Khun Dyborin’s profession requires him to be among the first at the scenes of fatal car crashes, brutal murders and police shoot-outs, but it is suicides that his audience relishes the most.
A 34-year-old reporter and photographer with Rasmei Angkor newspaper, Khun Dyborin peddles a morbid trade in the gruesome shots of the dead and dying that are splashed each morning across the front pages of local newspapers.
Describing his work in a recent interview, the photographer’s eyes widened as if he were describing a great painting or a work of literature. For Khun Dyborin, depicting the deceased is a noble and specialized profession.
“News of suicide is wanted by readers more than others because suicide has its own mystery. If we can find the mystery, people want to read the story,” he said.
“What is interesting is bodies of foreigners dying in hotels and guest houses,” added his friend Kim Chantha, a 38-year-old photographer and reporter with Chakraval newspaper.
“We like that, even spoilt bodies. We go far and near,” to see them, he said.
On occasion, distraught and angry relatives have confiscated film from Khun Dyborin’s camera at gunpoint.
Despite the dangers, Kim Chantha stressed that the pair attempt to salvage a moral lesson for the public from the carnage on which they report.
“In the end, we write that the girl who jumped from the bridge shouldn’t have done it, and that people shouldn’t imitate her,” he said.
As a rule they will refrain from photographing if requested by a relative, and they don’t take photographs after particularly unpleasant crimes, such as acid attacks.
Sympathy with the deceased is a must, they said.
“Even if they’re a thief, we should have pity,” Khun Dyborin said of the victims of brutal mob killings who he sometimes has to photograph.
“They should catch and send them to the police rather than kill them…. But we’re journalists. Our role is to take pictures,” he said.
Newspaper editors admit that the photos are a way to boost sales.
“People prefer a newspaper with dead bodies,” said Khieu Navy, editor of Kampuchea Thmey newspaper.
“Other big newspapers like Rasmei [Kampuchea] or Koh Santepheap also run the pictures, so it’s hard to avoid them,” he said.
Although the photos may not be pretty, Kampuchea Thmey’s readers ultimately want to see them, and are not particularly interested in stories that might be more socially important, Khieu Navy maintained.
Kampuchea Thmey tries to avoid putting corpses on the front and back pages, unless they are photos for an important story. On the inside pages, however, photos of the dead are sometimes used to fill space when the newspaper is short of stories, Khieu Navy said, adding that it would take time for the newspaper to find material to replace the images.
Rasmei Kampuchea, one of the country’s most popular newspapers, has received complaints about corpse photographs, and now runs them less frequently, said Pen Samithy, the paper’s editor in chief and president of the Cambodian Club of Journalists.
“Many newspapers are trying not to print the pictures,” he said. “If the picture is very scary, and makes people scared, we don’t print [it].”
But the pictures can play an important role. Defenders of corpse photography say it can help people locate dead relatives and encourage police to arrest killers.
“Sometimes dead bodies have no documents to identify [them]…. The relatives can identify them” through the photos, he said.
The images can also help draw the police’s attention to a crime, and encourage the courts and police to take action, he added.
The Cambodian press community is planning a national editors’ forum to discuss running pictures of the dead as well as pictures of minors suspected of breaking the law, Pen Samithy said. “We will request that the Ministry of Information have regulations, because we want to improve our professionalism by ourselves.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith has moved in recent months to censor sexual content in magazines, but corpse photos are proving more of a challenge. The debate over front-page corpse photos is “a long story,” he said.
“When you ask newspapers not to publish [photos of the dead] they say, ‘We can sell more newspapers,’” with them, Khieu Kanharith said.
“Professionally speaking it’s wrong, but many people point out that if they don’t, they’ll lose out to competition.” If newspapers do stop running the photos, they need to do it in a coordinated effort, he said.
Both the British and French embassies have complained after newspapers ran photos of French and British nationals killed and injured in accidents, Khieu Kanharith said.
Front-page pictures of foreigners who have had accidents are no longer allowed, he said.
“I ask editors to comply with international standards.”
Although the trend has been prevalent for many years, it appeared to worsen after August 2000, following the killing of suspected kidnapper Sam Nara, also known as “Rasmach,” whose near-naked corpse was broadcast on state television, said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, an independent journalism teacher.
Rasmach was the boss of a well-known kidnapping ring that had extorted more than $1.2 million over the previous two years. At the end of an intense 10-day manhunt, he was shot in the face after military police found him lying wounded underneath a tree in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district following an early morning shoot-out with security forces on Aug 11, 2000.
“He was killed and [state television] filmed him while he was being pulled along the grass,” wearing only his underpants and covered in blood, Moeun Chhean Nariddh said.
The broadcast appeared to reinforce the practice amongst newspapers by giving the green light to run corpse images, he said.
But under the Cambodian Press Law, people could sue newspapers for running photos of their dead relatives, he said. Members of the public generally don’t know this, and newspapers publish the photos knowing that they will not be sued, he added.
“This is a violation of people’s rights [and] exploitation of their sorrow,” Moeun Chhean Nariddh said.
The government is not inclined to stop the trend as the photos do not pose a threat to its power in Cambodia, said Chea Vannath of the Center for Social Development.
Since the issue is not political, it is tolerated, Chea Vannath said.
The photos do unfortunately provide an honest reflection of the state of Cambodian society where violent crime and suicide are on the rise, she said. The practice, however, is helping to normalize violence, and create the impression that killing is a way of life, she added.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said the photos keep people in fear. “Is it normal to see all these photos of dead bodies in the morning? This is the question we must raise.”
But whatever arguments may exist in opposition to the photographs, an appetite to view them remains.
“People want to know a lot about robberies and traffic accidents,” said 26-year-old newspaper vendor Neat Sokha.
“I like the same [photographs] but I don’t have time to read because I’m selling [the newspapers],” she said.
Calmette Hospital porter Nguon Kimhong said that reporters receive tip-offs and make their way to the emergency room to shoot the injured and dying.
“They don’t seek permission, they just come and take photos,” he said, pointing out a reporter arriving at the emergency department and walking straight past a sign fixed to the wall indicating that cameras were banned.
Tuy Bunry, a photographer with Koh Santepheap newspaper, said he receives his tip-offs of robberies and traffic accidents via hand-held radio and mobile phone—sometimes from police sources—before making his way to the scene of the incident.
He also tips a security guard at Calmette Hospital about $1 to alert him when an injured person arrives there.
Sometimes the hospital and relatives give permission for photos to be taken, but on occasion photographers are able to conceal their cameras and take photographs discreetly before the hospital can stop them, said Chhith Dimang, who has been interning at the hospital for two months.
“We say, ‘No, don’t take the photo, get outside and if you want to take it, ask permission,’” said Chhith Dimang.
At Calmette Hospital on a recent weekday morning, Pov Pearon, 31, stood vigilantly in the emergency room where his brother had been brought after a traffic accident.
Photographers had already taken shots of his brother at the scene of the accident, and Pov Pearon was angry.
“I don’t want to see pictures of my brother published in the newspaper,” he said. But even if you try to stop them, they will still take photographs, he added.
Asked how he felt at the prospect of his badly injured brother being tomorrow’s news: “I think it’s normal,” Pov Pearon said with resignation.