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New York Times’ disappointing coverage of Cambodian art

July 1, 2009

The New York Times’ art section featured a piece yesterday about Khmer photographers. It’s nice to see the NYT paying attention to Cambodia, but when the tone of their articles is so patronizing and even racist, I’d rather they just stayed away.

My guard immediately went up when the opening lines read: “While Pol Pot was still alive and civil war raged, it was a great time to be a photographer in Cambodia. That’s unless you happened to be Cambodian.” Why is this so troubling? First of all, it sets up the country’s genocide as a great artistic backdrop for career-focused photographers. Instead of speaking of photographers as being there to document the war’s atrocities, this suggests that the war was there to serve the interests of photographers looking for the perfect shot. Secondly, it (perhaps unwittingly) sets up Cambodian photographers, presumably the main subjects of the article, as “the other.”

Tom/Melon-Rouge

Tom/Melon-Rouge

Moving on, this paragraph bothered me just as much: “Though it’s perhaps taken too long for Cambodians to stake their rightful claim on some of this imagery, a handful of recent events confirmed what many have long suspected: that given a chance, Cambodians have very personal stories to tell, both in artwork and photojournalism.” Again, there are two aspects of this part that immediately jump out to me. The suggestion that it has “perhaps taken too long for Cambodians” to have ownership over their country is laughable; if Cambodians were denied this right for one day, it would be too long! Further, Cambodians have been telling their personal stories in artwork and photojournalism, among other art forms, for centuries; they did not need any recent events to spark their creativity. Every person has a personal story to tell and it is dehumanizing and racist to imply that Cambodians would be any different.

The article takes a turn for the better when it goes on to describe current projects to promote the photography and filmmaking of Cambodians, especially an exhibit at the Sa Sa Gallery in Phnom Penh that displays only work of Cambodian artists. Nevertheless, the first few paragraphs left me angry and disappointed at the New York Times’ failure to consider the humanity and agency of Cambodian people by otherizing and demeaning their art and existence.

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