Changing Indigenous Culture in Cambodia: War, and Now
Eight months, 41 days in the field. That involved 7 provinces, 14 buses, 6 cars, 16 days on motorbikes, 2 tuk tuks, 1 river raft, hours of muddy walks, 5 translators, over 20 homestay floors to sleep on, 24 families, 1 MacBook filled with data, 2 digital camera bodies, 6 camera batteries, 1 old film camera, 1 box of 120 film, 3 bags, 1 pair of converse, 1 bottle of mosquito repellent, 3 power banks, 2 notebooks, 2 broken sunglasses, 1 novel, 1 broken iPhone, 1 broken backup camera, months of research, repeated sunburn, a lot of sticky rice snacks, plenty of backbone, countless tears, and infine laughs… This is what goes into a National Geographic Young Explorer’s Expedition.
Now, I’m sitting at home in central Phnom Penh, looking through thousands of photographs of Cambodia’s changing indigenous minorities. What was originally supposed to be 40 days of simple fieldwork over a couple of months, turned into more than 40 days in the field, and countless more days of research and planning, spanning more than 8 months. These 8 months were filled with struggles, and failure, as well as accomplishments, and wins.
Little was previously known about the subject of my project, which is to research and document Cambodia’s changing indigenous minorities, through key stages of Khmer history. Focusing on current changes and transitions, followed by a brief look into the past and and the more recent history through two key historical periods: French colonialism from 1867-1953, and the Khmer Rouge who were in power 1975-1979.
As with the unfolding of all stories, my ideas are constantly developing and evolving. Usually the final product is a mere shell of the original idea. Whist further researching Cambodia’s minorities, it was apparent how little information there was on these groups as they are now, and even less information on their history. Slowly the focus and interest shifted to the indigenous history, and the impacts of the French and Khmer Rouge on their culture. Untold Cambodia evolved from a story, to a timeline of stories.
As a photojournalist I’m a natural storyteller in the field, but to tell a story from over a century ago, and find a way to make a connection to the past — this was a challenge! The part of the story I thought would be the least compelling, turned out to be the most captivating; knowing I was telling a story that nobody else knew.
We found ourselves trying to find towns from 1915, where town names and provinces had since changed, nd tracking down surviving families of indigenous Khmer Rouge cadres who were sentenced to death during the regime. We had to find towns and people, with nothing more than an old French map of rebellion from 1915, and a list of names and old prison documents from S-21 prison, now the genocide museum.
Also, like all stories in the field, nothing ever goes to plan. We had our share of disasters and mishaps. Time was of the essence, as tracking down people and locations took longer than expected, as we found ourselves driving from village to village, with no phone signal, asking if anybody knew anyone from our list of names. With dwindling resources and a budget to last only 40 days in the field, many of these days were lost, time slipped away, and the pressure was on.
Looking at the final project, it’s difficult not to be judgemental and hard on yourself, whilst thinking about all the photos you missed, and all the questions you forgot to ask. Then, after taking a breath, it’s difficult to not feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.
You know you have a good story when you’ve finished your work, and still have more stories to tell.
I will be continuing this project in the future. Focusing on a specific time period, following an old French map from the early 1900s, mapping the indigenous rebellion against the french in Cambodia. I started visiting villages from the map where the fighting occurred, collecting stories from village elders who remember stories that had been passed down from their parents and grandparents about the rebellion. With few elders left, I’ll be visiting the villages, collecting these stories and memories, before they are completely gone. I will document these stories by taking portraits using an old form of photography that would have been used during the same time period I’m exploring: tintype/wet plate photography.
Photojournalist Charlotte L. Pert has a National Geographic Young Explorer grant to tell the story “Changing Indigenous Culture in Cambodia, War, and Now.” The outheast Asian country is known in the West for its spectacular Angkor ruins — and for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century. Cambodia is less known for its 22 indigenous groups, which to this day still remain largely undocumented.
Indigenous minorities were particularly targeted by the Khmer Rouge. Having lost their cultural identities 40 years ago, these communities are now trying to recover and survive in their changed world, whilst also overcoming modern-day issues. In a country where the entire nation was traumatised, how are these minorities surviving?
Charley Pert plans to photograph and document these remaining groups, and present what has been recovered, and lost, in the wake of the genocide. She is attempting to source old colonial photographs, and compile stories from elders who were about at the time, or who remember the stories of their parents who lived through colonialism. In this way she hopes to build an image of what has been lost, as well as what has been preserved. Looking into the changes that have occurred over time, from pre-war to modern day factors (like access to electricity and communications) that are influencing the youth, she hopes to also showcase how the indigenous way of life is being adapted by the next generation.
As these indigenous cultures are changing so rapidly, it is important to capture what is left and look into how they are retaining their identities.