UK photographer Charles Fox has turned his pet project – collecting vintage Cambodian family photos – into a searchable archive that tells an intriguing social and historical story.
Fox started the original blog, Found Cambodian Family Portraits, just over a year ago, uploading a photograph each day with minimal captioning. He quickly garnered a healthy following mainly of researchers into Southeast Asia, fellow photographers and other Cambodia obsessives.
“The blog was a really useful way of starting the project, but it was never a fulfilling way of presenting the work,” Fox said this week. “There was this pressure to put pictures up, and I didn’t feel I was making the selections I wanted to make.”
Yesterday he launched a new website, Found Cambodia, which allows for a more curated presentation, with longer captions that explain the stories behind each image.
One important new feature of the website is that the time period has expanded to include pre-Khmer Rouge images. This, combined with the fact that photographs are now divided into time period, reveals a narrative of social and technological as viewers click through the images.
A 1973 photograph shows village children posing in the black uniforms of the Khmer Rouge, which the photographer’s owner told Fox were a coveted item of clothing for villagers long before they became obligatory. In 1982, it’s indoor sunglasses that mark sophistication, while in 1987 a whole family takes turns posing beside their new motorbike for portraits.
As the photos become more recent, the influence of the West becomes increasingly apparent: a 1992 photograph shows a young couple who opted to pose for wedding photos in front of a shiny UNHCR pickup truck, and one image from 1998 depicts the baptism of recent converts to Christianity in the Mekong.
Fox said that there was a certain element of the exotic in his appreciation of the photos.
“If you imagine it set in the UK, a series of photos of quite mundane things wouldn’t be that interesting. I suppose it would be [because of] our cultural proximity to them,” he said.
But he said that the post-Khmer Rouge context made the images particularly engaging. “The simple things like buying a motorbike, or having a family portrait taken, they become really interesting processes of how society rebuilds itself, and how it documents that through photography,” he said, “so the mundane actually becomes fascinating.”
One running theme that becomes apparent when browsing the website is Fox’s fascination with the quirks of image manipulation. “I love the way the pictures are embellished or super imposed,” he said. In some cases, the result of DIY Photoshop is humorous: one 1974 portrait shows a couple who appear to be standing atop a giant tortoise. In other cases the effect is poignant, such as the woman who paid to get a black-and- white portrait of her parents from 1954 recoloured, bringing the father who died fighting the Khmer Rouge back to life in vibrant hues.
Fox said his appreciation of the archive format dates back to the beginning of his career, when he worked as a researcher in a photography archive “with white gloves and everything”.
These days he relishes the project as something utterly different from his day job working behind the lens. “There’s something about an individual allowing you to see important parts of their personal history and sifting through their images . . . It’s a really personal experience,” he said.
“As a photographer, I wasn’t here to document these things, but people were documenting it for themselves through these photos. I just love it.”