Last night I had cocktails with two new friends from the UK. The subject of gear laden photographers came up. What is it about photographers and the continual acquisition of new equipment? Actually, it isn’t even that. Why do almost all photographers continually reach for the most complicated tool, when they could do a better job with a streamlined, older, and almost always, less expensive camera, or lens, or lights or whatever?
Well. Today has been a surreal experience. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, there was a stampede last night on a bridge near the waterfront. Phnom Penh has been celebrating the water festival, but after thus happened, the city has gone into mourning. Everyone is very quiet. There are few cars and tuk tuk on the streets. Garbage from last night is everywhere.
This morning, I got up early and was one of the first people to go to the killing fields. This is the place where the kmer rouge brutally killed over 20,000 people, mainly by clubbing or stabbing them. It is an emotional place, especially when you are nearly alone there. It is also a beautiful, pastoral, and verdant place dotted with excavated mass graves.
There is one place that really effected me above all others. Next to the tree where countless infants were brutally murdered, there is a small area where the grass hasn’t yet grown. Sticking up through the soil is what looks like litter. But, on closer inspection, it is clothing. The clothing of those killed here is still in the ground and every time a heavy rainfalls, it comes to the surface.
I lost it.
In front of about 10 Russian tourists, each the size of a small house, their many chins bright pink with sunburn. So, I’m standing there, crying, being stared down by a sizable iron curtain of pasty flesh, when I suddenly start laughing. A memory came back to me from left field.
I remembered when I was in high school and my mom had a little midlife crisis. She wanted to break with the past and so she decided to burn all of her clothes from the 1970s. Big mistake. Those clothes were polyester and melted together into some sort of plastic nuggets. I imagine, they are still there.
I looked like an idiot now. Staring. Blinking Russians on all sides of me. Slowly. Carefully. They backed away from the crazy guy and continued their tour.
That was my day.
So, I am in heavy reflection mode tonight. I came on this trip to figure out a few things. Why I can’t make art anymore. If I should go back to school for landscape architecture. On and on. But, after going to Toul Sleng, and getting a tiny, outsider glimpse of the darkest chapter of late 20th century human history, my decisions aren’t so big.
Right now, I am in the capital of Cambodia, a city of almost 2 million people. 35 years ago this city was completely empty. It’s citizens were forced into what amounts to slave labor or faced torture and certain death.
That was a blink of an eye ago.
A little bit ago, I was writing on the patio of the hotel and was also talking to Arun, one of the young men employed by the hotel. Today is his birthday. He is 33 years old. That means his parents survived the he’ll on earth that was the khmer rouge. He was born at the tail end of a genocide that I can’t even imagine.
But, still, he has been incredibly warm, kind, and friendly. A type of resilient nature I don’t think I could ever be strong enough to tap into.
This is the only photo I am going to post of the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Originally, this was a school. Under the Khmer Rouge, it was turned into a prison where many many Cambodians were tortured and murdered to fulfill Pol Pot’s demented fantasy of an agrarian socialist state. People were brought here for a myriad of reasons: they were educated, spoke French, or even wore glasses.
I was very conflicted about bringing my camera here. But, in the end, my new Canadian friend is right, it is a piece of Cambodia and a piece of history that should be visited, documented, and always remembered.