Exposing The Under-Exposed: family portraits on a mosque’ walls

There are many – many – things I remember from any ceremony I attended in O’Russei village, a.k.a one of my offices, a.k.a one of my fieldwork centres. The Eid El Fitr in autumn 2007 was no exception, and I have transcribed a few – very few – notes from it here. On that particular day though there was something beside the ritual itself that I remembered: an exhibition of simple family pictures on the walls of the village mosque. 

The origin of the Exhibit = this blog’s ancestor. 

At the risk to strike as very self-centered (well…), I have to confess a complete subjectivity in my appreciation of the exhibit: I actually put it together on my own, and almost out of the blue, as one of those absolute imperatives you wake up with one fine morning.

The idea was utterly simple: I was spending more and more ”tea-times” in my ”informants” homes (note how I opposed tea-time with informant… not a coincidence…). And during those moments, those discussions – or absence of discussions – family albums were popping up.

For those of you who know Cambodia, you do know only too well what I am talking about here: ”my son / daughter’s wedding albums” – an encyclopaedia in 3 volumes; the vertigo recurrence of the ”this are all my pic-nic-day-family-members posing individually in front of the waterfall: individual shots”; and of course the Twilight Zone kind of feel experienced as you cross over to the Angkor Wat groups portraits: Khmer New Year 2002, Chinese New Year 2003, ”Universal” New year 2004, Eid 2005… (Well I may be exaggerating just a bit: not everyone would have had such a photogenic life… But surely a couple of nephews would, so in the end… Well, that’s it, there is just no end).

On the other hand, because of Cambodia’s recent history (portraits didn’t do too well during the Khmer Rouge regime), old pictures are a rare find: you may be lucky to get a couple 90’s color shots, or very lucky with a single faded 80’s. On a rare shining day you get a 60’s – 70’s oldie. And then, usually to both my pleasure and the owner’s, stories are being told – the ones behind those portraits – shedding light on a context, illustrating history.

So, back to the exhibit. I had been accumulating those pictures and those captions in my notebooks, simply by reproducing each photograph with a little digital compact camera, in situ. Yet, there wasn’t much I could do with them: family portraits are not really part of any ”grand” museum, needless to say their quick digital reproductions. Not so much for a journal article either. The only option I could see was a blog, and this is actually how Du Fin Fond Du Grenier was born. There was enough material for short articles describing the picture and comparing it with today to show how important the visual was. Yet, as Chams themselves would not be readers of the blog itself – at a time when internet was not on everybody’s phone – I had this urge to find another way to give them exposure.

From local portraitists to 60’s ethnographer and friend. 

Slowly, the idea of a village exhibition grew. And then something wonderful happened: I was paying a visit to my former Khmer language professor and friend Alain Daniel. Alain had retired in Phnom Penh and among many other things he had been busy digitalising his Cambodia 60’s photographic (and highly photogenic) collection. Alain was attached to the image content, not its form, so without an hesitation he gave me an amazing present: a whole series of beautiful black and white shots taken in O’Russei, circa 1967. Back then Alain was a teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and as a foreign teacher he was offered accommodation at the ”Cité du Bassac” where ethnologist Juliette Baccot also lived. And Juliette Baccot’s field was… Chams in O’Russei. They went to the village together, Juliette taking notes, Alain taking pictures. And for this present I am forever indebted to my Lok Kru.

Exposing the under-exposed. 

Now I had more that I needed, but I just wanted to wait for the right moment. In Cambodia, arts have to go to the people so that they can join it, not the opposite. There was no point setting up an expensive, heavy venue somewhere even close: people wouldn’t come. I just had to adapt: what was the centre of the village social activities? The mosque and its veranda. What was the time I was sure to find everyone gathered there – including women and children? The upcoming Eid.

Time was running though and I only had a few days to get everything ready: enlarge and print the pictures, laminate them, burn a couple of CDs and put together a few small albums for the village archives… One thing I didn’t do was labels, for a few reasons. First, there was absolutely no time to put together a proper label, write it in Khmer and Cham, nicely. Second, the level of literacy in the village can vary a lot, and I didn’t want to have ”some” people able to get the subtext, and ”some” completely left out of it. Third and last – but not least – the information I obtained on each picture came from the current owner: could be the person on the picture him/herself, a relative, a child, a neighbour… It’s not so much the level of information accuracy I worried about, but much more the variations in narrative. It wouldn’t make any sense to impose one personal interpretation or memory of a moment, over another one. However, I was very much interested into collecting other testimonies and reactions from viewers, and to confront the different versions. In the end this was a little too hard to get though, as I was running all around answering questions and getting the thing ”to work out”. I couldn’t be there to just stay put, observe, note as I would have liked.

Now, you are probably wondering about the exhibition itself? Well, with the enthusiastic approval of the village religious authorities, everything was set up the morning of the Eid, with great assistance from Leb Ke – young villager and promising researcher – whose energy was boosting it all to another level. The black and white prints were standing proud, in the shade of the veranda, on the bright white walls of the mosque. It was as if they were stretching out over years of being concealed. In the far back ends of the houses, in the closed albums.

It was truly an unexpected moment of emotion for me: viewers didn’t react with sole curiosity as I kind of planned as the distant curator, collector, researcher I thought I was. Those were snapshots of a life at a time that came to an end, a time that remained in the far back end of history, their story. Alain’s pictures were of course a surprise to all, reflecting more as a testimony to the daily life. But the family portraits were also a discovery to most: not always shared with the directly concerned, they just ended up with the person who managed to keep them ”alive” all through the years.

Elders were debating the identity of faces: ”no way, I am telling you that is not X that is Y, I knew the guy personally!”. Youngsters were paying particular attention – and discussion – over the clothes, the environment, the changes, the sameness. I remember this old man expression of chock as he recognised the very own face of the teenager he once was. And this women – tears in the eyes – who came to me: ”Thank you. I was just a baby when my father died. Someone came to me and told me he was on the picture. This is the first time I actually see what he looked like…”.


Frustration and quest for legitimacy are constant feelings – I believe – of many anthropologists in the field: what is it you are doing anyway, and for what? The usefulness doubt is brought back to you from all directions: family reunions remind you too often that nobody has a clue of what you are doing – exactly – over(other)there. Well-meaning friends may hand you an ad for – at last – a real job. And in the field… Well in the field… There is this mix of adoration (”you are going to save our traditions!”) and inutility (”you still haven’t been in any contact with a development / education / gender / good governance / agricultural – program we get could use of?”). Well, that day, that very day, was one of the few moments, where I could see and feel fragments of the why I had been there. In this instant, in this snapshot, I had done what I could, what I knew. And it was agreeable – in all senses of the word.

Phnom Penh, February 17, 2013, Emiko Stock.

* Pictures of the exhibition day are all from Meng Sar Phyrun.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


One thought on “Exposing The Under-Exposed: family portraits on a mosque’ walls

  1. Pingback: Go Check out the ChamAttic | imagining the real world

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