Sunday, June 21, 2009

Face to face with Cambodia's past

The Cambodian national torment is the Khmer Rouge era. In 1979 when survivors were arriving in Thailand the horrific stories they brought with them sounded unimaginable, yet true. Today, thirty years later I had the opportunity to see the places where genocide happened. One place just 15 km outside of Phnom Penh, is Choeng Ek, one of the "killing fields." Numerous mass graves have been uncovered, leaving a pock-marked landscape where victims were bludgeoned to death in order to save bullets.
People come and walk silently along the dirt paths that rim the craters. In some areas, remnants of clothing and shards of bone are visible. A monument in the center of the complex has a ten-layer repository of skulls. It is a somber, sad place.

A second is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the center of Phnom Penh. Known during the Khmer Rouge regime as S-21, the former high school was converted to a torture and execution center for anyone thought to be in opposition to the mandates of Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1979, 10,519 people were brought from throughout Cambodia, held for several months, tortured in a myriad of despicable ways, then executed. Only two survived, one a photographer who made haunting mug shots of every inmate and an artist who promised he could portray Pol Pot in a favorable manner but also painted depictions of the torture methods.

A steady stream of people move quietly through the halls and into the rooms full of hundreds of the photographic portraits and paintings. Many are Cambodians coming with their families. They stare at the photos, reach out to touch. I'm reminded of of the respect and reverence that visitors to the Viet Nam Memorial show. S-21 is Cambodia's "Wall."

In another section of the complex rooms with stark steel bed frames and shackles that bound the prisoners remind the visitors that cruelty and crudity are inseparable. Two floors of another building are full of small cubicles constructed from brick and mortar or wood where prisoners were crammed into the spaces to await their fate.

This was a necessary tour for me, not pleasant yet as haunting and memorable as anywhere I have ever been.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Closing a circle

Recently Joel Brinkley and I got together to discuss some details of our return to Cambodia next week. Although we hadn't seen each other in nearly 25 years we have been communicating through e-mails and telephone and it seemed easy to pick up where we left off so long ago. There will be a lot of time to talk about our lives in the next few weeks and how two young upstart journalists in 1979 got the biggest story of their careers.

This documentary project nearly died an early death for lack of funding. I wrote a grant proposal to the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting asking for expenses but was denied. However, a local foundation here in Sisters, Oregon, the Roundhouse Foundation, agreed to fund my transportation costs. Hopefully I'll find an outlet for the photographs after my return but with most publications having little or no freelance budget and online outlets paying minimal usage fees I'm not expecting instant wealth.

Still, the opportunity to return to see how the Cambodian people live now after the Khmer Rouge, is incredible. I believe this will complete a journey within my professional life and it also may open up new possibilities as well.

Joel, a visiting Journalism professor at Stanford University, made an observation about the span of time we had working for daily newspapers. Basically, newspapers were not the crusading, risk-taking, and aggressive publications they became after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Those two events drew idealistic, adventurous, talented and healthy skeptics into journalism. The best years of daily journalism for newspapers also encompassed entire careers for people like Joel, me and thousands of others.

The dying newspaper industry finds many publications are cutting staffs, reducing news coverage, and publishing what people "want" instead of "need" or ceasing publication altogether. We feel very lucky to have moved on to the new phases of our lives.

One small thing bothers both of us: a lack of photos of us out in the field being journalists. While we were actually working the protocol never included stopping for a moment to make some pictures at whatever situation we were in. It seemed like grandstanding. Now we would like to have a few pictures of those times. Joel shot a few of me in Cambodia and I shot a few of him. The only roll of film that was ruined in processing had his pictures on it. I'm still irritated about that.

Joel's wife, Sabra, shot this photo of us. In the coming weeks I will be concentrating on documenting the rural Cambodian citizens. Making the photographs for Joel's book is the top priority but I won't forget this time to stop occasionally and make a few for the memory book.