2018 / December
Hsu Hung Chieh /photos courtesy of Hsu Hung Chieh /tr. by Scott Williams
Cambodia achieved independence from French colonial rule in 1953. Its king, Norodom Sihanouk, subsequently promoted the country’s modernization, leading to a brief political and economic golden age. Sadly, the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything built in this period during its 1975–1979 reign. The regime burned books, persecuted religion, and massacred intellectuals and the bourgeoisie during its three years and eight months in power, leading to decades of poverty and social problems, as well as cultural regression.
I spent nearly eight years exploring and documenting Cambodia beginning in 2010. During that time, I saw nearly 20 years of foreign investment and economically focused policy spur the rapid development of Cambodian society and the disappearance of many of its cultural assets and traditional customs. Without intellectuals to pass along the country’s history, knowledge, stories and traditional ways of doing things, it lost a great many of them.
Present-day Cambodian intellectuals are attempting to create a cultural renaissance movement, using the power of culture to heal the collective war wounds and rebuild the Cambodian people’s confidence and pride. Because they have only limited resources and knowledge, they are collecting and preserving large numbers of images that they hope to incorporate into a database and integrate with the educational system as a means of bringing the country closer to that goal.