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A glimpse of life in the pre-Khmer Rouge ‘bubble’

Historian Steven Heder digs a bomb shelter alongside his wife Davy, (right) and Tony Malcom, an Australian teacher, (left) in 1974. Supplied/Colin Grafton
Historian Steven Heder digs a bomb shelter alongside his wife Davy, (right) and Tony Malcom, an Australian teacher, (left) in 1974. Supplied/Colin Grafton

A glimpse of life in the pre-Khmer Rouge ‘bubble’

When Colin Grafton arrived in Phnom Penh as an English teacher in 1973, he had little knowledge of the unrest in the countryside that would soon engulf the capital. In virtual ignorance, he would witness the last days of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge, and the photographs he took over the course of the next two years would go on to provide a rare record of everyday life in the capital before the fall.

“I arrived here in March 1973, [and] the first month or so was really peaceful,” Grafton says. “I arrived just at the beginning of the end – without knowing it at the time. That was the first time the Khmer Rouge got really near to the city during the dry season and of course [later] in 1974 in the first few months … they were bombarding the city.”

But Grafton’s photographs don’t capture scenes of war or the battlefields snapped by well-known photojournalists of that time. Rather, it was “business as usual and just life as usual nearly all the time except maybe the last few weeks”.

One photo shows a group of young men and women in what at first glance seems like a casual hangout, except they’re actually digging a bomb shelter at a friend’s place. “Over 300 shells came in on one night so we went out the next day to go build a bunker at his house,” Grafton explains.

Selected from over 400 shots taken over two years on a Pentax Spotmatic, the substantial collection of photographs going on display at the Bophana Center today carry a nearly surreal quality of a viewer free from panic in an otherwise darkening moment.

Mr Bigsmile. Photo supplied/Colin Grafton
A motorbike driver who drove Colin Grafton – at that time a teacher in Phnom Penh – from Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar. Photo supplied/Colin Grafton

“It was sort of a dream. You can see we were in this bubble, and that’s what I want to convey with these pictures,” Grafton says. Even as Grafton left on an American plane to Thailand, just 10 days before the Khmer Rouge took over on April 17, 1975, he imagined he would soon be back in Phnom Penh.

“I had this idea that it was... going to be probably a fairly benign change of regime and I might be able to get back in after a few months, and I hung around in Thailand, in Laos … waiting, listening for news and thinking that maybe I could go back,” he says. “A few other people had the same idea.”

Grafton says the situation was unclear given the competing narratives from two untrustworthy sides – the Americans and the Lon Nol government on one and the Khmer Rouge on the other.

The reality set in as the years went by. Looking at a photograph of the students he taught at the ETAPP language school, Grafton points out the hip 1970s dress before his tone changes.

“If any of them are still alive, and they came and saw the photo, or someone who knew them – anything, it would make me very happy,” he says.

Phnom Penh Before the Fall: Snapshots From a Besieged City opens tonight at 6:30pm at the Bophana Center, #64 Street 200 and runs through April 29.

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