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Border war, point-blank
by Louis White (sept 2009)

Photographer Eric Devries gets up close and personal photographing the daily lives of Preah Vihear-based soldiers in a country he has grown to love.

   
 
   
 

As tourists begin to trickle back to visit the Preah Vihear temple, Siem Reap-based photographer Eric Devries is presenting a series of images depicting a day in the life of a Khmer soldier.
The images, shot in the final weeks before the joint agreement to withdraw troops from the site, form his new series Khmer Standoff (at Preah Vihear).
Preferring to get up close and personal with his subjects, rather than shoot from a distance, the Dutch photographer has created a collection that provides an insight into the situation at a very timely moment.

 
   
 
   
“I wanted to do a series about the Khmer soldiers who have been there for more than one year now, and how they kill time all day during this standoff,” de Vries says.
“I heard that the tension between the Thais and the Khmer was almost history and, prior to both sides’ pulling back troops, I felt I had to go up there before it was too late.” Devries’ exhibition reveals a surprising side to soldiering.
To keep boredom at bay between scheduled postings, Khmer soldiers grew vegetables next to sandbag bunkers and even turned their hand to amateur hairdressing to make sure they looked the part, Devries reveals. Prasat Preah Vihear is located atop a cliff in the Dangrek mountain range in the far north of Cambodia; an adventurous journey from Siem Reap, particularly by motorbike during the rainy season. Devries and his two assistants stayed in Kor Muy, at the foot of the mountains, before making their way to the top the next morning. “I was really hoping that we, my assistant and brother-in-law included, could stay on top of the mountain overnight with the soldiers,” he said. “However, the military police didn’t give us permission to do so, which is completely understandable, really.”
When asked about the experience, Devries claims the soldiers were far from camera shy; all trying their best to be in the series and even going so far as to have a wardrobe change between shots. Though not permitted to photograph the huge guns facing Thailand, the intrepid trio were taken on a jungle tour by four soldiers, which followed a path through a minefield to the caves underneath the temple. The only other visitors they encountered were Khmer delegations on official visits and one Japanese tourist, but by the end of the day, Devries said, he had captured everything he wanted and more.

Much of Devries’s work is in black and white, which, he says, is simply a personal choice. But for the Khmer Standoff series, he has added a sepia tint, much like he did for his previous series Behind the Tree, Into the Light. Devries says he has been captivated by Cambodia since he first travelled to Southeast Asia in 2000. He visited four countries in almost three months, but it was the two weeks he spent in Cambodia that had the biggest impact.
“The people, the countryside and the temples; I was surprised by its beauty and all the smiling Khmer,” he says.
“From then on, I visited Cambodia almost every year to explore and take photographs, before I eventually settled down in Phnom Penh in late 2007,” Devries says. Apart from the “photographic heaven” that is Cambodia, Devries says his family is also an important tie to the country now. His wife is Khmer and recently gave birth to their daughter, C’moon.

Devries’s Khmer Standoff series was presented at the International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France, just two weeks after the photo shoot for Asia Motion, Devries’s Phnom Penh-based photo agency.
The collection will also be showing at the Chinese House lounge bar and gallery in Phnom Penh today through September 30, with the exhibition opening tonight at 7pm.

   
 
   
 
 

workshop related series

the angkor monochromes
khmer land (excerpts from the book)
east of the blind curtains
20 years cambodia

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