Lives in pictures are saved as buried treasures

A new book illustrates the risk one Cambodian family took to keep valued photographs out of the Khmer Rouge’s clutches
Lives in pictures are saved as buried treasures

Vira Rama's family in a refugee camp in Thailand after fleeing Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over and carried out a genocide that claimed at least 1.7 million lives. (Photo courtesy of Rama family)

There’s a picture in Buried, a soon-to-be-published photo book, which shows Vira Rama’s father acting very cool, as if he is trying to hide his emotions. What the picture doesn’t show is that Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk is giving Rama’s father a medal for his services to the country.

“We decided to cut King Sihanouk from the picture and to only keep the part with my dad. At that time it was too risky to have a picture with the king,” Vira Rama says.

It’s astonishing that the picture has survived the horror the family has since had to endure. In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge regime took power in Cambodia and isolated the country from the rest of the world, the Ramas were ordered to leave their home in the city of Battambang. “They told us that the U.S. would bomb the city and that we would only be away for a short time,” Vira Rama tells ucaews.com.

Despite the order from Khmer Rouge soldiers to not take too much stuff with them, they left with all their family photos. More than 40 years later, Vira Rama, who was 10 years old when Pol Pot’s regime took power, still isn’t entirely sure why his parents kept them.

It was a risky bet because the pictures would easily reveal that the family was privileged; for 15 years Vira Rama’s father worked as a banker at the Banque Khmere Pour Le Commerce. The Khmer Rouge, who are held responsible for the deaths of about 1.7 million people, were very much against any form of capitalism and would likely have considered them as enemies that had to be killed.

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“Perhaps my dad already knew something wasn’t right. When we left Battambang, some former officials had already been executed, including the son-in-law of my dad’s boss,” Vira Rama says.

A picture of Vira Rama's father receiving a medal from King Norodom Sihanouk, who was cut from the image in case it led to persecution by the Khmer Rouge. (Photo courtesy of Rama family)

 

Compiled by Charles Fox, a British photographer who has been working in Cambodia since 2005, Buried gives a unique view of the journey the Rama family had to go through. It spans the time that Cambodia was still a peaceful nation and not yet in the hands of Pol Pot to when the family surfaced at a refugee camp in Thailand and went through the lengthy process of starting a new life in the United States. Pictures of their years under the Khmer Rouge are obviously missing; the brutal regime wouldn’t let any of its prisoners walk around with a camera.

Vira Rama remembers clearly how the pictures survived. “My parents wrapped them in plastic and buried them under our hut,” he recalls over Skype from his home in Los Angeles. “When we moved to a new village, we would dig them up, hide them and later bury them again. We knew that if they found them it would be evidence that we were privileged. But they were so valuable that my parents risked it.”

Fox hopes that Buried will help to understand what happened in Cambodia over the past 50 years. “In terms of the timeline we know what happened before, during and after the Khmer Rouge era, but the very human element is the fluctuation in that space,” he explains. “These pictures are an intimate and very human way of understanding some of the experiences during that time. It peels back another layer.”

The British photographer has been working on this project for about four years. With Found Cambodia, he set up an online archive of pictures that give a unique glimpse of how life in Cambodia was before and after the Khmer Rouge.

“I was always looking at the legacy of post-conflict,” he says. “The pictures were always there. When I would go to people’s houses, there would be pictures on the wall. Through these family images I was able to see another representation of that time.”

Vira Rama's family in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took control. (Photo courtesy of Rama family)

The exhibition of the photos, which opens on July 14, and the book could also be the start of a new conversation about the legacy and trauma of the Pol Pot regime. Many survivors of that era had a hard time talking about what happened to them and their families, but certain events have opened new dialogues in the past. This, for example, happened when the trial against Khmer Rouge leaders started and when movies as The Missing Picture and First They Killed My Father were released.

“When I saw the Rama pictures, I had to ask my dad how the pictures in my family had survived. It can help other families open up their archives and researchers to look into this instead of focusing on the official narrative,” says Darathtey Din, a Cambodian researcher who produced a dissertation about the impact of the Khmer Rouge on the identity of young Cambodians and who wrote an essay for Buried.

Darathtey Din believes that the book symbolizes the journey thousands of Cambodians had to go through, from surviving the Khmer Rouge, to escaping to a refugee camp and then starting an entirely new life in a strange country.

“Of course, every person is unique, but as a trend it’s very similar for the Cambodian diaspora,” he says. “All had to work really hard to get where they are now.”

Holding on to their pictures during that difficult and often horrifying journey has helped Vira Rama to heal the trauma he experienced under the Khmer Rouge. His father was killed by the regime in the summer of 1977, two years after the family left their home in Battambang.

“The pictures give us something to go back to,” he explains. “It’s also for the next generation. I can now show the pictures to my kids and tell them: here’s my father and there’s my grandfather.”

Other Cambodians managed to keep their family pictures away from the Khmer Rouge, sometimes by going to great lengths. A lady who now lives in Seattle told Fox that she hid the negatives between cracks of bamboo in her home. Darathtey Din’s grandmother bundled her family photos into her karma (a simple Cambodian garment).

“This happened all across Cambodia, and I’m sure in other countries as well,” says Fox. “I find it so remarkable because it’s such a great risk. It’s like holding on to something, to not completely destroy the past, but to bury it and come back to it.”

An exhibition of the Rama family pictures will open at Meta House, Phnom Penh, on July 14. The book 'Buried' will be available to buy during the exhibition and can also be ordered online through Catfish Books. On July 16 Meta House will hold a panel discussion about the 'Buried' project.

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