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Old family stories remembered and brought to life through new artwork

A photograph by Neak Sophal that is featured in the Jorng Jam exhibition at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre.
A photograph by Neak Sophal that is featured in the Jorng Jam exhibition at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre. Of the creative process, the artist said: “I wanted to take a photo that showed how family members are closely interconnected and joined together forever so I decided to take a family portrait of my teacher Chan Vitharin with his two brothers and his mother. His father has passed away so in his place we used a photograph of him. I went to Vitharin’s home with all of my equipment and it took about five hours to shoot. To show the relationship between the family members I used a lot of coloured string intertwined between all the family members.” NEAK SOPHAL

Old family stories remembered and brought to life through new artwork

Neak Sophal said: “This is a photograph of Vitharin’s family when he was young. His older brother asked him to take the film out of the camera but Vitharin hadn’t used one before and took it out without winding the film back. The film was accidentally exposed to the sunlight and so the photograph is overexposed on one side and underexposed on the other. Vitharin chose it because it illustrated one of the first lessons that he learned about photography which he learned from his family.”
Neak Sophal said: “This is a photograph of Vitharin’s family when he was young. His older brother asked him to take the film out of the camera but Vitharin hadn’t used one before and took it out without winding the film back. The film was accidentally exposed to the sunlight and so the photograph is overexposed on one side and underexposed on the other. Vitharin chose it because it illustrated one of the first lessons that he learned about photography which he learned from his family.” PHOTO SUPPLIED

The Jorng Jam exhibition – one of a series of events in this month’s multi-site Our City Festival of urban art, ideas and architecture – uses old family photos to tell personal stories and inspire new art exploring the important interrelationships between family members. Jorng Jam means “remember” in Khmer. Artist Kong Vollak, filmmaker Neang Kavich and photographers Neak Sophal and Kim Hak collected a series of snaps from the 1950s and 1960s and interviewed family members and then used the material collected to create the new artworks. Here’s a taste of the exhibition, which will be on at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre opening on Saturday, January 25, at 3pm and running until Sunday, February 8. Will Jackson reports.

Sophal said the subject of family was particularly important in Cambodia because Cambodians lived together their entire lives. “I wanted to explore deeply the relationship between the individual and family . . . It makes me think about the long story that my family has and sometime I really want to build this story and share to someone or just keep it as my memory.”
Sophal said the subject of family was particularly important in Cambodia because Cambodians lived together their entire lives. “I wanted to explore deeply the relationship between the individual and family . . . It makes me think about the long story that my family has and sometime I really want to build this story and share to someone or just keep it as my memory.” PHOTO SUPPLIED

Neak Sophal
Photographer Neak Sophal chose not to investigate her own family’s history and memories because all their photographs were destroyed in a house fire in 2005. Instead, she interviewed her teacher from the Royal University of Fine Arts, Chan Vitharin. “I asked him to select a few of his old photographs then interviewed him about why they were important,” she said. The photos that Vitharin chose all relate in some way to his journey in the art of photography: his first attempts using a camera, the moment he decided to study photography overseas and a photograph of his late father that, after beginning the Jorng Jam project, made Vitharin consider more the role of photography as documentation rather than art. “After I interviewed Vitharin I was really interested in what he told me about his work and life; living in a good family, his father as a teacher and mother as a housewife,” Sophal said. After she had finished interviewing her mentor, Sophal took a single new photograph that spoke about her thoughts on the topic.

Kim Hak took this photo for the Jorng Jam exhibition. He said: “My uncle bought this kettle before the war. In 1975, when war arrived, people could not carry much of their belongings. They just brought along some of their clothes, cooking stuff, jewellery and especially photos to remember their loved ones. During the day my family would use the kettle to boil water. Because they were not allowed any extra food, at night my mother would sometimes kill a chicken and put it in the kettle.
Kim Hak took this photo for the Jorng Jam exhibition. He said: “My uncle bought this kettle before the war. In 1975, when war arrived, people could not carry much of their belongings. They just brought along some of their clothes, cooking stuff, jewellery and especially photos to remember their loved ones. During the day my family would use the kettle to boil water. Because they were not allowed any extra food, at night my mother would sometimes kill a chicken and put it in the kettle. They would pretend to be making tea, but really they would be cooking the chicken. My family kept the kettle and now me and my brother and sisters use it at our house in Phnom Penh to boil water [to purify it] which we then put in bottles in the fridge.” KIM HAK

Kim Hak
Born two years after the Khmer Rouge were expelled from Phnom Penh, photographer Kim Hak, 32, grew up listening to his family talk about the time before and during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. He said the Jorng Jam exhibition was an opportunity to go back and probe a little deeper into the stories. Kim used a series of objects as well as photographs as a starting point as he interviewed his parents and elder siblings about their memories. “[The objects] are very intimate,” he said. “Through them, I have learned some historical stories. They become to be very important sources and inspiration.” Kim said he titled the project Alive because he believes it’s important to ensure that memories and stories don’t die or become lost. On display in the exhibition will be new photographs of each of the objects with a “clue” about an accompanying story or memory. For example, along with a photograph of a perfume bottle he found as a child – which may have been buried by the previous owner as they were forced to evacuate by the Khmer Rouge – is a handful of sand. Kim said that he planned to expand on the work he begun on Jorng Jam for a solo exhibition down the track, delving deeper into his family’s stories and incorporating more photographs.

Photographer Kim Hak.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Photographer Kim Hak. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Kim Hak said: “My father moved from Battambang to Phnom Penh before the war to go to university and study agriculture.
Kim Hak said: “My father moved from Battambang to Phnom Penh before the war to go to university and study agriculture. He spent a lot of time driving around on motorbikes with his friends, listening to music and going on picnics. He took many photos. Unfortunately, to hide their previous backgrounds [from the Khmer Rouge], many photos had to be thrown away. The few photos they kept they put in plastic and buried them in the ground to hide them. When my family moved from Battambang to Phnom Penh after the war all the photos were a mess so later I went through and I sorted them all out. Seeing all these memories captured is what got me interested in photography.” PHOTO SUPPLIED.

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