Unfinished Stories: Cambodia from Genocide to Hope by photographer Mick Yates opened this week at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Society.
It is not an exhibition of ‘dark tourism’ and avoids the tropes commonly associated with stories about genocides. Rather one is confronted with a series of indexical infrared landscape photographs whose indexicality reveals exactly nothing of the story to the point that they almost become abstractions. It would be quite easy to dismiss them as “just another landscape photo”, but that would be a mistake. They are each, on the surface, stunning beautiful images. They completely belie the fact that beneath the surface of both the image and the place itself horrific things have happened. The incongruity is arresting. The viewer is pulled between the abstractness of the imagery and the concreteness of the accompanying Khmer and English words, which too are non sequiturs having nothing whatever to do with the photograph itself.
The photographer, through his long involvement with Cambodia and people like Keo Sarath and Beng Simeth involved in the rebuilding of the education system there, has captured in his imagery a metaphor of the situation in Cambodia today. On the surface it is a beautiful and vibrant place, but just beneath the surface lurk and linger remnants of the horrors of the past, not only for those who were fortunate enough to have survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and for whom the memories are all too real, but for generations that have come since who had no first-hand experience. It sits like the skeleton in the cupboard everyone is too afraid to open. It is like a filter that cannot be removed from the Cambodian lens and it still colours day to day life in palpable but mostly unspoken ways.
Yates’ interviews with long time friends, colleagues and survivors who now after more than 40 years are telling their stories for the first time allow us to begin to understand the horrors and the aftereffects of the genocide on Cambodia and its people. It allows us to begin to make sense of the non-sequiturs in the images and accompanying words.
This is an extensively researched project and the history placards and displayed ephemera help to contextualise the exhibition. The book delves into even more depth on the history of the genocide, and its impacts on specific people as related through their stories of survival and the work they have undertaken since to rebuild an education system that was a principal target of the Khmer Rouge genocide. It is a beautifully designed and printed book which, while written in English, was printed in Cambodia as an important element of Yates’ overall project.
The final incongruity involves the venue itself, decorated for the Festive season while displaying an exhibition about the Cambodian Khmer Rouge genocide and its aftermath. Yet perhaps it too can be viewed through a metaphorical lens in that this season represents rebirth and renewal and is itself a great symbol of hope. Hope is what Yates, his family and Cambodian friends and colleagues like Keo Sarath and Beng Simeth have been trying to build for the past 20 years and that work continues.
6 December 2019