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How photographer Kim Hak captured Cambodian survival stories

Kim Hak. Photo/Mike White.

Photographer Kim Hak has documented the keepsakes of fellow Cambodians who escaped Pol Pot’s killing fields for new lives in New Zealand. He talks to Mike White about his exhibition Alive.

They are small things, simple things, but things that tell a life story. They’re things Cambodians who survived Pol Pot’s killing fields, and piteous refugee camps, brought to New Zealand with them and have kept as touchstones of their former life. And they’re things that Cambodian photographer Kim Hak is travelling the world to document, the images appearing in his exhibition Alive, which opened in Auckland in June.

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, forcing the population into the countryside and implementing a communist agrarian society. Minorities, those associated with the previous regime, and those who were educated were killed; about a quarter of the country’s population died before the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979. Hundreds of thousands more fled to refugee camps along the Thai border and in Malaysia, before being given sanctuary in countries like New Zealand.

Kim’s own family survived the Khmer Rouge but lost most of their possessions. However, his mother had saved a few precious photos of their life beforehand, wrapping them in a plastic bag and burying them to avoid their discovery by the Khmer Rouge. If they’d been found, the photos would have revealed his father was educated and had worked for the government, and could have led to their execution. The family eventually ended up in refugee camps and had the opportunity to move abroad, but decided to remain in Cambodia.

Kim, 38, has previously documented the precious objects families in Cambodia have kept from these troubled times – cooking vessels, books, dressmaking scissors, a bottle that held fish oil for a lamp – and in 2018, he photographed 12 families who escaped Cambodia and resettled in New Zealand in the 1980s. “They were looking for safe lands to be in, new lands,” says Kim.

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The things they brought with them usually related to the life they’d previously led, or are items of great sentimentality. There is the watch one man had been given by his father when he graduated high school – that he kept hidden during the Khmer Rouge time, and still wears today. One woman secreted the negative of a portrait taken of her when younger; when she arrived in Auckland, she had a print made from it. Another man still has the hammock he used as a soldier during the war. Another, who was a hospital nurse, has a pair of surgical scissors he took as the Khmer Rouge invaded, and his wife has a pair of forceps – objects they used to help others. The same man has kept a necklace he made while in a refugee camp.

“They mean different things, from one person to another person to another person,” says Kim. “We always save something, and we learn from them.”

Kim’s exhibition marks 40 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but his Alive project will continue, and he plans to photograph Cambodian refugees and the talismans of their homeland in Japan, France, America and Canada over coming years.

And what if there was another war, or Kim had to escape Cambodia suddenly – what would be the most precious thing he would guard or take with him to the ends of the world? Like his mother, Kim says it would be photos. Given his life as a photographer, he would grab a hard drive of his work as he fled – and pray he could keep it safe until peace returned and he could return home.    

Kim Hak’s exhibition, Alive, runs at Objectspace, 13 Rose Rd, Auckland until 21 July, and is supported by the Rei Foundation.

Man Hau Liev’s watch and a photo of his father. Photo/Kim Hak.

Man Hau Liev was born in 1952 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He now lives in South Auckland. The watch was a gift from his father when he left to study at university in Phnom Penh. In the early 70s, with political unrest in the city growing, Man Hau sent the watch back to his mother for safekeeping. She kept it hidden throughout the Khmer Rouge regime. Man Hau bought a replacement watch, which he later gave to a Khmer Rouge soldier to save himself from execution. In 1982, he was reunited with his mother, and the watch, in a refugee camp. He was accepted as a refugee to New Zealand soon after. 

Maran Keo’s soup pot and shirt. Photo/Kim Hak.

Maran Keo was born in 1957 in Phnom Penh, and now lives in Auckland. Towards the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Maran fled to refugee camps in Thailand and then Malaysia. She met her husband in one of the Thai camps and they had three children while living as refugees. In 1985, a friend who had been granted asylum in Canada gave her the soup pot. When Maran and her family were taken in by New Zealand, she packed her clothes inside the pot and brought it to their new home in a rice bag. She lost contact with her friend from the camp, but says the soup pot is her reminder of friendship and kindness in difficult times.

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.

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