In the darkness of the forest, blurred barefoot students dressed in school uniforms attempt to chase – or escape, depending on one’s perspective – burning books resembling fireballs.
This is the scene set in one of Pay Bunarath’s creative photographs displayed in his “Recollection” exhibition at TorTim, a contemporary art gallery established by four young Cambodians to showcase local emerging artists.
Aiming to recall the history before and during the Khmer Rouge era (1970-1979), “Recollection” presents two series of performance photos by globally renowned classical dance and music company Sophiline Art Ensemble and Bunarath, an emerging photographer.
The exhibition depicts symbolic scenes of religious building bombings, destroyed schools, forced marriages, sexual violence, and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Six of the photos are from Bunarath, a 2018 graduate of Sa Sa Art Project’s contemporary and documentary photography class.
His graduation exhibition was called “Passion in Liberated Zone (1970-1974)” and showed his knack for artistically visualising Cambodian history.
“Some students produced photos about climate change, development and daily life documentaries. I decided to produce documentary photos called “Passion in Liberated Zone”, which led me to my current project,” Bunarath says.
Because there are not many research documents or works of art portraying this area, I decided to choose this unique topic in order to make the audiences learn about it.”
Honing his craft
Bunarath grew up in Battambang province, where his divorced parents struggled to make ends meet.
When the 31-year-old photographer started researching and creating artistic photographs about Cambodian history, his family was surprised.
“Since I was young, there was one camera in my house and I always played and tinkered with it. When I grew up, I didn’t have my own childhood photos and that made me want to be a photographer,” he said.
When he moved to Phnom Penh in 2014, he dove into the photography scene.
“In 2014 I started studying by myself and asked for help from senior photographers. Then I had a dream of making my own artwork which I could show to the public and I started learning more,” Bunarath says.
“I put forth my best effort these last few years. During my first year, I used to think that I would give up on it but when I saw beautiful pictures on social media, it gave me the motivation to continue sharpening my skills.”
Bunarath considers fellow photographer Thomas Tham an inspiration. Tham is known for his dramatic, powerful and emotional portraits of children. He says Tham’s work helped him realise that true photography is not about having a good camera and taking beautiful pictures.
“It has to be aesthetic and meaningful. It requires study, practice, training and research,” he says.
To achieve the unique look in his stylised photographs, Bunarath recruited Srey Diro as a model.
In one of the photos, Diro holds burning papers in one hand and an engulfed bunch of incense sticks in the other against a gloomy dark background.
Another photo depicts multiple exposures of Diro in a single frame. He hides in a hut filled with anxiety and fear. He covers his ears and face with a book. He peeks through the window to see what looks like a bomber.
“Some people who have seen my artwork literally think they look like ghost stories. Others managed to get the hidden meaning behind them, while some asked me to explain what message I wanted to convey through my artwork.”
Bunarath says people may not realise how much time and effort it takes to create his contemporary staged photographs.
“A project like this might take around a year to finish, but I tried so hard to produce it within six months,” he says.
He divided the project into four steps – organising and planning, researching, shooting in the field, and retouching and editing photos to make them more attractive.
The research part was challenging as he had to find people willing to talk to him about life during the Khmer Republic.
The information he collected was complemented by documents from the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre.
“I was struggling to manage time since I was working [a regular job] and producing this project at the same time,” he says.
Bunarath currently works as a freelance photographer and has a job in IT and design at a private company.
“All the photos were produced in the forest, and sometimes the lighting wasn’t good. I was trying so hard to finish it on time.”
Among all the photos, his favourite one is a photo showing how people struggled to receive education during the Khmer Republic. The photo depicts students interacting with burning books flying through the air in the forest. It was chosen to represent his “Recollection” exhibition.
Although it took a great amount of time and effort to create his exhibition, Bunarath says it was satisfying to pursue a hobby he is passionate about. He never expected to earn money from his photographs.
“I didn’t expect to sell them. If there are people interested in purchasing my artwork, I’d sell them under a few conditions.”
The “Recollection” exhibition opened September 12 and will run until January 12 next year.
TorTim contemporary art gallery is located at 181, Street 426, Tuol Tompoung II commune, Phnom Penh. For questions, contact 070 564 405.