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A Rejection of Photos, Not the Photographer

Photographer Gunnar Bergstrom, who toured the country under the Khmer Rouge in 1978 as part of a group of Swedish sympathizers, began a series of seminars and photo exhibitions Tuesday in an effort to come to grips with the past and explain to Cambodians how he was denied the truth.

The 93-photograph exhibit, “Gunnar in the Living Hell,” features never-seen photographs from Bergstrom’s personal archive. Cambodians in Phnom Penh, where the exhibit opened Tuesday, expressed discontent with the photographs, but not with the man who took them.

Photos that show people carrying earth in shoulder-pole baskets, smiling and eating together, do not reflect the reality of the regime, said Prum Net, a 66-year-old farmer from Takeo province, who was invited to the exhibition by the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

“In fact, people looked really upset under the Pol Pot regime. They were forced to work, not smiling,” he said.

Phnom Penh resident Keo Sovann, who was examining the photograph of a boy undertaking math at a black board, said that during the time of the Khmer Rouge no such thing existed.

“This is just a fake photograph that the Khmer Rouge set up to show the world that the regime looked good, that they were educated people, but in fact, there was none,” he said.

As part of the Swedish Cambodian Friendship Association, Bergstrom spent 14 days in Cambodia in August 1978, where he was given an idealized tour of factories and fields by top leaders of the regime, including Pol Pot and Ieng Sary.

Pol Pot died in 1998 without seeing trial. Ieng Sary is now in a Khmer Rouge tribunal detention facility, facing atrocity crimes along with four other jailed leaders of the ultra-Maoist regime.

Reach Sambath, spokesman for the tribunal, said at the opening Tuesday that the photos may not be acceptable to some survivors of the regime.

“They were just propaganda photos, rather than reality,” he said.

Still, Reach Sambath praised the efforts of the photographer for his “courage” in showing the exhibition and accepting that he had been duped by the Khmer Rouge.

Som Pov, a 63-year-old commune chief from Takeo, said that even if the photos did not reflect reality, Bergstrom had simply captured images of subjects organized for him.

“Even now, when an inspector comes to inspect, there must be an arrangement beforehand,” she said. “So Gunnar was just taking the already arranged photographs.”

The exhibit will now move to other provinces, including Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Battambang and Takeo. The exhibit will go on permanent display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in December.