Since the arrival of the French around 170 years ago, countless books on the history of Cambodia have been written.
Australian photography collector Nicholas Coffill believes most of these works lacked the rich illustrations that help a reader to personally engage with their subject.
“I come from a theater and gallery background. For me, pictures and images are really useful for telling stories and helping people understand written words,” he said.
Meta House is organizing an exhibition, of which he was the curator, entitled Photography in Cambodia: from 1866 to the present day. The works on display range from images dating back to the arrival of the French in the 1860s to recent decades.
“This is the first time that Meta House has shown such a wide range of images. It really documents the modern history of the Kingdom,” said Nicolaus Mesterharm, director of Meta House Phnom Penh Goethe Centre.
“A lot of 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 great exhibitions of contemporary photographers in Cambodian galleries, and sometimes museums or hotels feature the work of a particular photographer, but few cover 170 years of photography in Cambodia,” Coffill said.
He explained that while many images belong to museums abroad, this exhibition relied mainly on private collections available here in Cambodia, and is the first exhibition 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 of Angkor. Another is the formation of a nation through the fierce struggles of the Cambodian people against colonialism, war, revolution, famine and finally, the long road to recovery.
“It is important to reflect on contemporary Cambodian culture through the eras of different kings, the three republics, UNTAC and modern Cambodia,” he said.
“Every head of state who has visited the temples to legitimize his leadership over the country – being photographed there with the temples in the background or praying there shows that the leader has a sense of humility towards Cambodian culture and ordinary people. see this as a legitimate act of godly leadership,” he added.
Coffill attended the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia at the age of 17 and has designed exhibitions in numerous galleries and museums.
He used three methods to collect the exhibited works. First, he borrows photographs from the collections of friends.
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 asked permission to use it,” he said.
Finally, he buys images from specialized and amateur collectors. He got photographs from USA, UK, France, Japan, Spain, Australia, Vietnam and of course Cambodia.
“Originally, we created a play called Snap! 150 years of photography in Cambodia. It was in a theater called Bambu Stage in Siem Reap. It was very successful and lasted three years,” he said.
When the pandemic hit, the theater closed, due to a drop in tourist numbers. He had the idea of creating a book as a permanent memory of the performance on stage. 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 realized that a small traveling exhibition would complement the book.
“The exposure is made up of less than one percent of the images I looked at while preparing the book. I had to sift through 36,000 shots! My role was to select what was important in the history of Cambodia – as well as striking images,” he added.
The trove of nearly 500 photographs showcases the work of more than 100 photographers – including pioneering women photographers, Cambodian and international photographers, and some who died soon after the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
The book is divided into nine chapters, each corresponding to major periods in Cambodian history. This allows the reader to understand each period without reading a lot of text.
It is a true testimony of the country that uses photography as a means of communication. Many images will surprise readers.
The oldest photograph on display was taken by Emile Gsell around 1866 and shows the main causeway of Angkor Wat.
“We are very lucky to have this. When Gsell died in 1879, many of his pictures were sent back to France, where museums preserved many in good condition,” he said.
Photojournalist Hean Rangsey is happy to have several works included.
“I’m very interested in this exhibit – and grateful to the collectors who have kept the very old photos,” he said.
Another professional photographer, Yorn Sovieth, enjoyed antique images.
“The oldest photographs in the exhibition are the most interesting to me. They are like any other antique – the longer they are kept, the more valuable they are,” he told the Post.
Cofill described her favorite image from the show. Taken by an unknown photographer in the 1890s, it shows street vendors inside the Royal Palace.
“What’s remarkable is that everyone is so relaxed and a lot of people ignore the photographer. Those watching him obviously know the photography, as they raise their bowls of noodles and glasses of tea in salute. “, did he declare.
Due to limited gallery space, 40 photographs were selected for display. The exhibition runs for five weeks from October 11 to November 13, when it will travel to Battambang for the Chamnor Arts Festival.