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...