“How do you make a picture out of somebody getting a piece of paper? I’ve never had to photograph such mundanity! It’s the complete opposite of what I normally do.”
Photojournalist Tim Page has spent four decades documenting Southeast Asia.
A youth spent covering the Vietnam War, now the stuff of legend, included a series of shrapnel wounds, a strafing from an Air Force plane, and an imbibement of drugs which would’ve sent even the most grizzled of his counterculture contemporaries to the emergency room or the morgue.
Reputed to be one of the inspirations for Dennis Hopper’s wild-eyed Colonel Kurtz acolyte in Apocalypse Now, Page’s photography of the region’s conflicts have since become iconic.
Page is now engaged in what he considers to be his most challenging project to date: documenting the gradual transfer of land titles to rural and urban Cambodian families, a project conducted by the Ministry of Land and Finnish surveying consultancy FINNMAP, backed with aid funds from the Canadian, German and Finnish governments.
Operating in 18 provinces, the Land Administration Sub Sector Program has awarded titles to two million Cambodians over the last three years, an incredible administrative feat given the need to train local administrators, adjudicators and clerical staff to implement the program’s objectives. Page, a veteran of the UNTAC era and often a resident of Phnom Penh in the 20 years hence, believes that the project will result in a political seachange.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen nothing but happy faces,” he says. “They print out these giant maps, which has printed out all these little plots with numbers, all the parcels of land, and then each person gets a little piece of paper with their name, their number, and what land they have. And all of a sudden they say,” – here he leans in to whisper – “‘you mean this piece of land, is mine?’
“It’s the first time I’ve seen real democracy in this country. In another five to10 years all these people who have land will have title. Some of them will have mortgages, and some will form some sort of alternatively different political party. When you’re a landowner, when you have things, your politic changes subtly. It doesn’t change overnight. You form an alliance of people who have rights.”
Stakeholders in the project have made transparency one of their paramount goals. After the title maps go on display for a month, any disputed claims over land are put to officers trained by the Cadastral Commission, which resolves them based on the evidence put forward by the contesting claimants. Disputes such as these can be appealed up the line all the way to the Land Ministry.
Typically, three adjudicators are nominated by the local commune councils. With most of the country’s communes controlled by the Cambodian People’s Party, Page acknowledges that the process may not be completely free from political influence, but he is optimistic about the mechanisms being established by the project.
“Probably one is a hardcore CPP,” Page says. “The other two tend to be good, honest, wise old people, in the tradition of the Vietnamese mandarin system.
They tend to be 40 or 50, senior members of their community. They’re trained to look at evidence, and because they come from that village, they know the history of the person who is putting forward that evidence. Obviously it’s open to corruption in the sense that any of those three adjudicators could be ‘got at’, but in a village situation if they are ‘got at’ than people would see it, say some guy suddenly got two new Hondas in the family, the people would complain to the Cadastral Commission.”
Land titles open up a number of opportunities which haven’t existed for the Cambodian people since the disastrous attempt to abolish private property in the 1970s. Families with title will have the opportunity to mortgage their land and potentially pursue investments and the legal process of inheritance to new generations via wills will be formalised.
Page was offered the opportunity to catalogue the project towards the end of 2010 – the same day he broke his hip after a fall in Hanoi. After being flown to Bangkok, he was informed that he needed two stents inserted into his heart before doctors could operate on his injury.
That the offer was kept open for 18 months was testament to his reputation as a skilled operator, and owed much to his long-time friendship with Michael Hayes, currently working with FINNMAP and known to Phnom Penh’s long-termers as the founder of the Post.
At the age of 68, Page says his latest assignment is worlds apart from the war and tumult that has dominated his famous photographic career.
“It is a real challenge to make a good picture out of a non-situation,” he says. “It’s not a fraught situation, it’s people looking at maps. But I’m happy when I’m making pictures, I’m really the happiest I can be. To be in a country that I obviously have an incredible affection for, it’s a real privilege to try to make a difference. How often can we make a difference with what we do?”
Cadastral Convoy, a selection of Tim Page’s latest work, will be exhibited at Meta House until July 22.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]