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Worth a thousand words

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The 1961 Exakta Varia IIa camera used by Michael Vickery. Amema Saeju

The late Michael Vickery’s priceless collection of photographs of a long-forgotten Cambodia era are on display at the Bophana Center. As Colin Grafton writes, the photos of the renowned historian in the exhibition present a fascinating slideshow of faces and expressions.

Michael Theodore Vickery, historian, analyst and researcher, who died last year at the age of 86, was one of the foremost experts on Cambodian history and politics. Author of the landmark books “Cambodia 1975-1982”, “Kampuchea: Politics, Economics and Society”, and “Cambodia: A Political Survey”, as well as numerous articles, he also dabbled in photography.

Ethnic minority kids. Photo: Michael Vickery, courtesy of Amema Saeju

In 1950, while majoring in Russian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, Vickery made his first trip to Europe on a tour with a Scandinavian folk dance troupe, performing in Sweden and Norway. After graduating in 1952 with a BA in Slavic Languages and Literature, he got a Fulbright Scholarship in Finland for two years, and then served in the US Army in Germany for two more years. He spent more time in Europe, in a variety of jobs which included labouring in Switzerland, import/export in Macedonia, and teaching English in Istanbul.

In 1960, Michael Vickery went to Cambodia to work as an English teacher. He lived there for four years, in Battambang and Kampong Thom, after which he moved to Laos. He learned to speak Lao and Khmer fluently. While in Cambodia, he was able to travel fairly easily to parts of the country which later became dangerous or inaccessible, including Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, near the Vietnam border. The ethnic minority people in these areas, Bunong, P’nong and Jarai, rarely saw a camera, especially a large one of the type Vickery was using. His photos were probably for documentation purposes only, but they have an immediacy and clarity which testify to the obvious rapport between him and his subjects.

Ethnic minority people with a 1961 calendar of an elelphant. Photo: Michael Vickery

Vickery went on to earn a PhD in History at Yale University, and from that time on he dedicated his life to research as a specialist in South-East Asian studies, in particular the history of Cambodia. He was a researcher and lecturer at many universities, including the Australian National University, University of Adelaide, Universiti Sains Malaysia (in Penang) and Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

During his last years, while he was living in Chiengmai, Thailand, and Battambang, Cambodia, Vickery worked with his foster daughter, Amema Saeju, on the monumental task of identifying, locating and documenting his vast collection of negatives stretching back to those days in the early sixties. Amema (it means “First Daughter”), usually known as ‘Mimi’, was ‘adopted’ by Vickery and his life partner, Otome Klein Hutheesing, in 1998.

Vickery (possibly in Mondulkiri). Photo: Michael Vickery, courtesy of Amema Saeju

Mimi is from a Lisu family, and they had first met Otome in 1982, when Mimi was a little girl. Otome spent six years living in Mimi’s home village of Doi Laan in Chiengrai Province, Thailand, where she mastered the Lisu language and conducted research on gender inequality in Lisu culture. Since Vickery’s death, Mimi has been taking care of her aging foster mother and continuing to work through the multitude of photographs which remain undocumented. This arduous task has resulted, with the collaboration of anthropologist Dr. Sokphea Young and the PPP, in a pioneer exhibition of selected photos at Bophana Center, as part of the Phnom Penh Photo Festival.

The photos from Cambodia and Laos account for only a few thousand of the total, which amounts to around 20,000. However, some of the images appear to be incomplete. All the photos on exhibition, for example, are square; but Vickery’s camera was an East German 1961 Exakta Varia IIa, which was one of the first single lens reflex cameras, and it used 35mm film, which gives a rectangular image. Mimi still has the camera, with its 2.8/50mm Carl Zeiss lens. It has been well used. These cameras were heavy duty machines, quite different from the digital versions of today. There was no battery, so there were no electrical parts or light meter, and everything was manual. Among its salient features are separate knobs for slow and fast speeds, a conversion mode to waist-level viewfinder, and a cutter inside which slices the film (if you need to process something quickly but don’t want to waste the rest of the film). It was a Cadillac of cameras, the only rival to the Leica.

A local official. Photo: Michael Vickery, courtesy of Amema Saeju

The photos in the exhibition present a fascinating slideshow of faces and expressions. Vickery often shot from a low angle, giving his subjects prominence in the frame. Many of the pictures emanate question marks. Who is the man with the white shirt and immaculate black suede shoes sitting at the desk with an array of photographs behind him on the wall? Why is the lady with the ‘Deux Chevaux’ Citroen toting an automatic pistol? What is the significance of the calendar in two of the photos, with the elephant on it made of monkeys (it tells us the photo was probably taken in 1961)? And what about the three soldiers (or are they rangers?) in their bush hats? To which tribe do the minority people belong? What was in the pipe? Which photos are reverse images? And didn’t Michael have great legs even though he was a bit thin on top at the age of 30? And so on. Then there are details like the bride’s white socks, the pregnant girl with the beautiful smile, her face swathed in shadow, and the not-so-amused expression of the banana seller.

The more you look at these photographs, the more fascinating they become, given the space of time and knowing all that has happened since they were taken over half a century ago. What a treasure they are, and what treasures there may yet be among the hundreds of negative strips that remain to be revealed. By the end of the decade, Mondulkiri would be Khmer Rouge territory, and then – to people in Phnom Penh, encircled by a ring of war – it would become the lost paradise of a golden age.

The lady with the Deux Chevaux. Photo: Michael Vickery, courtesy of Amema Saeju

The exhibition at Bophana Center runs until November 5. Go and see it.


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