Displaced: The Cambodian Diaspora
In the early to mid-1980's, over 150,000 Cambodians resettled in America from refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. They were the survivors of one of most radical social, economic and political upheavals in the twentieth century which nearly eliminated the history and culture of an entire nation. As a result of a decade of civil war, an unprecedented large-scale covert bombing campaign by the U.S. during the Vietnam War,1 the Killing Fields which killed a third of the entire population in three years, and atrocities suffered in the arduous trek through a live war-zone by survivors to refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border,2 the Cambodian refugees were among the most heavily traumatized displaced people in modern memory.
Given the nature of the unprecedented social, political, and economic upheaval carried out by the Khmer Rouge - the entire backbone of society, professionals, artists, musicians, and monks, were systematically executed - the survivors were largely uneducated and illiterate. As a result, never in the history of refugee resettlement did a population suffer such extensive and prolonged trauma and were in addition so ill-equipped to resettle successfully due to their lack of skills and resources. To compound their suffering, life in the inner-city of America, where most were resettled, was violent and isolating.
The aftermath of this history casts a long shadow on the lives of Cambodian Americans that bleeds generationally. It manifests itself subtly in the privacy of people's domestic and personal lives in the form of PTSD, depression, and alcoholism. Its legacy is felt in the indiscriminate acts of violence on the streets of inner-city America, a generational inheritance of the Killing Fields by Cambodian youth. And in a perverse twist of fate, it is felt in the lives of broken families via the deportation of a generation of young Cambodians back to Cambodia as a result of a flawed immigration system.
However, the most visceral, deeply felt but silent legacy of the Killing Fields is a historical displacement, a generational and cultural discontinuity that transcends physical space, as if the second generation following mass trauma is permanently severed from the historical continuity of their ancestors. They are displaced, not simply because as refugees they are torn from their home country, but more profoundly, because the sense of self and relationship to ancestors by the second generation has undergone an existential upheaval. This is furthermore compounded by, and finds resonance in, a language barrier between first and second generation Cambodians.3
A manifestation of this displacement is the absence of a collective dialogue within the Cambodian community about the genocide and its aftermath. Many second generation Cambodians I have interviewed learned about the Killing Fields via secondary sources from the internet and documentary films; these conversations were non-existent in the domestic spaces where family history is formed. The onus of responsibility for making sense of collective tragedy rests on the shoulders of this second generation who has a living connection to the Killing Fields. However, given the unique demographic consequences of the genocide, the narratives have been largely written by Western scholars and documentarians, and even among the second generation, there is a paucity of narrative reflection. As a son of the Killing Fields who was born in a refugee camp and who was raised in the inner-city of America, this project is my attempt to make sense of the history I've inherited and to initiate that much needed dialogue within my community. There exists, for me, a sense of personal urgency and an existential sense of ownership; I, along with a small but growing contingent of young and empowered Cambodian artists, academics, and activists, am the caretaker of my people's history.4
Over the course of the last year, and in collaboration with community associations, activists, and mental health professionals, and with initial support from the Magnum Foundation, I have been photographing and interviewing Cambodians in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Lowell Massachusetts, Long Beach California, and the Bronx New York. I have made the conscious decision to not focus on a specific community, but rather to explore this concept of “displacement,” both in its literal physical form and, most importantly, in the historical/generational discontinuity that I outlined above. I am specifically interested in the generational divide among Cambodians, the generational transmission of trauma, the evolution of the Cambodian identity in America, and efforts by the community to bridge this generational chasm.
In conjunction with the images, I am compiling an archive of primary material from the families I've photographed, including but not limited to, identification photos from refugee camps, medical records from the camps, travel documents, newspaper clippings saved by families, family photographs and home videos, and community newsletters and informational material provided to and by the community within their first years of resettlement to the states. This, along with individual recorded testimonies, will provide a comprehensive portrait of the diaspora that will be of value for my fellow Cambodians, historians, and refugee resettlement professionals.
A specific goal of this project is to address the lack of community dialogue about the aftermath of collective trauma. As such, this is a collaborative process between myself, my community, and the Cambodian organizations and professionals I have partnered with. I intend to create informal pop-up exhibitions as I photograph, in the homes of my subjects and community centers, and to integrate this in an evolving campaign to facilitate generational dialogue between youth and elders. Moreover, in addition to standard reportage/documentary work, I have photographed Cambodian elders formally in a portable studio in collaboration with a Cambodian youth organization in the Bronx and the Cambodian Association in Philadelphia, which will be used for an informal community exhibition that will facilitate a generational dialogue. I intend to replicate this process in every community I photograph and to continue to creatively explore ways to utilize the universality of the visual language as a means of generational communication.
1According to declassified data released by the Clinton Administration, the U.S. government dropped an estimated half a million tons of ordinance on Cambodia between 1965-1973, making Cambodia one of the most heavily bombed countries in history. See Shawcross, William, (1979) Sideshow, Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia
2In my interviews, I have been told of horrific stories of survival while attempting to reach the refugee camps, such as walking barefoot through active landfields and in the middle of active firefights. Many Cambodians perished on this journey, ironically in their attempt to reach safety after having survived the Killing Fields. Moreover, many Cambodians were subject to massive human rights violations by Thai soldiers in the refugee camps themselves. A survivor in the Bronx recounted how he watched the killing of a refugee by a Thai soldier in front of his home in the Kao-I-Dang refugee camp.
3Although this is the standard immigrant experience, the violence of this rupture is more poignant in the Cambodian case given the nature of the genocide. The Khmer Rouge sought to systematically rewrite Cambodian history via the burning of all books and the execution of intellectuals. In a resetting of the calendar, April 17, 1975, the first day of the genocide, was named “Day Zero” by the Khmer Rouge.
4This term, “caretaker of my people's history,” was communicated to me by an activist and community leader in the Bronx. This is very similar to Eva Hoffman's concept of “guardianship” of the legacy of the Holocaust by the second generation. See Hoffman, Eva (2004) After such knowledge: memory, history, and the legacy of the Holocaust