"I Am Khmer"
It's been one incredible journey working on this project. I can't believe it's been nearly four years since that fateful interview with my grandmother in Stockton, CA that cracked open a story that I knew had to be told, though I couldn't yet imagine how to tell it.
I have spent countless hours inside homes, temples, on the streets -- building a visual narrative of the Cambodian American experience and the generational divide so distinctive to it. I have watched mothers and fathers pull out boxes of documents and photographs from the past, have witnessed as they share stories and experiences from the past with their children, often for the first time, as my grandmother had those years ago. Family after family, home after home, I have witnessed the power of photography and visual storytelling in a new light.
In Philadelphia, I partnered with the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia to work with youth and elders as part of their Legacy programming, which aims to bridge that generational chasm. In Lowell, I held workshops with Cambodian youth encouraging them to seek out their family relics and stories.
In the Bronx, in partnership with Mekong NYC, Montefiore Family Health Center, and En Foco, I installed three floors worth of photos, some measuring 3x5 feet large, in a clinic that treated Cambodian refugees for PTSD.
Throughout this process, I have been guided by a simple idea; that simply photographing was not enough. No longer satisfied with documenting and photographing alone, I have been exploring how to use visual narrative and storytelling to build a space for conversations across generations.
In the last year, my very process of photographing has changed. I have come to understand that photographing can generate a literal space for dialogue in the families I am photographing. To emphasize this, I began placing family artifacts beside portraits to create an ongoing series of diptych portraits of Cambodian elders that speak about memory.
Produced on location in the living rooms of Cambodian Americans, these diptychs combine a portrait with archival scans of documents and photographs saved from before the war or during stays in refugee camps. Having lost the entirety of their worldly belongings, these objects are often the only tangible bridge that connects the past with the present.
Making each diptych is a process that involves multiple generations of a family being present. I reach out to young Cambodian Americans who then enlist their parents and family members to be photographed. They sort through documents and items from the past together. I listen to their stories and watch as the conversation between them and their children opens up.
These diptych's were inspired by that first conversation I had with my grandmother. Then, I learned that among the few family possessions saved from before the war was a family portrait that had been buried during the revolution and later retrieved and brought to the U.S. I understood instinctively the significance of that portrait -- not as a photograph, but as a tangible connection to the life my family had in Cambodia before the Killing Fields that forever changed them and their generation.
Expanding on these insights, for the last year I have been exploring how to use new technologies and participatory storytelling to enable young Cambodians to take ownership of their family stories. In labs and hackathons organized by the Magnum Foundation and Open Society Foundation's Photography Expanded Initiative, I have developed a mock-up prototype for a web and mobile based documentary interactive that we are calling simply, and proudly, "I Am Khmer."
"I Am Khmer" aims to take this sharing of artifacts and images that I witnessed as I went from home to home across Cambodian American communities and create an interactive, mobile and web platform for it. Rather than urging young Cambodian Americans to invite me into their homes to photograph and look through ephemera, it will create a space and set of tools that will allow them to do so themselves, using participatory storytelling centered around ephemera saved from before the war and refugee camps.
I am so incredibly excited about this new and possibly revolutionary chapter of this project. But much work needs to be done in the months and possibly year ahead to make it a reality.
Many of you have reached out to me about your rewards. I sincerely apologize for the delay. I'm so relieved to be able to say that the fold out booklets - which includes images produced during this campaign in addition to some of my favorite photographs from across the country - are printed and ready to ship out. Each will be lovingly hand folded by me and will be sent to every backer who contributed above $25.
Moving forward, this project will continue to evolve and grow, and I with it. I thank you so much for your support.