A picture book that tells the story of Cambodia since 1866

It is said that history interests us only in so far as it sheds light on the history of the present. In this spirit, a picture book of Cambodia has been compiled over the past 170 years, to enable readers to understand the complexity and beauty of Cambodia’s history through the portraits of its kings, the struggles of its people and the path to recovery.

Photography in Cambodia: 1866 to the Present (Photography in Cambodia: From 1866 to the Present Day) shows the country through photographs taken in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Written by Nicholas Covell, an Australian designer and social history specialist, this book describes in detail the history of the kingdom, from the beginnings of the French protectorate to the present day, during World War II, the struggle for independence, and the palace-lived Khmer Republic, the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and its reinvention as a modern state. in Southeast Asia.

About what prompted him to write this book, Covel said:

Most history books dealing with Cambodia are primarily text, and a few contain photographs. I thought it was important for readers of Cambodian history to also have the pictures to help illustrate and give some sort of insight or an accurate presentation of what Cambodian history was like.

The book consists of nine chapters and contains approximately 500 images, evenly distributed in the chapters.

His goal was, he explains, “To select an equal number of photos from each section of Cambodia’s history. I didn’t want to favor one era over another. I wanted to sort things out“.

Covell continued, saying that there is sometimes a discrepancy or discrepancy between the visual document and what historians have written. Thus, he was eager to establish an accurate history of Cambodia. “By looking at four or five photos, you can get a rather complex understanding of the main events in Cambodia’s history during a particular period.‘, he did not say.

Pictures of different photographers

Covel explained that photographs taken in the 19th century, during the French protectorate, were mostly taken by French who worked in the civil service and worked as managers or explorers in Cambodia, as well as by a few entrepreneurs who traveled for pleasure. Photography.

From 1866 to 1871, Emile Jessel was the first to take pictures of the artists of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, and his portraits are still preserved today mainly in France. John Thomson was the first European to depict Angkor Wat, and his collections are in museums across Britain.

In the 20th century, after World War I, photographers of many nationalities came to Cambodia because travel was affordable. The country has been visited by the French, the British, the Americans and the Swiss.

During World War II, Japanese photographers came to the country. Most of these photographers were women who received private funding to come and explore Cambodia.

After the war and during the Vietnam War, more and more American photographers were seen and the number of Cambodian photojournalists gradually increased. From the late 1960s until 1975, few photographers remained in the country, only a few local residents remained and foreign journalists and photographers were sent to cover the events. During the Khmer Rouge era, photos were taken by order of the authorities.

In the 1980s, Vietnamese, French, British and American photographers returned to the country after Pol Pot was expelled from Phnom Penh.Mr. Kovel explains: “In the 1990s and 21st century, more Cambodians are becoming photographers with improved living conditions and, more recently, the advent of smartphones.

Production and Challenges

When Kovel started working on the book, he first had to read and read about Cambodian history because he wanted to cover the topic from different angles to better reflect each era.

Since there is no research on the entire history of photography in Cambodia over the 170 years, Coffill had to filter the information provided because the collections in France, Cambodia, or the private collections did not provide a balance between the world history of photography and photography in Cambodia.

So I had to strike this balance in order to decide, among the collection of 16,000 photographs kept at the French School of Foreign Affairs of the Orient [EFEO]that will appear in the book.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kovel ended up spending two years in Australia, which actually gave him an opportunity to focus on research. As the pandemic has made travel difficult, he has had to work online, accessing museums and private collections in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia.

However, his real challenge was obtaining permission to use the images found on the Internet, as he captured:

You have to browse through different websites, different museums and archives. Each of them organizes matter in a different way. So it is inconsistent, which was often frustrating when browsing websites. […] It took a long time to get our hands on a specific image and get permission to reproduce it.

When he got a receipt for his payment, he had to go back to the National Archives to give it up so that the picture he had bought could be sent to him. The most expensive photo was about $150, but many of the photos were donated by friends or were available. “I wanted a variety of photosSo, while some of the images come from museums, others were purchased online through auctions or eBay.

It took Kovel nearly three years to complete this book, including six months to work on the structure, tone, and level of English, while the detailed research took about 18 months.

Cambodia photography book
Nicholas Covel

Pictures reflect feelings

Nicholas Covel admits that his favorite photograph is that of the late Michael Vickery in 1961 – an American historian specializing in Cambodia and Southeast Asia – who was then a teacher in Battambang province. He filmed four friends relaxing near rice fields.

Kovel said of him:

It shows me how cordial he, as a teacher, had with his students, and also shows that after World War II people were more relaxed. So this picture reflects, I think, a major cultural shift around the world. It reflects the inspiring Cambodians and foreigners who feel more comfortable and less formal in their dealings with Cambodians.

One of his favorite photos shows five elderly musicians drinking red wine with a bamboo ladder in the background and musical instruments to the left. As Covell says, they don’t look drunk but seem to be acting like they’re in the picture.

So this is us Leads to some interesting questions‘ said Covel.Who was the photographer and from what culture did he come from? If he was a French photographer, was he trying to make fun of Cambodians because they were drunk and lazy?

Or, he says, these musicians might have acted like the French who are known for enjoying red wine and opium and brawling with their friends in local French cafés in Saigon and Phnom Penh if the photographer is Cambodian.

We may never get to the bottom of this question, but it does show some interesting examples of humor and playfulness in early colonial photography in Cambodia.‘, he did not say.

With this book, Kovel said he wanted Cambodians to see their country’s history through a very clear layout of multiple sets of photos and images.

Instead of having to read a lot of text, you can look at these chronological photos and understand the complexity of your country’s history just by looking.

Some photographs from the book are on display until November 13 in Phnom Penh, at: Meta House, Pi-Pet-Pi Gallery282. Others could not because the rights were only for publication in the book.

The book, which costs $39.99, can be obtained from the National Museum of Cambodia store in Phnom Penh and the Minimalist Café in Phnom Penh.

With the kind permission of Cambodia, which made it possible to translate this article and thus make it more accessible to French-speaking readers.

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See you soon.

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