From decades of war to 25 years of peace

People attend an election rally in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh in the run-up to the 1993 general election. Tim Page
People attend an election rally in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh in the run-up to the 1993 general election. Tim Page

From decades of war to 25 years of peace

A special exhibition of photography marking the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords will open on Saturday at Siem Reap’s Constable Gallery At Large. The Paris Peace Accords, signed on October 23, 1991, brought stability and democracy back to a country that had been plagued by decades of conflict.

The exhibition is designed to celebrate the exceptional endurance of Cambodians in the face of the many trials they have had to face.

Resilience, which brings together the work of veteran photographers Tim Page and John Rodsted, as well as young gun George Nickels, presents different reflections on Cambodia’s turbulent past – a past that is reflected in its present especially in, for instance, ongoing efforts to clear landmines and unexploded ordinance. 

It was at the Landmine Museum near Banteay Srei that the idea for the exhibition came about. Gallery-owner Sasha Constable was teaching painting to students at the museum when peace activist Soth Plai Ngarm of the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies (CPCS) came to give a talk. Their ensuing conversations planted the seed.

CPCS team leader Nikki Singer says resilience is something that comes up a lot when talking about Cambodia, especially in the context of the Peace Accords.

“[The Accords] represented a moment when the different fighting factions in Cambodia agreed that the time had come to try a different way. This moment is an important one to celebrate, but it was also important to us to show what followed – what was made possible during the period that followed the agreements,” she says.

“We came to the idea of different ways that people returned to the country, and the different ways that people were rebuilding the country – both in the physical sense of rebuilding, but also rebuilding a way of life and a sense of community,” Singer says. “And together, these stories represent the collective resilience of Cambodia as the country began to recover from decades of war.”

The different works depict: images of the UN peacekeeping force known as UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) from British photographer Page, who first made his name shooting the Vietnam War; landmine clearance efforts as documented by Rodsted; and a look, by Nickels, at how economic migration is breaking up communities across Cambodia as it becomes increasingly impossible for many to find life-sustaining work near home. Nickels also examines the novel approach that uses rats to clear landmines.

For Constable, the choices were clear.

“When I started to form the exhibition idea in my head, I immediately thought of contacting Tim Page .. . He’s a fabulous storyteller; I always found his tales from UNTAC times captivating,” she says. 

“The more I delved into that unique period, I decided it had to become more than just a photographic exhibition. I wanted to create an informative show, historical and compelling to the viewer, like one of Tim’s stories.”

For Page, who at the time his photographs were taken would not see them unless someone remembered to bring back a copy of the Observer or one of the other publications for which he photographed, this shows how the power of photography goes beyond recording a moment in time, and even changing the course of history, to acting as an historical tool, facilitating reflection and development.

“Every country needs to have its history visible to its new generations. I loved being dragged around the museums in London when I was a kid,” he says. “If we can instill that in young Cambodians, it will do a lot for their own heritage and a lot for their own internal development and self identity. We need history, we need culture. You can’t live without it.”

Resilience runs from Saturday, October 1, until November 30, with a special grand opening on October 23, the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords. Tim Page and George Nickels will both attend the event, at which Page will speak about his work. On the evening before, CPCS will host a special Masquerade Charity Gala & Auction at Le Meridien Angkor.

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