Since the arrival of the French about 170 years ago, countless books about Cambodian history have been written.
Australian collector of photography Nicholas Coffill believes most of these works lacked the rich illustrations which help a reader to engage personally with its subject matter.
“I come from a theatre and gallery background. For me, pictures and images are really helpful in telling stories and helping people to understand the written words,” he said.
Meta House is holding an exhibition, which he has curated, titled Photography in Cambodia: 1866 to the present. The works on display range from images that date from the arrival of the French in the 1860s to the past few decades.
“This is first time that Meta House has shown such a broad range of images. It really documents the modern history of the Kingdom,” said Nicolaus Mesterharm, director of the Meta House Phnom Penh Goethe Centre.
“Many young Cambodians are interested in photography as a hobby. Here they can learn something not only about the history of their country, but also about the history of photography,” he added.
“There are some great exhibitions of contemporary photographers in Cambodia’s galleries, and sometimes museums or hotels display work by a particular photographer, but few span 170 years of photography in Cambodia,” said Coffill.
He explained that while many images belong to museums overseas, this exhibition relied primarily on private collections available here in Cambodia, and is the first show to span so many years.
Cambodia has two parallel histories, he said. One is the constant stream of adventurers and diplomats, kings and rebels, archaeologists and artists drawn to the magnificent ruins at Angkor. Another is the formation of a nation through the Cambodian people’s fierce struggles with colonialism, war, revolution, famine, and finally, the long road to recovery.
“It is important to reflect on contemporary Cambodian culture through the eras of the various kings, the three republics, UNTAC And modern Cambodia,” he said.
“Every head of state that has gone to the temples to legitimise their leadership over the country - to be photographed there with the temples in the background, or to pray there shows that the leader has a sense of humility towards Cambodian culture, and everyday people see this as a legitimate act of pious leadership,” he added.
Coffill attended the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia at the age of 17, and has designed exhibitions in many galleries and museums.
He used three methods to collect the works on display. First, he borrowed photographs from friends’ collections.
To secure certain images, he had to seek permission from various museums, galleries, and archives around the world.
“I researched their collections online and when I found a photograph that I thought was very special, I approached the institution and sought permission to use it,” he said.
Finally, he bought images from specialist and amateur collectors. He obtained photographs from the US, the UK, France, Japan, Spain, Australia, Vietnam, and of course Cambodia.
“Originally we built a theatre show called Snap! 150 Years of Photography in Cambodia. That was at a theatre called Bambu Stage in Siem Reap. It was very successful and ran for three years,” he said.
When the pandemic hit the theatre closed, due to a decline in tourist numbers. He hit on the idea of creating a book as a permanent memory of the stage show. The book, published earlier this year, shares its title with the exhibition Photography in Cambodia: 1866 to the present.
Coffill said he managed to bring 400 copies to the Kingdom, and realised that a small travelling exhibition would complement the book.
“The exhibit is made up of less than one per cent of the images I reviewed while preparing the book. I had to sieve through 36,000 shots! My role was to select what was significant in Cambodian history – as well as striking images,” he added.
The treasure trove of nearly 500 photographs showcases the work of over 100 photographers – including pioneering female photographers, Cambodian and international photographers, and some who died soon after the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
The book is broken up into nine chapters, each equivalent to major periods of Cambodian history. This enables the reader to understand each period without reading a lot of text.
It is a true account of the country that uses photography as the medium of communication. There are many images that will surprise readers.
The oldest photograph on display was taken by Emile Gsell in about 1866, and shows the main causeway at Angkor Wat.
“We are very lucky to have this. When Gsell died in 1879, several of his images were sent back to France, where museums kept many of them in good condition,” he said.
Photo journalist Hean Rangsey is pleased to have several works included.
“I am very interested in this exhibition – and grateful to the collectors who preserved the very old photos,” he said.
Another professional photographer, Yorn Sovieth valued the antique images.
“The older photographs in the exhibition are the most interesting to me. They are just like any other antique – the longer they are preserved, the more value they have,” he told The Post.
Coffill described his favourite image from the show. Taken by an unknown photographer in the 1890s, it shows food hawkers inside the Royal Palace.
“What is remarkable is that everybody is so relaxed and many people are ignoring the photographer. Those who are looking at him obviously know photography, because they are raising their noodle bowls and glasses of tea as a sort of salute,” he said.
Owing to limited space at the gallery, 40 photographs were selected for display. The exhibition runs for five weeks from October 11 until November 13, when it will travel to Battambang for the Chamnor Arts Festival.