P HOTOGRAPHER Bill Burke is in a cardboard box in the back of a station wagon,
secretly video taping his wife and her lover packing half the family possessions
into a moving van. "Apocalypse Now" actor Martin Sheen is caught in a similar
image during the movie, saying "I hardly said a word to my wife till I'd said
'yes' to a divorce". And a Khmer farmer lies naked and unconscious on an
operating table in Phnom Penh, both legs raw stumps.
"When the anger
died" Burke's spiteful marriage bust became the genesis of his third book "Mine
Fields", connecting his black-and-white Polaroid photos and diary jottings from
three visits to Cambodia between 1988 and 1990, and the movie "Apocalypse
"It was too good a story not to tell," says Burke, whose previous
book "I Want To Take Picture" was a critical and financial success for
alternative publishers Nexus Press in Atlanta - a $35 copy, if one can be found,
would now cost around $200. Nexus gave Burke complete artistic license for the
5,000-print run of "Mine Fields".
Burke's painful, private story and its
relationship to wider themes - in a Cambodian context - of amputation and
immobility, orders from strangers, conflict, frustration (and many more) are not
unique. Larry Clark produced a "superb" photographic book about his life on
speed and heroin "... and I stole a whole bunch of ideas," admits Burke, citing
Robert Frank and Peter Beard as big influences.
The themes and
relationships between the movie, domestic hell and Cambodia "just seemed to jump
out... there were so many patterns that I didn't really notice when things were
Linking a bad marriage to Cambodia "wasn't
disparate, but it was kind of presumptive." One woman complained 'who are you to
say that your suffering is comparable in any way to Cambodia's' but Burke says
"she hadn't read the words. Conceptually it wasn't such a big leap." The links
were "powerful" and in retrospect "not so much of a stretch."
is a metaphor, there are really strong relationships but its not a direct
comparison... metaphorically, its the job of the artist to find relationships
and to make new ones. Between what I was running away from at home and what I
ran into (in Phnom Penh and on the Thai border), the connections were kind of
At some level Burke says he wanted to present his side of
The grainy color vignettes near the back of the book, of his
angry wife (eyes blackened in hand-drawn sunglasses for legal reasons), and with
her lawyer ("you can see her spending the money in her head," he laughs), were
more frightening to take for Burke than those of Khmer Rouge
A small Cambodian Buddha statue was given to Burke in 1979 by
a friend, Juan, after they had watched "Apocalypse Now". Burke's car blew apart
with the statue on the dashboard, so he returned the Buddha to Juan who soon
after was told he had cancer and needed his leg amputated. Burke met Juan's
sister at Juan's hospital bedside, and they were later married. All is recorded
on film. "It was just too ironic, the interweaving with life was so solid,"
Some of the stark pictures - of KR, trains, vendors, street
scenes and landscapes, women, amputees, prisoners - were taken during the
"paranoia" of the PRK and early SoC regimes. "I tried to figure out a narrative
that wouldn't mean I had to discard the best pictures".
surrounding the pictures are important, featuring kramas, AK47 ammo serial
numbers, bus tickets, maps, visas and documents. Burnt bank notes highlight
pictures of Burke burning money to give up smoking, and of the two divorce
lawyers, Burke's own lighting a cigarette. An empty packet of Liberation
cigarettes appears among the last pages, with a smoky, peaceful picture in a
stone Buddhist shrine, with an accompanying story about a Buddhist house
blessing that promises hope in the future.
"I wanted to get back on the
good side of Buddha after blaming him for the blown up car and the leg cancer,"
After the pain in the preceding pages "the story at least has
a happy ending," he says.
"Mine Fields" is on sale at the Phnom Penh
Post, at $50 a copy.