Beauty and Horror in Photography

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Hasselblad 503ci camera and Kodak Professional Portra 160VC film

I had to delve deep into the archives for this photo. I believe it was 1994, not long after Aussie Tourist David Wilson was captured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge. I had been planning to visit Cambodia, as well as other countries in the region, for some time. But after all the publicity surrounding Mr. Wilson I told by mother that I wouldn't go. I rang her to confess that lie after arriving back in Bangkok near the end of that trip. I hold the telling of lies to be very ordinary behavior indeed. And I only did it to save my mum a great deal of anxiety.

The fact was that the dreaded Khmer Rouge were very much on the run. David Wilson had been captured when the train he was traveling on had been ambushed by Khmer Rouge forces. If I remember right the train and that area of the country were known to be dangerous for travelers. On the other hand I was flying direct to the nations capital, Phnom Penh, and, from there, onto the famous Angkor Wat a world heritage site and a major tourist attraction. It seemed safe enough. But then I was young.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that not only did I only set eyes on a handful of fellow tourists during my 3 days visiting Angkor Wat, but that the Cambodian army were still fighting Khmer Rouge troops in the mountains not far away. I approached a senior army official, a general I think, and arranged for two cars and a small complement of troops to accompany me to a small temple (i.e. Banteay Srei) on the outskirts of the huge Angkor Wat region.

Banteay Srei

My car was positioned in the middle of the convoy. The idea being that if the road had been mined the front car would likely cop the blast. I was told that the troops were there not so much to protect me from the Khmer Rouge, but from regular army troops who had defected and turned to banditry after not being paid. 

Banteay Srei itself was a lovely site, though I have never known such humidity. The sweat was pouring off my face and into my eyes, where it stung. At one stage, just as I was about to release my camera's shutter, a huge boom pierced the silence. I turned to my guide and asked what was going on. He explained that it was the army firing on the Khmer Rouge. Concerned, I asked how far away they were. He said maybe 20 kilometers, so there was no need to worry. I took a moment to look into the impenetrable jungle that surrounded us and, somewhat perplexed, went back to making photos.

Beauty and Horror

The above photo was made at the infamous Killing Fields, not far out of Phnom Penh. I'm very much interested in duality and the horror depicted in the shrine, containing actual skulls from folks brutally murdered at this very site, is juxtaposed with what is, I hope, a beautiful black and white image.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields is quite a surreal place. Earlier that day I had visited Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, a former school used as a torture facility for many of those who were then taken to the Killing Fields to meet their final doom. It was a very morbid place and a look into the insane philosophy that underpinned the Khmer Rouge. To be murdered just because the glasses you were wearing marked you as educated is not what you expect in a deeply buddhist country. As I say, duality. 

Travel is probably the best thing we can do for ourselves. It's a great way to explore and experience the human condition and really makes you grateful for the country you were born in and the opportunities available to you. Ultimately, it makes you focus on improving yourself so that you can help others. Money well spent!

Glenn Guy

Travel Photography Guru