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A photo taken by John Burgess of a Phnom Penh barbershop in 1980. John Burgess
A photo taken by John Burgess of a Phnom Penh barbershop in 1980. John Burgess

Capturing everyday life in the chaos of post-1979 Cambodia

In one of John Burgess’s photos, of a row of homes in the centre of Battambang, what grabs the attention is what is not in the frame. On the streets there is nothing but the shadows cast by coconut trees and rusted utility poles.

This image from the country’s desolate provincial capital in 1980 will be on display at Meta House beginning on Tuesday, in the photojournalist’s first exhibition – a collection of photographs taken during a visit as one of the first foreign journalists to enter the country after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Having spent 1979 in neighbouring Thailand freelancing and documenting the refugee crisis in Cambodia, Burgess was no stranger to the country, nor its tumultuous history, when he entered Cambodia on a reporting visa granted by the new Vietnam-backed government led by Heng Samrin. At that time, many refugees who had fled to neighbouring countries, along with the survivors of forced labor collectives, were moving back to their home provinces.

Due to the lack of passenger planes, Burgess flew into Phnom Penh on a C130 cargo plane operated by the Red Cross. Accompanied by a driver and an interpreter assigned to him by the government, he first spent a week photographing the capital city for the Washington Post and TIME.

Burgess says he was expecting the capital to still be more or less deserted. “I was just amazed by how many people there were in Phnom Penh,” he says.

“Almost every house was occupied. People would find empty houses to move into before the government could step in with regulations. The markets were busy, bicycle traders filled the roads . . . I was amazed because everyone was, by definition, a Khmer Rouge survivor.”

Yet the city was by no means untouched, and there were none of the modern components of a functioning city, like banks, post offices or a power grid. “People had to make do with what they had – getting water from the river, using lanterns in place of electricity,” he says.

This spirit of resourcefulness is evident in of Burgess’s favourite photographs to be displayed – an image of two men having their hair cut in a makeshift barbershop. “The two barber chairs . . . weren’t really barber chairs but office chairs. The mirrors on the wall were taken from a house,” he says. “I just thought ‘what could be more normal than getting a haircut in a barbershop?’ But it was clearly a barbershop put together by scavenging.”

As a journalist, Burgess had a few questions of his own he wanted answered: “Other than trying to document what happened during the Khmer Rouge, I was trying to document the recovery process and how international aid was working, and if the food and medical aid was reaching the population as a whole . . . [or] was the food [mostly] going to the people who support the new government?”

He got his answers in his second week in the country, spent on the road with stops at villages en route to Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville.

He saw a huge contrast between the living conditions in the cities, where standards were higher and goods were available to those who could afford it, and the villages, where residents were living on the bare minimum. Even then, it was clear to him that the communist administration of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was using access to food and aid as a political tool.

“If you were somehow affiliated to the government, you were going to eat better than someone who was not affiliated. This was a huge problem for international aid organisations who wanted to make sure [the supplies] were evenly distributed,” Burgess says. “In border camps as well, they were controlled by different groups and the agencies were always trying to make sure that food in these camps reached everyone and was not seized by armed groups to support their own cause.”

Burgess hopes that this exhibition will offer some insight into life during and after the Khmer Rouge, especially for the later generations. “The younger Cambodians can’t quite picture what it’s like,” he says. “There are no pictures of the Khmer Rouge era, so [everything they have heard] is all memory.”

John Burgess’ photography exhibit Cambodia Reawakening One Year After the Khmer Rouge opens at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard, on Tuesday, February 28, with an artist talk at 8pm, and runs through March 14.

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