What wants to be seen part 1

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Assembling stories

Home again, but not quite ready to show my pictures yet. It feels as if the images could never do justice to the experience with Khun Ann. Her story, told to me by Vann and Khun Ann herself, haunts me. How on earth can I convey this story through my photographs? Not to mention all the material I still lack?

Eventually, with a heavy heart, I decide to take a look through my photos. In Lightroom – a program for photo editing – each image passes by, as I polish them up, set them straight, bring out their color. The easiest are those shot in the city of Phnom Penh, of Vann and his family.

Back to where it all began: Mr. Vann, a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh. I make selections of Vann, Sophea, their son Chulesa at school – with Vann as the central subject.

I have prints made by Sander and spread them across the floor of my study. Straight away, a couple of stories appear before me. I collect up those pictures and make a second selection, which can’t be more than 10, followed by a third: no more than 5.

This presents me with a series of short stories that, taken together, form a whole: Vann the tuk-tuk driver, Vann the family man, Vann the businessman, Vann the tour guide. Still, I wonder: who is Vann?

In so many of the pictures, he isn’t really looking, withdrawn into himself, absent.

After getting a number of other people involved, I decide upon a second photo series in Cambodia. Photos of him in a context of Not Seeing, but Experiencing. Am I capable of making Ghost pictures? Vann in a bomb crater? Do I even dare to try?

Opnieuw naar Cambodja, novembeBack to Cambodia, November 2018

In preparation for this trip, I start practicing how to make Ghost pictures – using long exposure to create see-through people. I delve deeper into what part was played by the USA, President Nixon in particular, and the bombing campaign Operation Menu that they conducted in the border region.

On a short tour of that area with Vann, what will I come across? I definitely plan to photograph Vann again, as well as the farmyard in Bosthlan Village. I imagine asking him to descend into a bomb crater. Do I dare ask that of him? Is this something he is willing to take on with me?

Once again, Vann and I set out on a journey in Cambodia. We travel to Kompong Cham, and from there on towards the Vietnamese border. I speak to Vann about it all. He seems to have become a bit more approachable since my last visit, and puts active thought into what we should see, who we should meet.

In Kompong Cham, we explore the island in the Mekong River. He wants to take me to the temple and show me how the farmers live here.
On the eve of the Water Festival, we pay a visit to the temple and the monks.

What happened where?

I would like to visit Memet, the small town on the Vietnamese border that was practically wiped off the map during an Operation Menu bombing. On the way there, Vann wants to show me a temple that doubled as a Killing Field in the times of the Khmer Rouge. A place where his father-in-law had once stood to be killed. He was able to escape.

He also wishes to take me to see the village where his wife Sophea is from.

The temple lies derelict. Some children are playing nearby, and I take pictures of them. After all, a picture of the temple itself is nothing but, well, a picture of a temple. Vann is curious, and as a woman is about to enter the building they strike up a conversation. I can’t understand them, of course, but their gestures and expressions tell me that it is a conversation worth having. I try to capture it.

A conversation about the Killing Fields. The woman is speaking about her own experience. About how she was able to escape, no less than three times. She’s still convinced someone must have been looking out for her.

Roughly 60 miles from the Vietnam border, we come to the village where Sophea, Vann’s wife, grew up. Vann introduces me to the three aunts, his mother-in-law’s younger sisters. I take portraits of the women. They are rather shy, but happily cooperate. They evoke a certain feeling in me: To have been through it all… To have seen it all… Seeing Eyes.

Memet is located right on the border. Vann seeks out some acquaintances of his. We visit the daughter of one of the women who had nursed him after the bombing raid. He questions people in the main street: “Where did the bombs land?” Their answer: “Everywhere. You might as well ask: where didn’t they?”

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