Vira Rama was born in 1965 in Battambang, Cambodia. In April 1975, his childhood was turned upside down when the Khmer Rouge came to power. Vira endured four years of hardship and lost his father along with many of his closest relatives. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, he and his family escaped to Thailand and moved through several refugee camps. In 1981, with the help of two American doctors, his family immigrated to the United States.

Charles Fox is a Photographer working across South East Asia with a specific focus on Cambodia. He lectures part time in Photography.

These views are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

Two very old and faded black and white photographs

Introduction

The significance of the date 17 April 1975 – the day that Phnom Penh was taken over by the Khmer Rouge – to Cambodian communities globally cannot be underestimated. Despite the passing of almost half a century, the impact of the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge has left deep scars on the country and the diaspora. After the coup in 1970, and the subsequent five-year civil war between the communist Khmer Rouge and the forces of the nationalist Lon Nol government, the Khmer Rouge attempted to purge the country of corruption and the bourgeoisie. They evacuated cities, banned possessions and sent the entire population to work the land. What started the day Phnom Penh fell to the communists was fuelled by years of a rural and urban divide, United States carpet bombing, and Khmer Rouge propaganda.

Many accounts of that fateful day in 1975 see us drawn up the wide Monivong Boulevard of Phnom Penh towards the French embassy as young Khmer Rouge cadres entered the capital. If we were to be whisked away north to the second-largest city in Cambodia, Battambang, the same scenes played out but at a different pace. “We did not evacuate immediately, they ordered the residents to provide food to 10 Khmer Rouge soldiers each, we set up a table out front of the house and we feed them” recalls Vira Rama, then a child. Days later the false threat of American bombing and the order to evacuate forced Vira and his family into the provinces, to the start of what has come to be understood as one of the most murderous regimes the world has seen. Almost immediately stories started to circulate of the killing of those aligned with Lon Nol.

Fast forward to 2015, I received an email from Vira that would begin a series of exchanges which became the basis of a collaboration and friendship which lasts to this day. I was working in Cambodia at the time, and Vira had read an article in the Phnom Penh Post about my work with archival images. Vira shared his family images from before and after the Khmer Rouge. Over several years, Vira and I talked about these images; what they meant and what they represented, and this dialogue resulted in Buried, published in 2019. The book was well-received, resulting in talks at The Photographers’ Gallery and The Wiener Holocaust Library in London. Eighteen months since the publication of Buried, Vira and I continue our friendship and dialogue, which I am very grateful for. His generosity of time and candour have never faltered.

Forty-six years since the fall of Phnom Penh the importance of the Rama family images and their stories reflect the experiences of so many, one which still holds significance in the multitude of failings of the international community before, during and after the Khmer Rouge. These discussions are as relevant today as they were then.

Belongings

Private property was banned under the Khmer Rouge. Photographs served as identification to a previous life, a material indication of one’s status before the regime. The regime attempted to erase individuality and identify enemies. Holding on to their images (some of which are featured in Buried) the Rama family were risking their lives being identified as ‘new’ or bourgeois people and therefore in direct conflict with the revolution.

The fear of being found and the notions behind the banning of personal possessions was a powerful tactic, yet in human nature when pushed to the edge we see resistance; refusal to disappear. Like many families, the Ramas could not so easily let go of what they held dear: their family photographs. Instead, they chose to bury them as the world around them tore itself apart.

Buried explores the significance of the photograph, and in the case of the Ramas, their family images. Through the images of the family, Buried explores their survival and the risks they took to preserve their family’s memory. The images are laid out before us in a very personal and intimate way.

The significance of the preservation of these kinds of items is explored in Kim Hak’sbook Alive, in which Niborom Young writes: “The smallest remnant of what was then became the treasures of the present. The smallest of items give a fragile but surviving link to the past. When all else is forever lost, very little can mean so much. A surviving photo of loved ones lost is perhaps paramount in value, but the fragility of a photograph is an easy casualty of war.” As with all treasure, it is eventually buried, but then hopefully retrieved at some future moment in time.

The photograph has a particular significance as the  Khmer Rouge was deeply secretive and closed the country off to the outside world, whilst very few images of the period emerged, the Khmer Rouge did produce photographs for their own means. Images were taken by the Khmer Rouge of people digging waterways, building dams or tending the rice fields. In some ways, these photographs can be seen as images of propaganda, but James A. Tyner offers a more nuanced view; “It would be too simplistic to dismiss the Khmer Rouge-era photographs as propaganda (in the conventional usage of the term) or as inauthentic representations of a planned communal Utopia. It is more appropriate to view these images as an authentic simulacra of an imagined geography.”  In other words, the photographs cannot be dismissed outright simply as propaganda. The images reveal a great deal of the Khmer Rouges own view of their revolution.

The Rama family images, whilst they were interred, became a part of that landscape. Despite the years in the ground, the images miraculously survived with very little damage. The images along with other items such as jewellery and medicine were first buried in 1975, then retrieved in 1977 as the family escaped to other villages during the regime. Carrying this package was a high-risk strategy but one which the family were willing to take, making their way to the refugee camps on the Thai border, which would ultimately lead to the family’s new life in America. Vira poignantly notes:

 “This is the family history, we added to these at the refugee camps and to this day we continue to add to this, the images before are the foundation of our archive, this never ends for us, now my daughter Hana is taking more of a role in building the family archive.”

The images interred in the land are what was missing from the Khmer Rouge generated image – that of the family. The family, so significant to Khmer culture, torn apart and destroyed, was something that could not easily be replicated. Tyner continues: “There are multiple absences in these photographs: familial attachments, for example, are not visible.” Yet they existed, hidden and buried in the landscape and as the Ramas moved through the process of refugee status into the United States they continued to make new photographs to add to their family collection.

Image and Text

In Buried two images bookend essays by Dr Jennifer Good and Fiona Maclaren, they are punctuated by two blank red pages: a visual silence, a metaphor for the control of the regime and the visual dominance of that period. The significance of these images is a poignant reminder of what was lost and the struggle to find what was left. In a conversation I had with Vira in March 2021, he explained:

“The image on the beach is that of a privileged life from before the Khmer Rouge, the refugee camp image is the rebuilding of our family after the destruction, what was remaining was rebuilt, there is love, forgiveness and optimism of a new life. The number my mum holds is our new identity, this is us salvaging our identity again, the first thing is this number, the refugee number but after this our names came back.”

Faded black and white photograph of group of children on a beach

In many accounts of the Khmer Rouge period, there is a reliance on regime-generated images which have a tendency to again de-humanise the subjects. K. B. Wagner and M. Unger in a wider discussion of S-21 [a secret security prison in Phnom Penh] imagery state: “The framing of these identities as only victims, and not once as living Cambodians, with different lives, desires and agency, hopes and fears, elicit in these photos a misappropriation of personal identity that is further exacerbated by a public reception that reinforces and capitalizes on this misrepresentation, while these photographs constitute documents of the casualties of the Khmer Rouge’s desire to exterminate all forms of perceived subversion”. To possibly negate this idea that the Ramas images and words are the agency and desires of families and survivors – not only does Buried include images and text by the family, but also essays by Cambodian writers Darathtey Din and Ou Virak, who contemporise Cambodia’s ongoing negotiation with the legacies of the period. Vira reflects:

When we wrote about the images, we took turns as a family, what was in our minds, what we wanted to say, it was not difficult, but it reminds me of my Dad and what I remember of him. The photo ID brings back memories of the kindness of my high school teachers.”

Faded and damaged black and white photograph of a man in a suit

The silence of images in this period resides in the thoughts and minds of survivors, the images tarnished by the control of the regime. In Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture the filmmaker marries Khmer Rouge archival footage together with clay models to stand in for his memories before, during and after the Khmer Rouge: “They remind the viewer that Panh has no photographic traces of his family’s experience, that his trauma exists only in his memories, and the dioramas are a means of ‘bringing back to life’ these memories in the form of a visual analogy” Panh reconciles himself with the view that the survivors themselves are the image, the memories he explores, and the unseen. “Sometimes an airplane crosses the sky. Is it observing us? Will it parachute a camera to me? So the world knows at last? The missing picture: that’s us.”

Through the opening of their collection, Vira’s family asked only to be seen again. In the Ramas, we have both image and testimony: a love letter to a father, and an account from a refugee camp. Their captions don’t illustrate the image, but give a layer of sentiment, that only a family and a survivor could give.

If you printed out these words, folded the pages and inserted them into the back of Buried they would not feel out of place. That’s because there is no one point where everything is clear or the idea that anything can be fully answered. As with the act of making work, it evolves, as does friendship, dialogue and trust.

Buried is available to purchase from Catfish Books.

Bibliography:

N. Dunlop, The Lost Executioner

K. Hak, Alive: published on the occasion of Kim Hak: Alive exhibition objectspace June 2019 (2019).

P. Maguire, Facing Death in Cambodia

R. Panh, The Missing Picture (film, 2013)

J.A. Tyner, The Nature of Revolution: art and politics under the Khmer Rouge (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

K.B. Wagner and M. Unger, ‘Photographic and cinematic appropriation of atrocity images from Cambodia: autogenocide in Western museum culture and The Missing Picture’, Visual Communication 2018 Vol. 18(1) 83–106.

Suggested further reading:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Cambodia; Genocide; Mass killings; Perpetrators.