The bulk of the foreign press corps cleared out of the country at the end of 1998, after an eventful two years that saw the death of Pol Pot and the demise of the Khmer Rouge, fighting in the streets of Phnom Penh, which left Hun Sen in power, and an election that spurred months of political turmoil.
But for photojournalist Jerry Redfern, the real story was just beginning.
In the six years he has spent since then working and traveling throughout Southeast Asia, Redfern has trained his camera on the people and places re-emerging from decades of strife into a landscape of fragile stability that, Redfern said, has brought very little real change to the people that live in it.
An exhibit of his portraits of Cambodian life, titled “Cambodia 1998-2003: A Sweet and Sour Peace, ” opens this weekend at the Foreign Correspondents Club and is scheduled to run for the next six to eight weeks. The show steps off the beaten photojournalism path to capture individual lives entering uncertain futures.
The photos have a depth beyond their aesthetic quality—they aren’t just “happy snaps,” said Anthony Alderson, director of the FCC. “It’s always nice to see the perspective of someone who has years of Cambodia photographs,” he said.
In one image, a dozen babies swing in hammocks at Chea Sim Orphanage in Siem Reap, their small hands reaching toward the viewer. In another, a man unsteadily makes his way to the bathroom at a hospital in Anlong Veng, his leg blown off by a land mine only days before.
“War doesn’t define a country. Countries define themselves after a war is over,” Redfern said. “So few [in Cambodia] have had enough peace in their life that they don’t have a chance to define themselves beyond, ‘I need food. I need a roof over my head.’”
Redfern, 34, and his wife, freelance journalist Karen Coates, 32, had been married only six months when they moved from the state of Oregon to Cambodia on New Year’s Day 1998 for a “fascinating, interesting, terrifying year,” he said.
Coates worked as a copy editor at The Cambodia Daily, and Redfern often contributed photographs to the newspaper.
They returned to Southeast Asia intermittently over the next few years to travel and work on freelance pieces, with Redfern shooting photos and Coates writing the copy. They eventually relocated to Asia for the long term, spurred by the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US.
“You realized something shifted in the world,” Redfern said. “We wanted to do some sort of journalism that would tell Americans about the rest of the world.”
They decided to focus their work on countries recovering from war and those still ruled by oppressive authorities.
In Cambodia, Redfern’s reporting took him from the cities to former Khmer Rouge strongholds that had been all but closed to outsiders on his previous visits.
“A really nice veneer has popped up in the interim,” he said, citing a tourist-friendly facelift of Phnom Penh International Airport and the city’s riverfront.
But in interviews and interactions with people throughout the country, Redfern concluded that substantive change still eludes most Cambodians. “The great failure of Cambodian politics is that people, when you talk to them for a while, acknowledge life hasn’t changed,” he said. The people Redfern photographed listed basic quality-of-life issues as their most pressing concerns—“where they’ll get food, where they’ll sleep at night and if they’ll get robbed the next day,” he said.
Redfern and Coates are based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He is a member of AsiaWorks Photography, a photo agency in Bangkok. Coates is working on a book on Cambodia, with the same title as the photo exhibit, that is due to be published at the end of this year.