N OSTALGIA or nausea - depending on how one looks at it - are feelings stirred by
40 classic photographs, taken in the 1920-30s when Cambodia was a French protectorate
, which are on display at the French Cultural Centre until Dec 20.
The rare black-and-white images of a Cambodian past frozen on celluloid were not
only taken to tickle the Orientalist fancies of a far-removed metropolitan French
populace, they were used as propaganda to play up the merits of France's mission
civilisatrice as well as to advance its commercial interests, according to the man
who put together the exhibition.
"The purpose of these photos was to inform French people about their colonies,
as well as propaganda to show the good aspects of colonisation," said Michel
Igout, a French diplomat who stumbled upon the photos at the French National Archives
in 1992. "Evidently, they did not show the negative side of life in the colonies.
"What these photographs - taken at the beginning of the century - emphasize
in a particularly sensitive manner, is in effect the beauty of subjects and forms
taken in an Orient of light," he added, taking a leaf out of Charles de Gaulle's
1966 Phnom Penh address. "These photos show us the gestures and the attitudes
of a far-off and different civilisation, but which is rich and fecund in its diversity."
The photos include frames by the legendary cameraman Leon Busy, a French Army officer
who captured images of Cambodia in both motion pictures and colour plates, but whose
success died abruptly with the suicide of his Paris financier following the 1929
stock market crash.
The photos include images of the Francophile Cambodian gentry, local schoolboys under
the stern tutelage of French headmasters, and Tin Tin lookalike colonialists sporting
elephant shooting hats.
One typically Orientalist photo shows a barebreasted peasant woman, a Cambodian custom
of the time which, according to Igout, was frowned upon by the French back then.
Not all the photos are clichéd images of the East. There is one which shows
a line of cows boarding a ship at Phnom Penh bound for Singapore.
According to Igout, who is a published historian, during their time in Cambodia,
the French experimented with raising cows shipped here from central France via Saigon.
"The Britons, in particular, who lived in Singapore liked the taste of French
cows which had been raised in the Emerald Valley in the vicinity of Bokor [Kampot],
where the grass is rich in nutrients," Igout noted. "It reminded them of
Igout, explaining how the exhibit came about, told how he seren-dipitously rediscovered
"In 1990, Prime Minister Hun Sen, when he was in the State of Cambodia government,
requested that Phnom Penh be given access to records on Cambodia which were housed
in the French National Archives, and which Hun Sen said would facilitate the nation's
reconstruction," Igout said.
"However, Roland Dumas, the French Foreign Minister, told him this was out of
the question because all archival records are sovereign French documents, and that
the order to release any records could only be given through French channels."
The official go-ahead to search the archives for records on Cambodia was given in
early 1992 in the wake of the Oct 1991 Paris Peace accords.
The original photos that Igout found in the archives remain in France - the ones
on display in Phnom Penh are copies - and will stay in Paris. But if the Cambodian
government wants, it can ask for reprints of them, Igout said.