinforced by the fact that most [Khmer Rouge soldiers] were looking at the future without any hope. They were like people with no future," Toutain-Dorbec wrote.
In contrast, photos from the refugee camps, though sharing a deep sense of sadness and despair, also offer a glimmer of hope.
Smiling recipients of international aid, women giving birth and humanitarian aid workers performing surgery all echo an anticipation of a future life and a transition towards peace.
Yet simultaneously, arresting portraits of survivors-turned-refugees reveal the pain and suffering inherent in their bleak situation.
"Confronting the Past: The Aftermath of The Khmer Rouge" opens tonight at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre and will run for one month.
The Human Rights Centre's report, So We Will Never Forget: A Population-based Survey on Attitudes About Social Reconstruction and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)" was made public yesterday.