Magnum photojournalist John Vink says a rare chance to record history has been missed after the imposition of a ban on photography at the Khmer Rouge tribunal
It's suggestion, it's evocation, it's more about metaphor; it’s more about all these things
The Chinese House staked its claim as a new locus of Phnom Penh's artistic community last Thursday night with the opening of John Vink's exhibition, "30 Years for a Trial".
A crowd gathered to soak up the free booze and inspect the latest work by the seasoned Belgian photojournalist, and they were not disappointed.
Vink has been photographing life in war-torn societies and developing countries for over 30 years, and his experience shows.
Vink is a member of the elite international photo agency Magnum and has been covering issues in Cambodia for some time, including the evictions at Dey Krahom and elsewhere.
His new exhibition examines a familiar subject - the Khmer Rouge, and the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch - from his own unique perspective.
The photographs highlight the issue of how, and what, we see when depicting the experience of the Khmer Rouge, both past and present.
Duch is seen only in glimpses, at a distance, between guards and half-opened doors, on television screens and video monitors.
The work highlights the value of the image in creating enduring memories and interpretations of history.
John Vink is deliberately drawing attention to the fact that artists and image-makers have not been granted access to the trials.
"There is a tremendous lack of access," says Vink.
"It seems as if they don't really need photographs of the trial to enter history."
He points out that during the Nuremberg trials one of the filmmakers granted access to film it was Hollywood legend John Huston.
At the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), cameras are not allowed in the courtroom, except for the low-quality, fixed-position video cameras providing the world with a television feed.
"They have not thought about the fact that photography has historical value," fumes Vink. "It's extremely frustrating."
The forced lack of access to his subject becomes the theme, while the images focus on the ephemera of what is left behind.
Bags belonging to trial observers have been photographed as they sit in piles, waiting for their owners to return; electrical cables are heaped on the floor, the technological detritus of a modern trial process.
It neatly complements the other half of the exhibition, which looks at the remnants of the Khmer Rouge throughout Cambodia.
In this series we see images of Ta Mok's deserted concrete bunker, the sodden, uneven graves of a rural killing field, and the shadows cast by a tree at Choeung Ek.
Vink's images are haunting reminders of what remains behind after a devastating war.
They are evocative of the Buddhist-animist belief in the spirits and the afterlife, present in the trees, the earth and the shadows.
Perhaps the most powerful image in the exhibition depicts a simple tribute to the dead near Phnom Savoeun cave, in Battambang.
Around 2,000 people were killed by the Khmer Rouge here.
Scraps of fabric are tied between trees, fluttering in the wind, a reminder of each life lost.
John Vink's exhibition is well above the standard of the social-realist documentary horror show that emerges when many photographers attempt to tackle such a difficult subject.
Vink has avoided using visceral images of torture and death, instead demonstrating real artistry and vision in producing a series that presents the Khmer Rouge experience in a new light.
"I did not want include pictures of victims because it would become too targeted, or too identifiable," says Vink.
"It's not a journalistic exhibition. It's suggestion, it's evocation, it's more about metaphor; it's more about all these things."
Vink has photographed numerous countries in post-conflict situations including Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan, yet "I am not a war photographer", he points out.
"I arrive just after the war, when all the photojournalists are leaving, and I try to take photos of the situation because it's not over yet.
"To me that is the most important part - what's happening when there's no press around any more. I always come after the chaos."
Vink has made a long-term commitment to Cambodia, relocating here in 2000 on a permanent basis.
"This time I decided to stay on after the chaos, to try and find out how the country is being rebuilt and find out what is happening," says Vink.
"I'm not focusing too much on the spectacular - because reconstruction and coming to terms with history is not spectacular. It takes a long time. It's slow and subtle."
It is a philosophy that is reflected in his work.
Visitors to his Web site, www.johnvink.com can also see in-depth photo essays on the recent spate of housing evictions and an excellent multimedia photo essay depicting the local kickboxing scene. "30 Years for a Trial" is on exhibition until September 4 at the Chinese House on Sisowath Quay, opposite the port.