Unpacking the untold stories of Cambodia’s indigenous minorities

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.

Hong Ompuy, 50, and his cousin Chheat Doeun, 61 — both Indigenous Phnong — sit in Chheat’s house, looking at prints of the old French maps we were following. Whilst looking through the old maps, they discussing stories they remembered being passed down from their grandparents. With limited access during the rain season, a lot of the villages on the map are remote, and small, often with only around a hundred inhabitants. In Srebeng village, there were only a handful of village elders left, and we could only reach Chheat as the others were far away, living on the land where they grow crops, unable to leave due to poor weather conditions, and the river cutting off access to the main village. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert.

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.

An abandoned traditional Phnong hut sits overgrown in Srebeng village, Kratie province, Cambodia. in 1915, there was a lot of fighting between the indigenous groups and the French. Isolated and often cut off from other villages during the rain season, the village is beginning to change. Now people are abandoning their traditional huts made from natural native materials found in the surrounding forest, ordering wood and building supplies to built Khmer-tyle stilt houses. Khmer wooden homes are more expensive to make, but are easier to maintain, and stronger. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert
Ker Pay, 60, an Indigenous Phnong in O’Kok village, Kratie, Cambodia, heard stories from the Phnong village elders about the rebellion against the French. The elders said the French violated Phnong rights, taking their land and abusing their women. He was told that when the French came, the women had to flee, hiding in the forest to avoid sexual assaults; believing that if the French saw a beautiful woman, they would take her, stealing women like her for their wives. The older generation fought in the rebellion, with most of the fighting occurring in 1915. Ker Pay’s parents joined the rebellion, making wooden guns in order to scare the French, tricking them into thinking the minority groups had weapons. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert

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.

O’Preas village, Kratie, Cambodia. In Thouen (b.1944) heard from his grandfather about the indigenous conflict with the French, and that the Phnong from his village rebelled against them. During this time the Phnong would not stay at their homes out of fear. When the French would come, the villagers would run for their lives, fleeing the village to hide in the forest. The king recruited indigenous soldiers to rebel, and make wooden guns. In Thouen was born and lived in the forest, but in 1955 King SIhanouk called for the people living in the forest to come to the town, where he built schools, houses, and farms for the indigenous communities. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert
Hong Ompuy, 50, an Indigenous Phnong in Srebeng village. He grew up hearing stories about the French from his parents and grandparents. He was told that when the French came to take their indigenous land, the villagers weren’t ready or prepared to fight, so they would hide. Whilst in hiding, the French would track them in the forest. To outsmart and trick the colonial forces, they would wear their shoes backwards to confuse them with backwards footprints. Later, the men fought the French, whilst their women hid in the jungle to avoid sexual abuse. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert
In Ratanakiri Province, the indigenous Kreung village elders remember a time when people still built and used traditional bride and groom huts, and wore and made traditional Kreung clothes and jewelry. Dedicated bride and groom huts were a Kreung tradition, giving adolescent women their own hut outside the family house, in order to give them independence, and help them select the right partner. Huot Sley, 65, says when she was young the Kreung used to have huts for young single people, and she had the freedom to invite men into her hut. Since then, this tradition has changed, and the traditional coming-of-age huts have not been used for the past 15 years. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert

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.

Portrait: Courtesy of Thomas Cristofoletti

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.

Charley’s photography has been published by The Guardian, Daily Beast, and Phnom Penh Post.

Changing Planet

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Photojournalist Charlotte L. Pert has a National Geographic Young Explorer grant  to tell the story of Changing Indigenous Culture in Cambodia- from War, to Now." The southeast 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. Charley's photography has been published by The Guardian, Daily Beast, and Phnom Penh Post.