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.
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
“They were just propaganda photos, rather than reality,” he
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
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
Museum in December.