(Catfish Books, 2019)
It can feel impossible to process monumental historical horrors, perhaps more so as they recede into the past. One means of transmitting information about trauma is shrinking the scale of it, without reducing the enormity of the phenomenon’s impact. Charles Fox, a British-born photographer based on and off in Southeast Asia for a decade and half, used this model to address the Cambodian genocide, during which two million people died under a social engineering project attempted by dictator Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime to create a barbaric agrarian utopia. Fox created FOUND Cambodia, a collaborative photographic archive available digitally, which gathers analog snapshots and studio portraits from both before and after this astonishing reign. “To resign vernacular photographs to posterity,” writes academic Fiona MacLaren, one of several contributors to Fox’s book, Buried, “would be to overlook their potency as discursive acts or communication.” Quotidian images help solidify the reality surrounding this destructive period.
FOUND Cambodia culls images from various families; the book Buried, however, deepens this exercise of testimony by looking at a single family, the Ramas, who reached out to Fox about their images after learning about FOUND Cambodia. They examine their experiences both before and after the Khmer Rouge took power. The slender volume mixes vintage photographs and personal recollections, pairing each image with hand-written captions from family members. These are interspersed with short texts by writers and academics about how remembrance is connected to photography.
Anticipating the political trouble ahead, the Ramas hid their photographs for safekeeping. “The Rama family photographs offer a mapping of the perceptual shifts that took place under the social and political forces that came to shape their lives,” MacLaren explains, adding, “to be seen as a cultured, educated middle-class family was to be reframed as a dissident target under the Khmer Rouge regime.” After four years of radical oppression that bred conditions of torture, starvation, exhaustion, executions, and forced evacuations, the family reunited—without their patriarch, who was killed in 1977—and miraculously managed to retrieve the images they had hoped to safeguard. “An act of burial is one of profound conclusion while to unearth and reclaim a history,” MacLaren notes, “has invoked a rare and fragile joy.” The family languished in refugee camps for months in Thailand and the Philippines before eventually landing in America, where they have spent the decades since in California, Louisiana, and Texas.
Buried celebrates the family’s survival in an intimate, accessible way. Here photography triangulates between historical record, fond recollection, and interpersonal heritage. There is the mourning of a lost father, introduced in handsome profile with dark slicked-back hair and an intense gaze; he is subsequently shown standing amiably alongside colleagues, vacationing in the provinces, leaning against a monument in Battambang surrounded by friends “showing off their cool sunglasses,” and wearing a dapper white suit on his wedding day. The book also grapples with the hardships, post-regime, of the refugee experience in the early 1980s: notably, there are images of the Rama children with assigned identification numbers, stuck in processing camps. Once in America, they try rebuilding an identity within this context so foreign to them, which they recall involved pickup games with other immigrants and watching Benny Hill. Many of the photographs—however difficult the circumstances—confirm the universally messy details of growing up. One shows two of the Rama sisters standing in their sponsor’s yard. They showcase a discomfited sweetness, clad in similar red garments. “We were dressed for church,” Chandra Rama writes, before self-correcting: “Looks more like after church from grass stains on my white tights.”
Using the family album as a gateway to political history is an emotionally substantial approach and provides a way to understand, on a micro scale, a nation’s existent trauma. “The collective condition of refugees frequently supplants the perception of the human being,” MacLaren noted. “Only the mass in need of resolution is seen.” The suffering under the Khmer Rouge becomes about individual lives, rather than a faceless set of historical ghosts. Moreover, the family album format highlights that a comfortable life is delicate and can be easily disrupted by drastic shifts in political power.
Photographs help reconstruct stories, yet there is a tacit understanding about what cannot be depicted or re-construed: the unaccounted-for years under the regime in the late ’70s. There is no visual testament to the ugliness and brutality that ordinary citizens were subjected to. The text, “The Unseen” by academic Jennifer Good references this as the “blind spot that is the fulcrum of their history.” The wear of the earliest images is so severe they seem to be vanishing—accentuating the fragility of memory and the vulnerability of preserving stories. And still, by their very existence, the images speak to the endurance of family legacy and cultural history.