A Swedish photographer who in 1978 was given a staged tour of the Khmer Rouge’s communist utopia will return to Cambodia for the first time Saturday, in part to exhibit the photographs he took on the trip and in part to apologize for missing the truth.
As part of the Swedish Cambodian Friendship Association, Gunnar Bergstrom spent 14 days in Cambodia in August 1978, where he was given a public relations tour by top leaders of the regime, including Pol Pot and Ieng Sary.
He visited factories and rice fields in Phnom Penh and the countryside and walked away believing Cambodia’s economy was showing promise, that the communist agrarian experiment was working. Only later did he learn of the nearly 2 million who died under the regime.
Bergstrom will return Saturday to begin a two-week tour “to speak with over 400 commune chiefs and villagers,” the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which is supporting the exhibit, said in a statement. “He will tell Cambodians—and ultimately the world—about the things he saw, ignored, and was never shown during his first visit.”
Bergstrom will be visiting a post-war Cambodia where some
the regime leaders who hosted him are in jail under the Khmer Rouge tribunal,
awaiting trials for atrocity crimes. The first, for jailed prison chief Duch, is expected in early 2009.
The 93-photograph exhibit, “Gunnar in the Living Hell,” features “never-before-seen photographs taken exclusively from Bergstrom's personal archive of his 1978 tour,” the Documentation Center said. “They are in color—unusual for pictures taken in Democratic Kampuchea.”
The exhibit will open at Reyum Arts Gallery and the Khmer Rouge tribunal building in Phnom Penh Nov. 18, before traveling to the provinces of Kampong Cham, Takeo and Battambang later in the month. Finally, the exhibit will be permanently displayed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, with a duplicate exhibition shown in Stockholm, Sweden.
“The Khmer Rouge prepared [the visit] for him, so he could tell his people what he saw,” said Kalyanee Mam, a public affairs officer for the Documentation Center. “He was shown factories, and he visited a hospital and schools, but those were only an ideal picture that they had organized for him. He could not see behind the scenes.”
“What he saw was busy activity, and that made him think that Cambodia was developing its economy,” she said. “But later, he knew that nearly 2 million were killed in Pol Pot’s regime, and then he felt so guilty. He wanted to present his apology to everyone, because he did not know the truth.... He strongly supports the Khmer Rouge tribunal.”
“As with most visual documents produced for the Khmer Rouge,
Bergstrom's collection includes no photos of the torture, starvation, death,
and despair for which the Khmer Rouge is so reviled,” the Documentation Center
said. “These omissions beg the questions: Was there any justification for the
Swedes' support of the Khmer Rouge? Did the Khmer Rouge cadres filter what the
Swedes saw, or were the Swedes willfully blind to the conditions surrounding
them? Were the Swedes hapless bystanders—or were they, too, victims of the
manipulated and duped by the regime?”