When Charles Fox began documenting old Cambodian family photographs, his initial aim was to capture the country’s social transition through the lens of these intimate snapshots.
“I was interested in people’s own narratives as opposed to a narrative that I would create through photography,” the 35-year-old English photographer said.
Mr. Fox first came to Cambodia in 2006. After returning to the U.K. two years later, he met a Cambodian artist in London. “We became friends and I’d go over to his family home and we’d look at photographs and that’s how the project started,” he said.
“I became interested in the idea of how a lot of these images are printed—they are the only copies; and also the memories—the legacy of these pictures are fading really fast,” he said.
When Mr. Fox came back to Cambodia in 2012, he began trawling for family photos, mostly in Phnom Penh and Battambang, photographing and posting them on a blog.
His digital archive, “Found Cambodia,” is now a searchable website of such found vignettes. As the project grew, it began to take on more layers of meaning.
One morning, Mr. Fox woke up to an email from Vira Rama, a 49-year-old Cambodian man who had escaped the Khmer Rouge regime and settled in California.
“It just said, ‘I saw your project, sounds really interesting, I have some pictures, I’d really like to share them with you,’” Mr. Fox said.
When Mr. Rama’s family fled the Khmer Rouge, they brought two things: gold and their trove of family photographs, bundled in plastic bags.
This story of displacement, of people and of photographs, was common to many Cambodians during those years. Like other symbols of prosperity and family life, photographs were either destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period, or, if they survived, were scattered.
“There’s this idea in photography of the ‘found picture’…. You come across a cache of photographs, you share them,” Mr. Fox said. But there’s now a second meaning.
“When [Mr. Rama] spoke to his mother about it, she said, ‘Oh, “found,” as in if our pictures are there, maybe people can reconnect with us so they can find us?’”
“I prefer her version,” Mr. Fox said.