Photographer Tells Human Story of Cambodia’s War Years

Over the past three decades, countless foreign photojournalists have come to Cambodia to try to take the ultimate portrait of a nation at war with itself. But few have come as close to the conflict as Masaru Goto, a 36-year-old Japanese photographer whose lens has come within hair-raising proximity to the guns, blood and fear of war. A collection of his work in Cambodia between 1994 and 2002, entitled “Reminders,” is on display at the FCC throughout July.

Goto’s interest in documenting violence was nurtured in Central and South America, continents rife with guerrilla warfare and drug-related violence. He began in Colombia, a nation he was initially attracted to by a description that would keep most rational people away. “In 1992 I read a newspaper article about Barrancabermeja, a Colombian city they called ‘The most dangerous place,” Goto said.

“I wanted to try to go there and take photographs. At the time I was just a backpacker; I wanted to become a photographer, but I did not know how. So I went to Colombia and started to work with a human rights organization there, documenting human rights violations. After a few months, the Colombian government asked me to leave.”

The following year, Goto’s interest was aroused by headlines telling of another nation’s troubles. “When the UN came to Cambodia in 1993, I saw TV and newspaper reports about the conflict between the Khmer Rouge and the government, especially around the border,” Goto said. “And I wanted to see what was going on.”

At that time, Cambodia’s factional fighting offered an alluring cocktail of danger and prestige for an aspiring war photographer. Still perceived by the developed world as a landscape of insane brutality, it held a powerful draw for many young photojournalists, Goto included. “I had seen the photography of the Vietnam war-Tim Page and Al Rockoff in particular,” Goto explained. “I wanted to see how close to the battlefield I could get.”

Goto came very close to the battlefield indeed, as visitors to the “Reminders” exhibition will quickly see. While many photojournalists choose to present a scene as a tableau, composed to be shown hanging in a frame, Goto’s pictures show events as if seen through the eyes of a bystander. Victims of violence are glimpsed through the legs of a silent crowd, angry or grieving faces appear blurred and super-close-sensed rather than seen, as in the peripheral vision of an onlooker.

An expert in the technical elements of photography may find much to criticize in Goto’s dark skies, his trademark proximity to his subjects and the rainy-day intensity of his colors. But it is these elements that endow his images with a rawness and an intensity that in many cases is almost breath-taking.

The immediacy of Goto’s images is hard-earned. On arriving in Cambodia for the first time he chose a route that many Cambodians would have shied away during the Khmer Rouge years. “I traveled to Battambang by bus from Thailand in the dry season of 1994. There was a big government offensive going on at the time,” he said. “I ended up in a place called Sdao village, on Route 10 between Battambang and Pailin. I stayed at the village hospital for six months, photographing victims of the conflict, of land mines and shelling, and making friends with doctors and villagers. I often woke up to the sound of shelling there. ”

Goto depicts the war-worn faces of Khmer Rouge fighters and government soldiers with great sensitivity. But his most affecting images focus on the way civilian lives are compromised by violence. “I have never been a photographer for a wire service or even for the news,” he explained. “My aim is simply to document ordinary lives that are caught in the middle of conflict.”

The sensation of being caught is arrestingly described in a photo of families fleeing an attack on Samraong village, between Siem Reap and O’Smach, during the factional fighting of 1997. The villagers run towards the camera, some carrying children, some wearing just kramas. One man looms out of focus close in the foreground. The light has the flat gray of early morning, and the air is damp-the villagers’ hair clings to their skin. Their faces are frantic with fear.

“I had been staying in this village for a few days,” Goto explained. “Early one morning, shells started coming, one per second. We left the house and everyone started running, carrying whatever they had been holding at the time-one little girl in the photo is still clutching the stick of sugar cane she was chewing before the attack.”

“There was gunfire very close to the village; Khmer Rouge and Funcinpec soldiers were fighting all around us. We didn’t know which way to run. I was running too, and taking photos at the same time,” he said.

If ever Goto had doubts about his proximity to the reality of war, he said, it was at this moment, running through rice fields at dawn. “I was scared. I thought I had made a mistake, I should not have been there,” he said “I thought I had got too close-both to the situation and to the subject [the blurred man in the foreground], in a technical sense.”

In another photo, a young couple pose on their wedding day. Despite their glamorous clothes, the image is heavy with fear. The newlyweds’ scared, uncertain eyes look deep into the lens, while a backdrop of dense vegetation acts as a reminder of the jungle fighters’ ever-present threat. “There was shelling going on the whole time, but they were determined to marry because of their situation,” Goto said.

Last year, Goto returned to Cambodia to document what he sees as Cambodia’s newest conflict: The fight against HIV/AIDS. “In 1994, I saw many victims of war along Route 10. Now I see victims of HIV-this is Cambodia’s ongoing war,” he said. “I see the epidemic as connected to history: It’s still the same story, the story of people.”

“So many former soldiers are HIV positive now. I remember visiting a military hospital where they re-used the same needles again and again. And now the government says they don’t need soldiers anymore.”

One of the exhibition’s most moving images tells of this new conflict, and its ability to rip apart the lives of ordinary people, just like a conventional war.

The body of an AIDS victim lies in a bamboo mat bier on the chequered-tile floor of a crematorium. His bird-thin frame is contorted with disease, his open eyes stare sky-ward, and in the room’s half-light his face appears hollow-cheeked and metallic, like a gold mask. In the background a young boy-the dead man’s son-stands looking at his father’s corpse.

“I knew this man for about three weeks before he died. His wife had left him because she realized he was going to die. She left their seven-year-old son with him, his only relative,” Goto said.

“One morning I went to visit him, and he was unconscious. Then his pulse stopped: He died in front of me. A nurse came in and closed his eyes.”

“I followed his body to the pagoda. When we got there, his eyes were open,” Goto said. “That afternoon, I went to the place where the ashes fell out of the crematorium. There was a man clearing his ashes away with a shovel. His son stood nearby, watching. The boy took just one small piece of his father’s bone.”

The narratives of Goto’s photography tell of the care he invests in becoming familiar with a situation and the people affected by it. His work-unlike much war photography-poignantly presents the human stories behind the de-humanizing experience of conflict.

Goto’s project in Cambodia is far from over. Now based in Bangkok, the photographer continues to document the nation as its battle-scars slowly heal.

“I visit Cambodia very often now, and I can see a lot has changed, especially in the city,” Goto said. “But I met one Cambodian friend this morning, and he’s really worried about the general election. He asked me, ‘What’s going to happen next year?’ Of course I could not answer him. But I will be here, taking photographs.”

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