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Photo exhibition offers a glimpse of Cambodia’s past through a French lens

An undated photograph of a flooded village, one of 40 on display now at the French Institute's Voyage into the Heart of Cambodia exhibition. Photo supplied
An undated photograph of a flooded village, one of 40 on display now at the French Institute's Voyage into the Heart of Cambodia exhibition. Photo supplied

Photo exhibition offers a glimpse of Cambodia’s past through a French lens

Born into a family of photographers in Belgium, one-time photo agent Françoise Callier, program director of the Angkor Photo festival until last year, has a lifelong passion for photography. Callier selected 40 photographs taken between 1908 and 1968 during research expeditions that are archived in the French School of the Far East (EFEO)’s collection of over 26,000 images for Voyage into the Heart of Cambodia, now on display at the French Institute. This week, Callier spoke with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon about the Kingdom’s early photographic record.

Are these among the earliest pictures of the country?

The problem is that they are not all dated, so I don’t know exactly. The first photographs of Cambodia are from 1880 or something like that. There were 26,000 pictures, so I though first of all that there were so many that I had to find a topic, so I decided to think about the work of EFEO and saw they found such fantastic statues of which we were unaware. The three focuses were: daily life; the work of EFEO; and objects that were found or photos of objects that are in the National Museum.

What is known about the photographers and their research?

The purpose is to show what they were doing, but I have few details about that. For the photos we don’t know the photographers. It’s from all over Cambodia: the stories come especially from expeditions. For me, it was important to show this work because there was one small exhibition long ago and so I thought it was very important for Cambodian people to have a look at their past. At the past exhibition, you can see there were a lot of Cambodians looking at the exhibition, even photographers, and they were really surprised.

Monks at a well in the Northern Monastery of Angkor Wat, 1952. Photo supplied
Monks at a well in the Northern Monastery of Angkor Wat, 1952. Photo supplied

What was your process in selecting the photographs from such a massive archive?

For some years we are always doing an exhibition at EFEO. And last year I made a proposal to Dominique Soutif, the director of at that time, and said, ‘Why don’t we make an exhibition of your archives?’ And we thought it was a very good idea, so we did it. As it was an exhibition of EFEO I thought it was very important to show their work, their discoveries and incredible objects. We don’t know where a lot of them are now. A lot went into the National Museum in Phnom Penh, but a lot also disappeared.

What do these photographs capture about daily life at the time they were taken?

There are not many about daily life. Most are about archaeology, but we thought with Dominique to include some. There are boats, fishermen . . . most of them could have been taken now, aside from the people of course. For Cambodians it is the richness of their cultural heritage. I took huge pleasure to [select from all of the images]. It took me 15 days, nearly full time, because I had to clean all the scans. It was a huge work but I loved it.

Voyage into the Heart of Cambodia is on at the French Institute, #218 Street 184, through August 20.

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