From Behind Lens, Photographer Saw the End

Al Rockoff’s Photos Of Phnom Penh’s Fall To Be Shown

The first wound came during a night raid on a village. The booby trap should have killed him, but he had moved out of his position for a better photograph. Three men died, a few more lost arms and legs, and Al Rockoff took a piece of shrapnel in the thigh.

He would be wounded nine more times while using a camera to document the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. After each wound he thought of stopping, but never did. Roll after roll he walked with the soldiers into battle, watched them kill and watched them die. Working in a haze of adrenaline and terror, he captured faces twisted with grief, weeping over husbands, wives and children.

With camera to his eye, he captured the dying of a country and watched the Khmer Rouge march into Phnom Penh 25 years ago and thousands straggle out of the city to an unknown fate. For a few days, held captive in a city being emptied of its people, with the rank smell of death everywhere, it seemed the end had come. Rockoff eventually escaped Cambodia though the war never left him.

“Al was a special case—he was no backpack photographer,” says Denis Gray, who covered the war in Cambodia for the Associated Press, which bought many of Rockoff’s pictures. “He stuck it out and then some. He was driven and he was very brave. He took a lot of chances.”

Rockoff’s risk-taking made for stunning pictures, though his work is mostly unknown. For 25 years, he stored away the 16,000 pictures he had taken in Cambodia from 1973 to 1975. A few had been published, but most have never been publicly seen. On Friday, an exhibit of Rockoff’s Cambodia photographs will open at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Cambodia. The 30 photographs, culled from 450 rolls of film, document the victory of the Khmer Rouge and the fall of Phnom Penh—and the lives lost along the way.

“I was there until the bitter end,” he says.

Rockoff was born in the US state of Rhode Island. He lied about his age and joined the Navy in 1964 at the age of 16. He was kicked out a year later for being too young and joined the Army where he was trained in photography.

He was sent to Vietnam in 1967 and assigned to a unit documenting the war for the Department of the Army. He traveled from the Mekong Delta to the DMZ taking pictures of everything from helicopter accidents and body recoveries to attacks on enemy positions. Many Army photographers didn’t want to be near the front lines. Rockoff didn’t want to be anywhere else. “I wanted to see,” he says. “I wanted to get there, but that didn’t mean I was pro-war.”

Rockoff first came to Cambodia in 1970, accompanying American forces invading the country. He and an Army buddy later came to Phnom Penh, without permission, hoping to get to Siem Reap to photograph Angkor Wat. They hitched rides using cartons of Salem cigarettes as payment, but never made it to the temples.

Rockoff left the military in 1973 and returned to Cambodia as a freelance photographer, trading his army haircut for a ponytail and mustache. He sold photos to anyone who would take them—Newsweek, The Associated Press, United Press International, though he is best known for his work with The New York Times, as portrayed in the Hollywood movie The Killing Fields.

He spent his days in the city and the countryside, photographing rocket attacks, refugees and chaotic fighting between the Khmer Republic government troops of Lon Nol and the advancing shadowy communist forces known as the Khmer Rouge. The fear, he says, he learned to control, to push away.

His proximity to the fighting is shown across his body, a history of the battles he has witnessed. One thumb is shorter than the other from nearly being severed by a grenade fragment. There’s a piece of shrapnel lodged in his wrist, a gash on his leg and a dozen other scars across his body. The booby trap in Vietnam that should have killed him was the beginning of the pain.

In 1974, he was riding atop an armored personnel carrier as government troops were advancing on a Khmer Rouge position. Bullets zinged around him and one sliced through his leg, which was hanging over the side. “It was a while before I could walk back to the road and hitch a ride to Phnom Penh,” he says.

His equipment also sustained the trauma of combat. One camera was ruined by a piece of shrapnel, another by blood as he carried a wounded government soldier over his shoulders to safety.

Rockoff’s worst injury came October 2, 1974. He and a few other photographers had gone to Kompong Chhnang to recover the body of Associated Press photographer Lim Saveth, killed a few days earlier. They found what was left of him and rolled him up in a straw mat for the ride back to Phnom Penh. Rockoff took off the Buddhas Lim Saveth had been wearing around his neck and put them on for protection.

Rockoff stayed in the province for a government patrol the next day and found himself in a wooded area as a mortar round burst overhead. A piece of shrapnel cut into his chest and through the right atrium of his heart. Looking down he saw the bones of his left wrist sticking out where another piece of metal went through his arm. On his chest he saw only blood.

“I could feel ice cold running down [my chest] and burning hot inside,” he says.

He ran into a clearing, where others would be able to see him, and collapsed.

He was taken to a Red Cross hospital in Kompong Chhnang and operated on by a Swedish surgeon who had kicked him out of the hospital the day before for taking pictures. “The very next day,” Rockoff says, “he’s saving my life.”

Rockoff says he was clinically dead for a moment, but was brought back by the surgical team. A plane flown by Air America pilots employed by the US government landed on a dirt road and flew him to Saigon and eventually he was taken to the Philippines. A few weeks later he was back in Phnom Penh.

By that time, most of the countryside was controlled by Khmer Rouge. There were battles just outside the city. The only way to visit the provinces was to fly.

“You might have talked to the pilot the night before at the Khemera restaurant as he was drinking,” Rockoff says. “That’s how you hitched a ride around the country.”

Ten dollars could get you just about anywhere, he says.

But in the end, there was nowhere to go.

On April 12, the US evacuated its embassy. Rockoff took a picture of the flag being lowered and the marines being whisked away on giant twin-rotor helicopters.

“The last three days of the war was very intense with [increased] bombardment of the city and wounded coming in,” Rockoff says. “The noose really started tightening on Phnom Penh.

“The city,” he says, “sort of folded in on itself.”

On April 16, Rockoff was driving south out of Phnom Penh near Pochentong market when they saw a Khmer Rouge soldier in an alleyway. That night, fires were raging across the Tonle Sap river. The sounds of rockets and mortars exploding drifted across the river.

“You knew they were ready to enter the city,” he says.

Rockoff spent that night at the telegraph office, the site of today’s main post office, with a few other journalists and the telegraph operator. They drew straws for who would sleep on the one cot. Rockoff’s shift to sleep was 1 am to 3 am, but he was not awakened until 6 am. The telegraph operator was to sleep after him, but rushed out when he was told a rocket had hit his house, killing his family. “So I got to sleep three extra hours because of that,” Rockoff says.

The next morning, the city fell.

Rockoff hitched rides around the city with Khmer Rouge driving government jeeps and armored personnel carriers. People lined the streets watching. Some cheered. Others just stared.

“The war is over. No more fighting,” the Khmer Rouge called to them.

In the afternoon, Rockoff went with reporter Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times, his translator, Dith Pran, and British journalist John Swain to the Preah Ketoh Mealia military hospital near Wat Phnom. The wounded and dead were lying in the hallways in pools of blood as the few remaining hospital staff scurried among them, slapping bandages on horrible wounds.

Rockoff and the others were taken from the hospital at gun point, shoved into an armored personnel carrier and driven around the city. They were eventually released and told to go to the Ministry of Information and then to the French Embassy.

They climbed over the fence into the embassy compound, where they would spend the next three weeks. They saw people leaving the city, but they couldn’t tell how complete the evacuation was. “You could smell bodies after a few days without seeing them,” Rockoff says.

Inside the compound there was confusion and tension. Every few days, the Khmer Rouge came and ordered more people out of the embassy. Eventually, Dith Pran, Schanberg’s translator, was told to leave.

In the movie, Rockoff, played by John Malkovich, tries to take a picture of Dith Pran and attach it to a forged British passport, but the photo fades. Without the passport, Dith Pran is forced to leave the embassy and march into the countryside. But the photo, Rockoff says, didn’t fade. The scene was fabricated.

“What they show in the movie is totally wrong,” he says. “It puts Cambodia in the public consciousness. It’s an important movie in many ways, but I find fault with it for accuracy.

“Nothing in it is accurate about me,” he says.

Stephen Heder, who was in Cambodia at the time, holds similar views.  “The reality,” says Heder, a professor at the School of African and Asian Studies in London, “was that while Schanberg pretended to be a compassionate liberal, he was in fact an aggressive, uncaring brute of a journalist who didn’t care who got hurt, literally or figuratively, as long as he got his scoops; whereas Al, despite his sometimes crusty manner and penchant for macabre photographic images, had a heart of gold underneath.”

Descriptions of Rockoff being gruff and tactless are in many ways accurate. Gray, of The Associated Press, often quarreled with Rockoff during their time in Cambodia. “He is not an easy person to work with,” Gray says. “One can speculate endlessly about what makes him turn on people who try to help. But when all is said and done, I will always have a deep respect for Al.”

After Rockoff left Cambodia, he returned to the US, where he spent most of the next two decades, working jobs outside photography and living on a disability check from the Army. “I didn’t know a thing about him,” says Victoria Bornas who would become Rockoff’s wife, and only here about his life in bits and pieces. “He doesn’t talk about it.” After learning of his experiences and seeing his photographs, she says, “I can understand why he doesn’t talk about it.”

Rockoff made a few trips to the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s where he photographed refugees and Khmer Rouge leaders. He returned to Cambodia in 1989 for the first of what soon became yearly trips. In his backpack he carried a picture he took of Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan during the 1980s as insurance if he was stopped while traveling in Khmer Rouge areas. Across the top of the photo is scrawled “Al said he doesn’t like the movie.”

These days he spends several months a year in Cambodia, shooting pictures during the day and sitting in the city’s expatriate bars at night, smoking marijuana cigarettes. The photo exhibit at the FCCC will be a climax of the past quarter century for Rockoff—and a chance to tell his story.

“I would like to show people the horror of what happened,”

Rockoff says. “Maybe people will have a better understanding as to what happened here, why Cambodians are the way they are. Also it may be a reminder to the West… and illustrate America’s blood debt to this country.”

When Rockoff leaves Cambodia he will work on his book, a collection of photographs spanning the last 30 years in Cambodia. The first half will be the war, the second half a country’s slow rebirth. This is Al Rockoff’s life, an obsession that pulls him through hard times and disappointments.

“I’m bitter,” he says. “But that doesn’t stop me from what I’m trying to do.”

“Look at the pictures, not me.”

Rockoff’s exhibition, The Fall of Phnom Penh, opens Friday at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia (363 Sisowath Quay) at 8 pm with a reception open to the public. It will hang until the end of May.



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