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Sihanouk’s empty villas captured on film

Hak’s abandoned villas evoke sadness. Kim Hak
Hak’s abandoned villas evoke sadness. Kim Hak

Sihanouk’s empty villas captured on film

Ahead of a new exhibition of his work, Tioulong, which documents the abandoned villas of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s Kirirom resort, Battambang-born photographer Kim Hak, 35, spoke with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon.

What was the genesis for this project?

My work in the past has focused a lot on architecture documentation. Like my series ON, in 2010, or my series Someone that I did between 2011 and 2014 in Kep. Both of these series talk about architecture documentation. So when last year and this year I went to Kirirom while working on my new project titled My Beloved – which I’ve been doing for the past five years – I saw a lot of old villas spread out in the forest. So I separated Tioulong from My Beloved. My Beloved is from throughout Cambodia, while Tioulong is just in Kirirom. The idea for me working on this project is that I want to document all these landscapes. That is at the same time an architectural documentation that shows the olden times, and to understand more about this area before it disappears. I’m sure it will soon be lost. Even when I went to work on Someone – when I went back, many [villas] had disappeared, and I’m sure [Tioulong] will be the same.

Themes such as memory and history pervade your work. How did you try to capture these concepts with Tioulong?

I was born after the Khmer Rouge – I’ve been hearing a lot of the stories from my parents or relatives talking about the past. Little by little those inspired me … to link the past to the present: the photos are taken in the present time but they link to the past. The old villas there, I went there many times, many years ago, I saw they were already destroyed, but now that I go back I see even more they are destroyed. I want to show the people that they should see them all before they disappear.

What feelings are you trying to evoke with your work? Melancholy?

The emotion is sadness. For example, the old villas in Kep that I photographed … all those villas weren’t destroyed by the Khmer Rouge; the people after the war were in extreme poverty, so the people there took the doors, took the wires and iron, and took it all for selling. It’s the same in Kirirom: people took [parts] for selling. The difference is that people in Kirirom don’t live there because they are afraid of ghosts. If you ask the local people, they say there are ghosts and spirits living there.

For the past five years, Kim Hak has been shooting on film. Sophea Ke
For the past five years, Kim Hak has been shooting on film. Sophea Ke

Did you face any challenges working on this project?

It took me a year. I stayed with local people because the villas are far from each other. So I needed the local people who knew the area to take me to them. I had been trekking in Kirirom for 15 years, but I had not seen so many of these old villas. When I started doing more research in the region, I found more. This project, I shot on film. But before shooting by film I shot on digital to capture the area to then go back to. My guides – the local people – I slept in their homes, I shared the same food with them and we became like brothers.

Why film over digital?

I’ve been shooting in film for the past five years. I’m talking about revival and film in Cambodia – it’s almost dead, nobody uses it anymore. [So] the idea for this project is kind of [about] loss, and I want to bring it back. Film takes more time: you have to think more … When you see the mood of the film it’s different than digital, there’s more detail. It needs photographers to think before taking photos. I used medium format, and it has only 10 photos for one roll.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Tioulong opens on October 12 at 6pm with a reception at The Plantation, #28 Street 184, and runs through November 7.

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