Our generation has been working on things to fix and heal the illness of our parents' generation."
Kim Hak, 34, is an award-winning photographer. His work has been featured at numerous photo festivals and exhibitions around the world including; France, Great Britain, Netherlands, Slovakia, Canada, United States, Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. In 2011, he won the “Residency Program” prize of the Branly Museum in Paris and second prize of Stream Photo Asia in Bangkok. In 2012, he was designated Best Artist in the “Best of Phnom Penh” issue of The Advisor, a weekly Cambodian arts and entertainment magazine. In 2013, Hak published his first photography book “UNITY” which documented the reflection of ordinary citizens after the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk in October 2012.
Born in Battambang, Hak moved to Phnom Penh at an early age. He became interested in photography when his parents moved from one house to another, and he had to sort through some old photos of his family. I interviewed Hak to learn how he became interested in photography, why art is important to Cambodian culture and society, his journey through rediscovering his family’s history, and his hopes and dreams for Cambodia.
Q: Where did you grow up? What were some of your fondest memories as a child? What were some of the difficulties you experienced?
Hak: I was born in Battambang city in 1981, but since I was a baby, I moved to Phnom Penh and have since grown up in the capital. Between 1982-1990, we lived in a small house near the British Embassy and the Embassy of France. We had some land around which we could plant vegetables, fruits and flowers. It was a very simple life and we lived peacefully together with my parents and siblings. It was like we were living in the countryside in a quiet part of the capital.
I experienced some difficulties when I was in high school and at the university. Because we have a big family (4 sisters and 4 brothers, including myself), it was hard for my parents to support the family. My father was in the army and received little salary and my mother was a housewife and a farmer. When my brothers and sisters were growing up, all of us were still in school. Since my parents did not have enough money to support the family, two of my sisters and one of my brothers had to quit their study and work in order to help get extra money to support our study.
Almost everyday we had to eat the same food (sour soup with little fishes and morning glory). Sometimes neighbors gave us albumen; then it could provide us some extra nutrition. Getting through these difficulties made us understand and appreciate life and focus on studying and working hard to help each other in the family.
Q: When did you become interested in photography?
Hak: When my family moved from our first house in Phnom Penh to live in another smaller flat, it was very messy. Our family photos were everywhere. I had to collect all those black and white photos (from the 60s and 80s) and keep them in the box.
Later on, I spent time to look at all these photos. I have learned more about the lives of my family before and after the war because of these photos. They give me so much information. It was the first time I became interested in photography.
In 1998 when I finished my high school degree in Phnom Penh, I wanted to continue my study to be a photographer. But unfortunately there was not a course in Cambodia at that time. So I decided to study tourism instead and worked in the tourism industry for several years after graduation.
In 2008, I learned more about photography via two important photography festivals in Cambodia; the Angkor Photo Festival and Photo Phnom Penh. By then, I had already planned to quit my office work. I earned money and saved for one-year, as I was sure I would face difficulty in my first step in changing careers.
In 2009, I quit my job in order to attend a basic photography workshop (technical, elements and compositions of photography) in Kuala Lumpur, and followed with another workshop at the Angkor Photo Festival with Antoin d’Agata as a tutor. Working with him has changed my photography life because I learned to build photo stories. I kept my passion and continued to attend many other workshops in Bangkok, Singapore, Phnom Penh and Kep, with many leading international photographers such as Francoise Hugier, Alex Webb, Giulio di Sturco and so on. Lucky enough, most of the workshops enabled me to study for free and network among photographers in the region. Since then, I have kept on studying and producing many projects at the same time.
Q: Why is photography important to you? Why is it important to Cambodian society?
Hak: Photography plays an important role as a documentation source of history. As many other forms, we can use photography to express our point of view.
During the Khmer Rouge, to hide their previous background, my parents as well as other families, threw away many old photos. Otherwise, they would have been killed immediately if only one Khmer Rouge soldier had found out who they are, especially well-educated people, former members of government, army officers, teachers, doctors and so on. Leaving their homes, they abandoned many things behind them. They certainly took a big risk to keep some of their photographs to carry along their memory.
Working on my latest project “ALIVE”, I discovered something I didn’t know before. I thought my parents could just dissimulate some pictures in their clothes. Reality was more poignant! All photos were covered in plastic. They buried them under the ground near the place they were staying during the regime. Time and time again, they went discretely to check if these precious fragments of their past life were still there.
Through these black and white photos, I have learned about my parents’ life during the Golden Age of Cambodia in the 50s, 60s and 70s. My father had fun with friends when he came to study at Indradevi High School and later on at Agriculture University in Phnom Penh. He drove an old fashioned motorbike (what I would do myself, years later)…“Like father, like son”. I also took a photo from my mother when she was fourteen from a photographic studio in Battambang. I can see how she was so beautiful. Fortunately, this unique portrait remained from her youth.
I often talked or shared with my friends whom are around the same age. It seems that we, our generation, have been working on things to fix and heal the illness of our parents' generation.
In the world that it is rich by images. Imagine a strict world that you need to throw away the images/ photographs to survive; you will feel how horrible it is. It would be impossible.
If you have visited Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, you will see a lot of photos that victims were taken photos before they were executed. One image, which it made me hold so much thinking of all time and tears drop down. It is the image of the lady named Chan Kim Srun (taken on May 14th, 1978) when she was carrying her own sleeping baby before execution. Her expression depicts to us so many things, which we can’t just describe in words.
We can learn a lot of our history from photographs.
Q: Who has been the most influential person in your life?
Hak: One of my sisters, KIM Tharan. She was the one who supported my study. Because of work, she had to move to live far. I remembered that she wrote me a letter with some money attached. From the letter, she encouraged me to study hard, and it worked. I made a promise to her and I promised to myself.
Q: Who is your favorite artist/photographer and why?
Hak: This is really hard question, because I love different types of photography. And I have a lot of local and international photographers to list.
I would say a few names that have come across my photography life are:
- Amad Fam is my first photography tutor, a lecturer at Kuala Lumpur University.
- Antoin d’ Agata who has taught me to build photo stories for the first time.
- Francoise Hugier, who is an inspiring and dynamic lady. I got chance to learn from her too.
In 2011 I met Sohrab Hura. He asked me to give a photography workshop for kids of Anjali House, an educational program of Angkor Photo Workshops & Festival in Siem Reap. To me, this is quite important as we could learn things (even general knowledge or skills). We can’t just die with our knowledge and experiences; we need to share to the people in our community. Then, we can build human resource for the future. Since then, I have always come back to give photography workshops to kids of Anjali House (this year is my 5th year).
Many other photographers in the region have the same passion.
Q: What is your dream and what steps are you taking to reach your dream?
Hak: I have many dreams. I want to have a museum, house of photography, and school of photography. If I could choose one, I would think about a house of photography, which would provide exhibition halls, library, and educational program to public.
Nowadays, I have a small photography studio, which contains a lot of photo books and I can show some photo works. It is small so it is not really open to the public. It is for guests who make an appointment in advance. I want to extend it to a proper house of photography, which is not an easy task. Thus, I need to have many things such as; property, financial support, teamwork, support from government, regular visitors, building local and international networks and more.
Q: Many artists perished under the Khmer Rouge regime. What is the art scene now in Cambodia? How have you seen art evolve in the country? Where do you hope it will be? And what will it take to get there?
Hak: Being here today I can see the change. It’s true that the Khmer Rouge perished art, but on this land we have survivors and it is also important we have the younger generation that have the hope to move forward. We can’t just look on the darkness of the history, then collapse. We need to look back further to the great Khmer Empire, which can give us so much inspiration. As well as before the war, we have the Golden Age that Cambodia was once named as “Pearl of Asia”.
I have observed art revolutions in Cambodia, including many artists who survived the Khmer Rouge. They would make their artwork directly related to their experience, for example, Vann Nath, Rithy Panh, or Pich Sopheap even the ways they present their work is very different. For the first generation (myself for example), after the Khmer Rouge, you may notice my work presents the results after the war. While some of my other artist friends show us different techniques/ styles as Kong Vollak, Oeur Sokuntevy and so on. Younger people who were born in 90s, they are less affected from the war. So their angle will be more moving forward. In recent years, some local artists started to take international grants in Asia and Europe. Those people started to give hope for the current generation.
I see the revival of all art forms from visual art (traditional or classic paintings, to contemporary paintings, photography, films and so on) to performing art (Royal Khmer Ballet, traditional dances, puppet shadow, circus, contemporary dances from different dance companies, even arrival of Hip-Hop/ break dances).
In the future, I do hope that there will be more local artists and all art forms from visual to performing arts that will reach international stages. To reach there, we need proper education from art schools, support from governments to build international cooperation, general knowledge of artists, international languages, exchange programs and so on.
We know that photography is a huge industry. So, to look at it only in Cambodia itself, would not be enough. Photographers need to look outside to see the region and the world. To attend proper class with professional photographers, read books and do a lot of research, get involved with photography events or festivals, join the international contest and so on. Showing the work to the public, get feedback, be open and listen to critics.
Q: What can the government do to encourage (and create) more artists?
Hak: I think that the government can help by: including all art forms into educational programs from primary school to university. Then, from the bottom up, kids will have the basics of art; bring pupils to visit exhibitions in art galleries, and museums; media should have knowledge about all art forms and be open for that; create more art events/ festivals (both local and international) and create a policy for art exchanges with other countries.
Q: Who is your role model today and why?
Hak: I would say Mr. Khun Det, one of the founders of Phare Ponleu Selpak (art organization) in Battambang province. He was one of the victims of the Khmer Rouge and survived like many others after the regime. He studied basic art while he was living at the refugee camp in Cambodia and the Thai border.
Upon his return to Cambodia, he along with his other friends, founded Phare Ponleu Selpak, which has been playing a main role for art in Cambodia. They have been producing many artists for 20 years. To me, this is very important to look at what he has been doing to show the positive impact after the darkness of history. It gives so much inspiration and hope for current and future generations.
Q: What projects are you working on?
This year, I have been working on two main projects.
“ALIVE” is my on-going project as I would like to get at least 40 photographs within this year in memoriam of 40 years after the Khmer Rouge regime took power (1975-2015). I would like to extend it to a project for a photo book publication in the future.
At the same time, starting from March 2015, I will work on a new project. I don’t want people to always see us as only about Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge regime. I will work on new project, which it will positively show the diversity about Cambodia. I will give more details on this project when I have more materials..
Q: What are your hopes and dreams for Cambodia and what will it take for the country to get there?
Hak: My big hope for Cambodia is that everyone can receive a good educatation..
My dream for Cambodia is living with peace, stability, and back again to be rich in art, with a strong economy, and stand out among international players. To reach there, government will need to strengthen the educational system, build morality, build good cooperation among all parties, unite all seats in parliament and build good international relationships with all nations.
This year is already 40 years (1975-2015) since the Khmer Rouge. It is already long enough. The government does not need to use war as an excuse to build the country.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to your generation?
Hak: Work on things, if it is really your passion, push it, and look out the world.
To learn more about Kim Hak and see more of his photos, visit his website: http://www.kimhak.com