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Found photographs show a sunnier side to life in the ’80s

A man enjoying a day out in Kampot circa 1985
A man enjoying a day out in Kampot circa 1985. COURTESY OF CHARLES FOX

Found photographs show a sunnier side to life in the ’80s

Images of war, poverty and unrest have come to define the tumultuous years that followed the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime. So when British photographer Charles Fox stumbled upon a treasure trove of joyful pictures from 1980s and 1990s Cambodia, he had an idea.

Over the past six months, Fox has collected hundreds of photos from some 30 families who have opened their photo albums to him. The earliest photos, which date to the early 1980s, were taken just a few years after the Khmer Rouge had attempted to abolish traditional family units.

Fox tweets a new photo every day, while his “Found Cambodian Family Portraits” Tumblr account, which was launched yesterday, will feature weekly updates on his project.

“These images give snippets of how life and culture has changed through the time,” said Fox, adding that he eventually aims to collect a range of photographs representing Cambodian family life from 1979 to the present.

“You see trends in photography, style of clothing, how people form relationships and bonds, best friends being photographed together, families wanting to show how cohesive they are. Just quirks of family photography.”

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said that the project was a good way to examine the rebirth of a crucial institution in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime.

He said: “Cambodian family is the foundation of the nation to reconstruct. We had lost it to civil war and genocide.”

The photos range in subject matter from friends swimming in Boeung Kak lake to a family posing with their new motorbike. Others were shot professionally in Phnom Penh’s photo studios. All of them, said Fox, show moments of tranquility.

“I’m always asking [families] the question: what was it like at this time? And they talk about issues and concerns, but they always seem serene in the pictures all the way through.”

Fox said the idea came to him after returning to the UK following a photojournalism stint in Cambodia.

As he found himself missing the Kingdom, he sought out members of Britain’s minuscule Cambodian community. After befriending a Khmer family at a Khmer New Year festival, Fox began looking through their old family photo albums and decided to collect more from Cambodia.

“When I came back to Cambodia last year, instead of just looking at [friends’] pictures, I wanted to see how far I could take it,” Fox said.

To obtain photos, Fox said he brings up his project with clients while working on professional photography.

“As my work as a photographer, I meet people all the time and if I can engage with them and talk about photography, then I will, and I will ask to see their photographs. But people have to be into it.”

While some express ambivalence, said Fox, many are keen to share their personal family moments. He asks the story behind every photograph that catches his attention.

“Sometimes I will be flipping through, and they will stop me. They’ll say, ‘I want to talk about this picture’, and visually it may not be the most compelling picture, but the story is so good, that you will then have to document that.”

Fox said the transition of the country is made obvious in the photos, with relatively conservative black and white portraits taken in the 1980s superseded by glam style in the 1990s.

“Style is definitely changing, and that’s one thing I wanted to see. Particularly in the women – the early hairstyles are quite ’60s influenced, and as it goes through they become more modern.”

Although all the photos thus far have been collected from Phnom Penh, Fox said that he would like to start looking all around the Kingdom for more material. The project’s open-ended nature allows him to take a steady approach.

“I don’t have a deadline.… I can let it evolve, and that’s a bit of a release in a way. I don’t have to force anything – I can just let it happen.”

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