Book Tells Story of Cambodia’s First Photographs

The first photographer to ever visit Angkor arrived in Siem Reap province in February 1866—150 years ago this month—with a simple purpose: John Thomson had seen French explorer Henri Mouhot’s description and sketches of the monuments published three years earlier and was eager to photograph them.

But his visit took place during a complicated time for Cambodia. While France was seeking to expand what would become its Indochina empire, Great Britain was courting King Mongkut in Siam, as Thailand was then known, to strengthen its influence in the region, already counting Burma and Singapore among its colonies.

A section of Angkor Wat, with the hill of Phnom Bakheng in the distance, in 1866. (Emile Gsell)
A section of Angkor Wat, with the hill of Phnom Bakheng in the distance, in 1866 (Emile Gsell)

So when French navy officer Doudart de Lagree—assigned to oversee France’s interests in Cambodia—heard of the Scottish photographer’s arrival, he was certain he was a British spy. Not to be outdone, de Lagree would bring French photographer Emile Gsell to Angkor three months later.

Thomson and Gsell would produce the first photographs ever taken in Cambodia.

The stories of these photographers—and the global power struggle happening around them—is vividly described in “Cambodia Captured,” by Jim Mizerski, a large-format book illustrated with full-page photographs that is being launched on March 3.

When the photographers arrived, Siem Reap and Battambang provinces were under the control of Siam. After his first visit to Angkor in March 1866, de Lagree begged French officials to negotiate its return to Cambodia, but it would be another 40 years before that happened.

Mr. Mizerski tells the story of diplomatic scheming mainly through de Lagree, who watched over Cambodia while the French were busy strengthening their position in Cochinchina, that is, southern Vietnam.

“Cambodia is currently the focal point of murky politics,” de Lagree wrote to his sister-in-law in October 1863. “We are seeking to get the Protectorate to the great detriment of Siam, who was in charge. The English…have become blue with anger and I am here alone. The weight of all this mess is heavier than one might think.”

King Norodom, whom de Lagree affectionately called “my little king” in his private letters (the king was less than 1.5-meters tall) signed the Protectorate Treaty with France in August 1863, hoping to curb Siamese influence over the country.

But unbeknownst to the French, King Norodom would also sign a treaty with Siam’s King Mongkut in December 1863, stating that “Cambodia is a tributary state of Siam” and that its “ruler” had to be approved by Bangkok. This went against the terms of the protectorate treaty, which made Cambodia an independent nation under the protection of France, at least on paper.

“One cannot blame Norodom,” Mr. Mizerski said in an interview. France was taking months to ratify the Protectorate Treaty—this would only be completed in April 1864—and the French were preoccupied with difficulties in Vietnam.

“Nobody was sure if the Protectorate Treaty was actually going to come into effect,” said Mr. Mizerski, who read everything he could find on the period before putting together his book.

“Norodom was sort of stuck in the middle. He didn’t know if the French were really going to stick around Southeast Asia forever or if they’d be gone next year. He knew that King Mongkut was going to be here,” he said.

King Norodom was also eager to have a proper coronation ceremony, fearing that his more popular brothers would steal his crown, and the royal paraphilia was kept in Bangkok, he noted.

The French were furious when they learned of the treaty’s existence. When the French-Siamese treaty was concluded in 1867 after more than two years of negotiations, Article 3 stated that Siam no longer had any control over Cambodia.

In his secret treaty with Siam, King Norodom had agreed to leave Angkor with Cambodia’s powerful neighbor. Having spent most of his life in Bangkok, the king had never seen Angkor. But after de Lagree had made several trips to Angkor and most likely described it to him, King Norodom visited the temples, and changed his position on which country they belonged in, pressing France to have the area returned to Cambodia.

The fact that even the king of Cambocould not picture the magnitude of Angkor until he saw the temples himself illustrates the differences that photography was about to make.

Mouhot’s description and sketches of Angkor, published in 1863 and 1864, fascinated Europe.

Phnom Penh in the early 1870s (Emile Gsell)

“But words alone, or even engravings or sketches, did not carry the force, clarity or authenticity of photographs, and in the case of Angkor Wat it is certainly true that a picture is worth a thousand words,” Mr. Mizerski writes in the book’s introduction.

In June 1866, after meeting Thomson at Angkor, de Lagree brought a French photographer from Saigon with him when he returned with his Mekong Exploration Commission team. His name was Emile Gsell, a man who probably came to the region with the French army during his mandatory military service.

As Mr. Mizerski found out, little is known about Gsell. How he became a photographer and where he got the cumbersome equipment—Thomson had needed five porters to carry his material to Angkor—remains a mystery.

Gsell made several trips to Cambodia before he died in Saigon in 1879.

In addition to an iconic photo of the members of the Mekong Exploration Commission taken at Angkor Wat in 1866, and a famous photo of King Norodom, Gsell’s photos have provided some of the rare images of Phnom Penh at that time.

Following his visit to Angkor in June 1866, de Lagree and his exploration team left Phnom Penh on July 7, 1866, charged to chart the Mekong river to its source. Their scientific research had a commercial aim: finding out whether one could navigate the Mekong from its delta in Cochinchina to China. De Lagree would not return.

“After leading the Expedition almost 10,000 kilometers, 4,000 of which were on foot, he died of an abscessed liver and severe amoebic dysentery on March 12, 1868, in Tong-Tchouen, China, days before the expedition completed its assignment,” Mr. Mizerski writes.

The French navy would name three ships after him.

Gsell’s photographs of Angkor in 1866 were in the photo album given to France’s Empress Eugenie in 1867 that is now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Photographs that Thomson took that same year at Angkor were published in his 1867 book “The Antiquities of Cambodia;” the original glass plates are now at the Wellcome Library in London.

Mr. Mizerski is a former U.S. naval officer and engineer who worked in the petro-chemical industry in the Middle East prior to retirement, and has done photography for several books since settling in Cambodia in 2003. Most recently, he co-authored a book on Thomson with Joel Montague, an American collector of early postcards of Cambodia and Indochina.

The launch of “Cambodia Captured” is at Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh on Thursday at 6 p.m.

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