Friday, January 2, 2009

Between Heaven and Earth: KD17506

Photo by: UNHCR/KD17506/ Refugee Camp II/Thailand 1984

This picture is my story. An image that speaks for every fiber of my soul, every reason for my being. It is, in many respects, the image that I've longed to recapture.

Every time I look at this image, I am born again. A constant reminder at the journey we've been through as a family, as refugees, as survivors of war and genocide. It is a reflection of me that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

From 1975 to 1979, my parents were separated from their family, torn apart by civil war in Cambodia--a spillover from the war in nearby Vietnam. Lead by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge began a campaign to exterminate anyone who could rise against them: doctors, teachers, monks, and civil servants--anyone who had a voice. The rest were put to toil in slave camps through out the country--working 16 hours on one meal a day. Those who received a bullet to the head were considered lucky--the rest were left to starve. By the end of their reign in 1979, over 2 million Cambodians had perished, half of Cambodia's population. It was later dubbed by the international community as the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

In July of 1979, my parents escaped the slave camp they were in. Walking for 3 days without food or water thru dense jungles littered with landmines, they finally made it to the safety of a UN refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border. In December of 1980, I was born.

Sitting here tonight, I am neither embarrassed nor ashamed to tell this story. In fact, I'm rather proud. Proud of my parents. Proud to be their son.

But as I gaze upon this image, sorrow invades my soul. I remember the hardships we faced, the hunger we felt and the poverty we endured. Combined with a constant barrage of robbing and looting from within the camp, we were forced to live our lives in constant fear. At night, the stars would illuminate the sky, lighting a path for us to run for safety from within our very own safety zone--as Thai soldiers would invade our camp, sometimes, taking everything we had--our pots and pans, pillows and blankets. Life as refugees meant you were nothing more than an international homeless person.

The first five years of my life was spent there. I don't remember much, but what I do remember most was the hunger and fear--it's something you can't forget, no matter how old you are. On a weekly basis, aid workers would hand out rice and tuna, but it was never enough. Sharing food rations between the three of us, there were times when my parents did not eat, so I could. People died from eating whatever they could find in the jungle.

This picture is a testament to our survival.

Sometimes, I envision myself behind the camera, the photographer taking this picture. I wonder if he or she had ever imagined that an image like this could have such a profound effect on ones life. I wonder what the photographer was thinking...

As old and torn this picture may be, it is the picture of my family that I treasure in my wallet--reminding me of my haunting past. I've come a long way, that' s for sure. But when people ask me how I got started doing what I do or what motivates me while I'm shooting, I show them this picture--and just like that, they understand.

I hope you understand too...


Dan Denardo said...

WoW. This is an amazing post, awesome testimony to your family and your journey. Thanks for sharing your very compelling and heartfelt story. Whew. This explains a lot. You're amazing, man. I'm proud to call you friend.

Blue said...

I just stumbled upon your blog. Enjoy following your lens and your passion to read these touching stouries. also I love travel, was in Cambodia last winter. I talked many people and been to museums, killing now I am living in a bit similar regime. So I understand you perfectly, wish u all the best

The Demigoddess said...

This post got me teary-eyed. (I would have cried if I was the really sentimental type.)Wow. People who have had to struggle so much always come out strong, sometimes become successful. But they always inspire others because of what they had to endure and how they survived.

My own family story isn't as wrought with danger as yours. And it may not be as awe-inspiring but we did have our share of challenges. Our experiences taught us to appreciate life and to always be thankful for the family that we have.

Thanks for sharing.


Jay said...

Wow. What am amazing story, so raw and uninhibited.

Reading this, I thought of my own 2 Thai sisters. (I am the youngest of 5 adopted siblings, 2 of which are Thai) -- I couldn't help but think how lucky I am that they are in my family and not there. Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

Ron, I am speechless. I feel so humbled by your post, it's a truly amazing part of your life that you've shared with us.

Thank you so much!

Ron said...

Thank you all for your kind words. I'm glad I can share this story with people who understand the complexity of our lives--the complixity of all humans as we all share this earth.

If you're interested, I'd like to continue this story when time permits me to write.


DUTA said...

I'm wordless. The picture and your touching narration say it all.
The U.N. with all its flaws as an international organization was often lifesaving.and it should be appreciated.

Small Footprints said...

What an amazing experience and I can see why that photo is so precious to you. It says everything. You are a fabulous writer ... I look forward to the continuation of your family's story.

BTW ... thank you for stopping by my site. I'm going to follow you as well and add you to my blog roll!

Take Care!

Small Footprints

SearchingSoul said...

Dear Ron,

I can't control my tears as I read your blog. It's so beautiful it hurts to the core.

Your past has made you a beautiful soul.


sanjit said...

Great story..very inspiring!Thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

ah, my god.. i love your blog. This is the kind of thing i love to read and the kind of experiences i wish to have.
keep it up =]
and thank you for looking at my own blog.

John said...

Ron, my friend, that is indeed a dramatic life you went through as a kid, with your courageous parents.

They made the right choice to escape. Such a significant decision that changed the life of a great man that will be born.

I'm proud to have you as a friend, and even more proud of your parents, for what they sacrificed for you, risking their lives to escape and skimping on their food just to ensure that you were fed.

By the way, that looks like a beer belly at 4 years old ;)

I had always read about the evil Pol Pot, but had never come across anyone who actually escaped from his devilish schemes. Amazing testimony Ron. Please continue the story.

Cheryl said...

That's such a beautiful story, beautifully written, beautiful picture- beautiful everything.
People who have lived through war, or experienced the aftermath of it always have the most tear-jerking stories about living through death. It makes me sad to know that there are those scarred for life because of war, and yet, it still happens.

Suzanne said...

Your post is amazing, I am thankful your shared your post with us, keep writing and taking photos it really is a story that needs to be told.

Javier said...

This blog really makes me shiver... I thank you for your work and your goals. And I somehow envy you for being able to make a living out of what you like. I'm close to it but not quite THERE yet...

May 2009 bring you joy, peace and more magic to your life. I will add your blog to my favourites.


floreta said...

wow. this is a beautiful entry about where you come from. i enjoyed reading it. thanks for sharing and leaving comments on my blog :) i am really interested in what you have to say here and will bookmark your site.

Marissa said...

This is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. I already love your blog - and you're right, we have the same philosophy on life, and the human experience. We are all connected.

Anonymous said...

Bloghopped and came across yours. This is an inspiring story. I would love to read more about your life. Thanks.


Bon Don said...

This post touched my heart. I'm speechless, thank you for sharing your amazing story. I can imagine the pride and love you feel for your family... so beautiful.

Diana said...

Hey Ron,
thanks for the comment :)
I find your post so touching as well as the others who left you comments... thanks for sharing the photo & your heartfelt story!

I also find what you do as a career very intriguing. How did you start? & how did you teach yourself photography?


Random Hiccups said...

Wow, what an incredible story. I am moved by your story. Thank you for sharing.

SearchingSoul said...

Hi Ron,

I'm so happy that more and more people are reading your blog. You have so much to share. Keep sharing them.

I visited your website and I am so struck with awe at your accomplishments, yet you remained as humble and generous.

Wishing you more success in life. You truly deserve the blessings coming your way.

Ron said...

Everyone, thank you so much for your kind words. I'm overwhelmed by the openness of my readers--your ability to accept this type of story for what it is. It has motivated me to continue this chronicle and I will be posting the 2nd chapter shortly.

Searching Soul,
Thank you for taking the time to view my personal sight. Through the years, I've had a lot of help and support from people of all walks of life: family, friends, journalists, politicians, writers, and strangers I'd meet in the middle of nowhere--those who rose to be the best at what they do. As successfull as they are, they took the time to return my emails, call me back, encourage me, etc. And I've never forgotten that. I want to be JUST LIKE THEM. They are my true heroes.

I'd rather use my success (for whatever it is worth right now) to connect with the world, rather than being selfish and keeping it to myself.

Thank you again!

Anonymous said...

The photo is beautiful, you have the right to be proud of your family!

Anonymous said...


Hey bro good story bringing back a lot of memory and saddness - one day I would love to catch up with you again soon.

I am really proud of what you have become and keep up the good work.

By the way I still got the photos taken together as a family in the camp gotta look for it and scanned and put on here.


Maggie May said...

wow. thank you so much for sharing your story. i read 'first they killed my father' and was incapacitated. it is too much for mere words.

Hieng said...

Hi, I'm an Australian-born Cambodian and my family went through almost exactly the same thing. They escaped to Thailand with only a small bag of rice on my mother's head, hidden underneath a hat, to feed a family of 4 at the time for 3 days. Having been born in a Western country, I'm grateful for how they came through. They seldom talk to me about their experiences, but as I am researching more and more into the civil war in Cambodia, I begin to understand the hardship, the fear, poverty and hunger that they went through. Thank you.

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