Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tread lightly through the mine fields

Tread lightly through the mine fields

Tread lightly through the mine fields

P HOTOGRAPHER Bill Burke is in a cardboard box in the back of a station wagon,

secretly video taping his wife and her lover packing half the family possessions

into a moving van. "Apocalypse Now" actor Martin Sheen is caught in a similar

image during the movie, saying "I hardly said a word to my wife till I'd said

'yes' to a divorce". And a Khmer farmer lies naked and unconscious on an

operating table in Phnom Penh, both legs raw stumps.

"When the anger

died" Burke's spiteful marriage bust became the genesis of his third book "Mine

Fields", connecting his black-and-white Polaroid photos and diary jottings from

three visits to Cambodia between 1988 and 1990, and the movie "Apocalypse

Now."

"It was too good a story not to tell," says Burke, whose previous

book "I Want To Take Picture" was a critical and financial success for

alternative publishers Nexus Press in Atlanta - a $35 copy, if one can be found,

would now cost around $200. Nexus gave Burke complete artistic license for the

5,000-print run of "Mine Fields".

Burke's painful, private story and its

relationship to wider themes - in a Cambodian context - of amputation and

immobility, orders from strangers, conflict, frustration (and many more) are not

unique. Larry Clark produced a "superb" photographic book about his life on

speed and heroin "... and I stole a whole bunch of ideas," admits Burke, citing

Robert Frank and Peter Beard as big influences.

The themes and

relationships between the movie, domestic hell and Cambodia "just seemed to jump

out... there were so many patterns that I didn't really notice when things were

actually happening."

Linking a bad marriage to Cambodia "wasn't

disparate, but it was kind of presumptive." One woman complained 'who are you to

say that your suffering is comparable in any way to Cambodia's' but Burke says

"she hadn't read the words. Conceptually it wasn't such a big leap." The links

were "powerful" and in retrospect "not so much of a stretch."

"The book

is a metaphor, there are really strong relationships but its not a direct

comparison... metaphorically, its the job of the artist to find relationships

and to make new ones. Between what I was running away from at home and what I

ran into (in Phnom Penh and on the Thai border), the connections were kind of

interesting".

At some level Burke says he wanted to present his side of

the divorce.

The grainy color vignettes near the back of the book, of his

angry wife (eyes blackened in hand-drawn sunglasses for legal reasons), and with

her lawyer ("you can see her spending the money in her head," he laughs), were

more frightening to take for Burke than those of Khmer Rouge

guerrillas.

A small Cambodian Buddha statue was given to Burke in 1979 by

a friend, Juan, after they had watched "Apocalypse Now". Burke's car blew apart

with the statue on the dashboard, so he returned the Buddha to Juan who soon

after was told he had cancer and needed his leg amputated. Burke met Juan's

sister at Juan's hospital bedside, and they were later married. All is recorded

on film. "It was just too ironic, the interweaving with life was so solid,"

Burke says.

Some of the stark pictures - of KR, trains, vendors, street

scenes and landscapes, women, amputees, prisoners - were taken during the

"paranoia" of the PRK and early SoC regimes. "I tried to figure out a narrative

that wouldn't mean I had to discard the best pictures".

The spaces

surrounding the pictures are important, featuring kramas, AK47 ammo serial

numbers, bus tickets, maps, visas and documents. Burnt bank notes highlight

pictures of Burke burning money to give up smoking, and of the two divorce

lawyers, Burke's own lighting a cigarette. An empty packet of Liberation

cigarettes appears among the last pages, with a smoky, peaceful picture in a

stone Buddhist shrine, with an accompanying story about a Buddhist house

blessing that promises hope in the future.

"I wanted to get back on the

good side of Buddha after blaming him for the blown up car and the leg cancer,"

Burke says.

After the pain in the preceding pages "the story at least has

a happy ending," he says.

"Mine Fields" is on sale at the Phnom Penh

Post, at $50 a copy.

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