“Over the years I have been invited into countless Cambodian homes to photograph. 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.” - Pete Pin
More than three decades after the Killing Fields, the aftermath persists in the Cambodian American community. It is felt in the silence between generations. Cambodians who lived through the genocide not only remain silent because they do not know how to speak of what they lived through, but often because they literally do not speak the same language as their Cambodian American children. I Am Khmer is a participatory, community-based project in development that explores memory and identity in the Cambodian American community.
While it has spanned many years and multiple cities I Am Khmer began with a single conversation between Pin and his grand-mother. Through this powerful family moment, his Grandmother shared a photograph that changed his understanding of his family's history, and shifted the trajectory of his documentary practice.
Throughout the project, Pete has sought to not only document a diverse and evolving community, but to use photography as a vehicle for sparking intergenerational dialogue and understanding. While beginning as a traditional documentary project, I Am Khmer has since evolved to feature a national series of collaborative workshops where participants interview family members, document family photos, and work with Pin to tell their family's story.
Over the years Pin has engaged a multitude of tactics and strategies for using photography as a tool for collaboration and community engagement. By revealing the evolution of his process we hope that this document will help others expand their own practice. Follow the timeline below for an abridged history of Pete’s process as he moved from first-person documentary storytelling to participatory practice.
Cambodian refugees enter the U.S. In the 1980’s, nearly 150,000 Cambodians resettled in the U.S. as refugees. Nearly all were survivors of civil war and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, which claimed the lives of an estimated 1.7 million of their countrymen.
Pete interviews his grandmother for the first time. Here, he learns of his family’s history in the Cambodian Killing Fields.
Through this interview, Pete learns of one of only two existing photographs saved by his family from before the Killing Fields.
“It was as if this window was opening in front of me...to a life that my mother and family had in a place that I am totally disconnected from.”
Through the discovery of the photo, Pete sees photography in a new light. The photo enabled him to connect to a past he felt disconnected from.
Pete realizes he needs to see beyond the centrality of the image - that photos can serve as a bridge to connect youth to their family’s story.
Bring the Project Into Your Classroom!
Teaching Idea #1: Work with your students to choose a person that they wish they knew more about (could be a family member or a stranger, a neighbor). Have each student ask their subject, "What is one photograph or object that you would never want to let go?" Then have each student interview the person about why they chose that object, where they got it, and why it is important to them. Then take a portrait of the subject and a photograph of the chosen object. Come up with a creative way to include the text from the interview and combine with the images.
Pete works extensively to document the Cambodian diaspora in various east coast cities and holds exhibitions in non-traditional art spaces; community centers and the lobby's of his partners. These early community partnerships help the project expand in later phases.
Kaylee Tuy, 2, and Kevin Vann, 4, in the living room of their Lowell Massachusetts home in February
Pete receives a fellowship at the Magnum Foundation and begins to photograph in-depth in the Bronx
While photographing in the Bronx, Pete partners with Mekong New York and the Indochinese Mental Health Clinic. Pete experiments with his first community installation in the basement of a Cambodian American home in the Bronx, inviting community members and their children.
Although Pete’s documentary photographs were engaging to the younger Cambodian generation traditional documentary images don’t translate to cambodian elders.
“I believed naively that photography was a universal language, that images can penetrate cultural and generational barriers. This is not the case.”
There was a discord between my desire to engage directly with the community and my aesthetic ideals as a documentarian, which paradoxically straddle two different cultural frameworks. I wanted to reach community members by photographing them and in the process discovered that true engagement would require them to become more active participants in the process.
To address his frustrations Pete both expands the project while simultaneously going back to it’s origins; his experience with grandmother and the photo. The focus turns from documenting others to working with others to discover the oral and photographic history in their own homes and communities.
“My experience with my grandmother, where we engaged with our shared past through images can be performed in the homes of other Cambodian Americans. The act of photographing can produce space for dialogue around family ephemera brought before the war or produced during stays in refugee camps.” - Pete Pin
Building on the experience with the Ung family, Pete facilitates additional family interactions focused on family history and ephemera.
“The key is not the image itself, it’s the process of finding that photographic artifact, and then connecting with their elders about the embedded memories within the image, and then taking ownership, being a guardian of their families story, and to be able to narate their stories they gained through the intergenerational experience. That’s the key, that’s what’s important, thats what’s powerful to me.” - Pete Pin
Expanding on the experience with the Ung family and others , Pete attempts to host a public version of this experience in Lowell, Mass. The workshop brought local Cambodian youth together to connect with their families and work with their elders to look through family photos. Although no photos are made by the young participants (no portraits of elders or scans of documents), the stories from their family interactions that the youth shared on the second day of the workshop were incredibly powerful.
Pete views the experience as incredibly important: “the act of looking for the photo can lead to insights, and that importantly, creating the space for young Cambodians to talk about these experiences was unique and incredibly powerful. So while we never made any photos, it gave me insights that help re-derect the entire project." However, new needs arise. Looking back, there was no prepping the youth for their interactions at home. While there was no emphasis on interviewing family members many of the youth did. Since these conversations with elders can often lead to talking about traumatic events, Pete saw the importance of properly preparing participants.
Pete learns youth must navigate hierarchies at home in which elders may not take them seriously. However, the very act of asking family members about ephemera can lead to newfound discoveries and meaningful conversations about family story.
Sharing insights gained from home collectively in a workshop is a powerful experience.
With additional funding, Pete works with a design team to refine the workshop experience and create materials to better prepare participants for interviewing family members in positive and trauma-informed ways. The workshops are increasingly powerful but Pete realizes that diptychs aren't enough.
"what participants were learning through the process was much more than two images or two stories. You can’t constrain people if the story they want is more expansive than that, and the places they want to go is more expansive than that.”
“I still feel I should continue making the portraits, but what participants want to contribute and what they can contribute is so much more than that."
We need to partner with organizations with mental health resources and liaisons or staff, and have a third party sit in during group discussions to safeguard against re-introduction of trauma, also, having the workshops within an organization is critical to connecting people in a space and with a community partner that they can continually engage with.
Need to be sensitive to the needs of elders who were interviewed and photographed, need to integrate them into the collective dialogue, while still respecting the space for youth to have conversations among themselves.
As each participant works with their elders to tell their family journeys, broader and more nuanced stories of diaspora began to surface in the workshops.
To portray these collective yet individual experiences, a mobile, generative installation was created. Two large-scale maps -- one of Cambodia and one of the U.S. -- became the poles through which participants physically mapped their families’ journey from Cambodia to America by stringing polaroids with their own personal captions from one side to another in order to represent their family’s journey.
Though most of the workshops are youth focused, they now culminate with a public event where elders and youth come together to share histories, reflections, and their experiences throughout the project.The images documented by workshop participants were originally simply uploaded to the project Facebook page but they found that simply photographing old images didn’t convey their tangible power, they needed to be physical. This leads to including the cell-phone image to polaroid copy component. Re-creating a tangible artifact from the experience that documents the history and interactive experience.
Pete works with a designer to modify and expand the participant booklet. Elements that were added and expanded include: guidance on how to interview and photograph family members, space for written reflections to be done during workshop, a timeline indicating four distinct and relevant historical periods to help guide participants in their conversations with family members and suggested interview questions.