Imagining Kep’s Lost Villas

During her first trip to Cambodia in July 2007, French photographer Catherine Griss decided to visit Kep.

And there, she said, she suddenly found herself transported into the world of French writer Marguerite Duras, which had fascinated her in her youth.

Ms Duras’ 1950 semi-autobiography “The Sea Wall,” which filmmaker Rithy Panh adapted for the screen in 2008, describes a French family’s struggle in the early 1930s to survive on a farm near Preah Sihanouk City and the Gulf of Thailand. Ms Duras’ life in then-French Indochina was also superbly retold in her 1984 novel “The Lover.”

“I became absolutely mesmerized by this atmosphere in Kep, which I had found in her novel: all this lethargy, this tropical vegetation. Plus, arriving there during the rainy season made things even more ghostly,” Ms Griss said.

Ms Griss had so far shot in color but switched to black-and-white film because of the light and the state of the abandoned and desolate beach homes in Kep, she said, and has been working in black and white ever since.

Ms Griss’ photos taken in the province in 2007 and during a second trip she made last year are on exhibit at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center through the end of the month.

Her series, which also includes photographs of Kampot town and nearby Bokor mountain, is entitled “From Kam to Kep, the Pacific Lost Villas”–in Ms Duras’ book, the Gulf of Thailand is referred to as the Pacific Ocean and Kampot city as Kam.

A few homes in Kep province were built nearly a century ago under the French colonial administration but most were made during the 1950s and 1960s when the area was a fashionable seaside resort for the French who stayed on after independence and the Cambodian elite. The residences were destroyed during the 1970s and 1980s, and the majority left untended to this day.

Rather than dwell on the fact that they now are mainly ruins, Ms Griss has tried to portray what is left of the structures with their original, but long lost, dignity.

Using architectural lines and playing with light and shadows, the ruined homes are mysterious, making one wish to know all the secrets and drama that took place within their walls.

In one photograph, she framed the remnants of a building in the window of another home, giving beauty to its bits of walls. In another, a home stands in neglected grounds, its structure nearly intact, as if inviting restoration.

On her first visit, Ms Griss had tried to capture the atmosphere of Duras’ book and the slow work of tropical vegetation inexorably reclaiming its territory at abandoned homes.

But during her second trip in January 2009, she went inside those damaged shells to document life surrounding them. This she has done in some photos by showing people who either guard or use those buildings as shelters, and in others by recording traces of their presence such as a camp bed or a few belongings inside the crumbling structures.

From Paris, Ms Griss decided to study and take up photography two years ago following some three decades in the legal profession in which she served in various capacities, including university law professor and judge.

She had traveled in India and China, but her trip to Cambodia in 2007 was her first contact with Southeast Asia.

This year, she has worked in Laos, revisited Kep province, Kampot city, Bokor mountain and looked into Phnom Penh to document homes built during the Indochina and other architectural periods of the 20th century to show how they mixed and evolved, Ms Griss said. She is also working on a photo series in Senegal, using a similar approach.

Some of Ms Griss’ photos have already become archival material.

A section of road to the top of Bokor mountain that she shot in 2007 has since turned into a major thoroughfare as part of a construction project.

In addition, numerous villas in Kep province are being razed as land is being sold, and some she shot may soon disappear, she said.

“I saw one being destroyed in one afternoon,” Ms Griss said. “I was so sad that I was unable to take photos, which I now regret.”


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