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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cambodia gets more time to submit Preah Vihear plans

Cambodia has until February next year to submit its plan for safeguarding and developing the Preah Vihear temple, Natural Resource and Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti said yesterday.

The World Heritage Committee's decision initially obligated Cambodia to submit its plan by February this year, following the temple's heritage inscription last July.

However, Phnom Penh has not been able to submit many details of the plan, including a map of buffer zones around the site, owing to its boundary conflict with Thailand.

Fortunately, the delay has given Thailand a chance to campaign for a joint nomination of the Hindu temple with Cambodia, Suwit said.

The controversial Preah Vihear attracted renewed international attention after Thailand maintained its objection to the temple's inscription, which resulted in an angry outburst from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and tension at the border.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva did not discuss the campaign for a joint nomination. However, he did say that since Cambodia has more time to submit its plan, it would have an opportunity to follow the World Heritage Committee's decisions and clear up any difficulties along the border.

"We have expressed our concerns to the World Heritage Committee over several sensitive issues because we don't want to have problems or any tension with Cambodia," Abhisit said.

However, acting government spokesman Panitan Watanayagorn interpreted the delay as a victory for Thailand, following Suwit's heavy campaign during the committee's meeting in Spain from June 23 to 30.

He said the delay would give Thailand a chance to seek better understanding from members of the World Heritage Committee.

"The government hoped the World Heritage Committee would allow the two countries to jointly run the temple," Panitan told reporters.

Army chief General Anupong Paochinda said he would redeploy troops to border areas adjacent to the Hindu temple in accordance with the government's policy to pave the way for a peaceful solution.

"We don't have a timeframe, but it depends on the satisfaction of both countries. We have a common intention not to use force," he said.
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Cambodians Take Back the Lens


PHNOM PENH — While Pol Pot was still alive and civil war raged, it was a great time to be a photographer in Cambodia. That’s unless you happened to be Cambodian.

At the first scent of blood the testosterone-fueled pack, largely routine invaders from the safe haven of Bangkok, would assemble, all too appropriately at Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondents Club, a Mekong-side colonial watering hole straight out of a Marguerite Duras novel. They had tripods strapped to their backs and phallic zoom lenses at the ready.

Meanwhile the few Cambodians lucky enough to have access to a camera could be found snapping tourists emerging from the Royal Palace nearby or in Siem Reap, positioning honeymoon couples on the causeway of Angkor Wat. As one of Cambodia’s leading photographers, Mak Remissa recalled, “The foreign media didn’t really trust us to take pictures, but we needed to eat.”

That changed when the dictator died in 1998. With the Khmer Rouge vanquished, Cambodia was no longer a “hot” destination. The foreigners departed, leaving the handful of Cambodians with a modicum of technical competence to fill the vacuum. For Reuters, Agence France-Presse, the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, they represented a useful supply of cheap labor; for the Cambodians, it was a rare opportunity to learn on the job.

Cambodia is, of course, one of the world’s most photogenic places. Its abundance of ancient monuments, rambunctious street life and saffron-robed monks habitually silhouetted by crimson sunsets stirs even the most disinterested tourists to fiddle with their apertures.

Though it’s perhaps taken too long for Cambodians to stake their rightful claim on some of this imagery, a handful of recent events confirmed what many have long suspected: that given a chance, Cambodians have very personal stories to tell, both in artwork and photojournalism.

The opening in March of the Sa Sa Gallery on Street 360 in Phnom Penh trumpeted the first photographers’ collective to be run entirely by Cambodians for Cambodians. Six young professionals — Kong Vollak, Heng Ravuth, Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchan Lina, Vuth Lyno and Vandy Rattana — aim to create a buzz around this new space by mounting monthly shows of work by both artists and photographers. “The gallery is open to any Cambodian with a serious body of work,” said Mr. Vandy.

Significantly, Sa Sa is an abbreviation of Stiev Salapak, or “Art Rebels.” The gallery takes its name from a group founded in 2007 by Mr. Vandy, a passionate 27-year old who is trying to defend photographers’ interests in an increasingly competitive and still foreign-dominated environment. Currently employed by the Phnom Penh Post, Mr. Vandy is perhaps unique for having criticized foreigners living in Cambodia for not providing enough technical and moral support to Cambodian photographers.

Yet he would be the first to acknowledge a debt to more experienced colleagues from abroad. Since 2000 the Magnum photographer John Vink has been quietly rebuilding capacity in Cambodia by setting up workshops and mentoring several members of the first generation of post-conflict Cambodian photographers.

When the French photographer Stéphane Janin opened his Popil Gallery in Phnom Penh in October 2005, members of the younger generation of Cambodian photographers began to glimpse a future in the medium. Using the gallery as a forum, Mr. Janin encouraged his students to examine the history and content of photography, as well as its sociological impact.

His star pupil was Mr. Vandy, whose 2006 “Looking in my Office” series used the milieu of a telecommunications company to throw light on corporate behavior during the country’s short-lived boom. “I doubt if any professional foreign photographer in Cambodia could have come up with something as timely and insightful as these images turned out to be,” said Mr. Janin, who is currently living in Washington but still exerts considerable influence in the country.

The other significant change has been the advent of photo festivals. Following the Angkor Photography Festival in Siem Reap, now in its fourth year, PhotoPhnomPenh was inaugurated in November 2008. The curator was Christian Caujolle, the creator of the Vu agency and gallery and the first picture editor of the French daily Libération. Mr. Caujolle will reprise the festival in November.

“Cambodian work is technically unsophisticated but it is driven from personal necessity, and there is no question in my mind that some of it meets international standards,” said Mr. Caujolle. Looking back into history, local photographers, he said, were functionaries in King Sihanouk’s newly independent Cambodia and took part in national propaganda campaigns during the 1960s. Many died under the Khmer Rouge, who rather than exploit their talents sent their own novices to learn the craft in China, whose Cultural Revolution influenced Pol Pot’s regime.

A highlight of the Phnom Penh festival was “Bodega,” an event in which the recently created agency Melon Rouge showcased 15 photographers in a dilapidated colonial building one block from the Mekong. The results revealed both the variety of approaches to diverse subject matter and a paradox at the heart of the national psyche: the combination of pride and profound unease.
Melon Rouge’s founders, Nicolas Havette and Thierry Marre, want Cambodians to realize their own projects without pressure. Images of rubber harvesting in Kompong Cham by three “resident” photographers sponsored by the French Agency for Development were hung cheek-by-jowl with “Cinderella,” a study of the evanescence of identity by Chan Moniroth, the only female photographer in the show.

But Cambodian photographers also need to learn to “present pictures to editors, create narratives, photo essays and generally manage images,” according to Mr. Havette. Reasons often cited for their apparent lack of professionalism are the high cost of materials and weak computer skills. Yet perhaps the most evocative example of Cambodia’s contribution to photography could not have been more low tech.

Thaing Chhea Chhinn’s pinhole shots of the architect Vann Molyvann’s White Building, a riverside dilapidated architectural gem built to house athletes and civil servants in the 1960s, were taken with nothing but a shoe box and negative paper, yet for Mr. Caujolle they conveyed “a total awareness of a major issue in Phnom Penh, namely architectural heritage being sacrificed for personal profit. While meaningless on the international circuit, for Cambodians these pictures resonate.”

“The Building,” an ongoing project involving 25 emerging Cambodian photographers, explores landlessness, poverty and social exclusion from the perspective of the squatter community of thousands of families living in and around the White Building. It is being exhibited through Saturday at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre in Phnom Penh. Among other revelations, the project illustrates how Cambodia’s urban poor share resources and in some cases flourish.

Some photographers working on “The Building” have come to the medium through another visual art: painting. At the same time, a number of Cambodians trained as photojournalists see themselves primarily as artists. Mr. Mak’s solo shows at Phnom Penh’s Java Café and the McDermott Gallery in Siem Reap, for example, featured close-ups of colonies of ants carrying fish. According to an old Khmer proverb, “when the water rises, the fish eat the ants; when the water recedes the ants eat the fish.”

“I love these fluctuations,” said Mr. Mak. “In this case, which species dominates the other depends on the changing situation of nature.”

Mr. Mak, who has won multiple awards, dreams of setting up his own school to train independent photographers. He complains of government indifference and little progress since the era when photography was used largely as a propaganda tool. At the Phnom Penh festival the Ministry of Culture went so far as to ban Mr. Vink’s images for Magnum of the funeral for the murdered union activist Kem Sambo, an act that could hardly have helped assuage suspicions of the government’s involvement.

Sensitivities over subject matter are not confined to the state. “It’s easy to find suffering in Cambodia and even easier to photograph it,” said Maria Stott, the founder of On Photography Cambodia, the organization behind “The Building.” Visiting photographers’ voyeuristic images of monks, sex workers, amputees and AIDS sufferers don’t always tell the truth or contribute to the debate, she said.

Many foreigners have set up shop in Cambodia at a time when many locals wish they would stay away. The difficulties of a small market and struggling media outlets has made the scene increasingly competitive. “Exposure to other people’s work can be challenging and motivating,” said Ms. Stott, a Polish photographer and curator. “The first Phnom Penh festival demonstrated that photography really functions in Cambodia and has been a valuable educational tool, but the medium can also be discriminatory, disrespectful and dangerous.”
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