With the 11th Angkor Photo Festival gearing up to showcase the work of 140 emerging and established contemporary photographers from more than 40 countries across Asia and the world, one of the most important exhibitions will feature the work of scholars, artists and devotees who long ago passed through the streets of Siem Reap and the galleries of Angkor.
A Journey Into 20th Century Cambodia Through EFEO Photographic Archives opens at the Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient on Sunday. It features more than 80 photographs taken by the archaeologists who worked to draw back the veils of mystery surrounding the temples of Angkor and Cambodian culture.
The focus of the exhibition though is not so much on the temples themselves, but on how the archaeologists and associates of the EFEO recorded their understandings of Cambodia, its people and their culture.
The black and white images were selected by festival director and curator Francoise Callier, culled from an archive of 26,500 photographs dating back to 1866 that are in the EFEO library.
“I had to go through them all,” said Callier. “You don’t want to miss that image that someone later finds and everyone talks about.”
“It’s absolutely incredible when you see what they did. There is so much buried in the earth there, so many statues and artefacts. The work of finding, understanding and reconstructing it all, it’s like a huge puzzle game.”
Taken by the pioneering academics and their associates, including Maurice Glaize, George Groslier, Henri Marchal, Jean Commaille, Pier Dieulefils and many more whose names remain unknown, the images show beautifully composed scenes from waterside villages, fishermen, a visit by King Monivong, royal dancers, hunters and villagers, as well as scenes from the temples and the people that worked on taking them apart and putting them back together again.
“It’s not a surprise that they were so well taken,” notes Dominique Soutif, the director of the EFEO. “Cameras and film were expensive. You made sure to take care of what you were doing.”
The stories behind many of the images remain as well. One shows a giant bronze statue of Vishnu — now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. It was “discovered” by a villager who told Marchal, one of the earliest and most important directors of the EFEO who worked in the region for almost 60 years, that he had dreamed of a Buddha at West Mebon.
There is little doubt that he was in fact a looter who had come across more than he could handle.
Another shows Marchal himself at Banteay Srei, the first temple that was taken apart and reconstructed, using a new method called anastylosis, a project he undertook to make up for André Malraux’s looting of the same temple. That method has since been applied to many temples in the park.
“To see the guys working on the temples, it’s quite fascinating,” said Soutif, who is particularly noted for his work on deciphering the inscriptions on the temple walls. “There is so much change, but so much the same. You can recognise a lot from what we see today.”
While the archive has always been available to the public, the EFEO has been working over the past four months to digitise it so that it can be available online.
“It’s important for us to show our archives and to share them with the world,” said Soutif. “This exhibition is part of that, and I can’t wait to see the result.”
A Journey Into 20th Century Cambodia Through EFEO Photographic Archives opens at the EFEO on the East River Road on Sunday, December 6, at 6pm.
Post Weekend is a media partner of the Angkor Photo Festival which runs from December 5 to 12. For more information about exhibitions and activities, check out: angkor-photo.com.