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Photographer Hei Han Khiang, ‘Right Place, Right Time’

After Hei Han Khiang survived a forced labor camp for children under the Khmer Rouge, he wanted little more than to live a life of peace. But innate talent and dogged pursuit enabled him to become an accomplished photographer.

Now living in the New York, Hei Han Khiang was born in 1968 to a family of six near Phnom Penh’s Damkor Market. His father was a teacher and noodle shop owner.

The Khmer Rouge pushed the family to Battambang province as the regime enacted Year Zero, and Hei Han Khiang lost an older brother and older sister. After the regime’s overthrow, the family sought refuge in the US, by way of Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. Finally, in 1981, they arrived in New York.

“When I first came here I had no clue what the city was going to be like,” Hei Han Khiang told VOA Khmer in a phone interview. “I came here with a pair of sandles, and it was cold, but I was so amazed to see the streets, big buildings, and we lived near the bridge here. It was just amazing, George Washington Bridge, how long it is. And there was just so much to buy, so much selling in the stores, so many kinds of food here, different kinds of people. You know, when we first came here, we ate a lot of meat.”

When he first arrived in the United States, he had few ambitions, having survived his ordeal in Cambodia.

“It was still fresh in my memory, war, evacuation, and escaping from one place to another in refugee camps,” Hei Han Khiang said. “We didn’t have much of anything, so we didn’t really see very far. I think maybe it was just culturally shocking to me to see, you know, a new world.”

As time passed, his interests grew: he wanted to be a teacher, or doctor; his parents wanted him to go into business. In the end, he realized his interest was in the arts. He began snapping pictures of his family, who had never had photographs before. His love of the art form grew from there.

He began taking classes at the Cooper Union School, on Saturdays.

Marina Gutierrez, director of Cooper Union’s Saturday Arts Program, said still remembers him.

“Khiang mentioned us as helping open his eyes to art, but he also helped us open our eyes to a larger world,” Gutierrez said. “When he was a student with us, I can’t say he showed much promise in drawing or painting, but he has an incredible spirit, and I think that’s something that you cannot teach somebody. That’s what really makes the artist.”

Hei Han Khiang’s art, temperament and spirit are interchangeable, she said, contributing to a successful career.

“When he was my student I thought that he was a wonderful person,” Gutierrez said. “I didn’t have any idea that he would become a wonderful photographer and artist, because the work he did was OK. It was not notable. As a teacher, you can never imagine a limit on somebody. Only they can define their own limit.”

Hei Han Khiang went to State University of New York, in Buffalo, in 1988. He was sent by the university to study Chinese language, culture, history, political science and paintings in Beijing, from September 1988 through June 1989. Just then, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations broke out.

Hei Han Khiang photographed the unrest, proving his mettle as a photographer.

Dee Wedemeyer, a former employer, recalled Hei Han Khiang as a courageous, dedicated, and talented photographer.

“He makes sacrifices to make this trip abroad to take photographs, and he is a documentarian,” Wedemeyer said. “He documents anything that other people have not found. You know, walking the Ho Chi Minh Trail is not something that everyone has done.”

Thirty of his Tiananmen photographs were displayed at Christonpher Henry Gallery, New York, from May 29 through June 28, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the crackdown.

The gallery’s owner, Christopher Henry, told VOA Khmer he selected the photographs from thousands of applicants.

Henry said sometimes photojournalists can be too good at taking pictures: their images can look unreal. Hei Han Khiang’s photos were honest and real, and the exhibition was a success.

The images were visually striking and iconic, he said, and, coming from a student, came from a different perspective.

“It really has a much more honest impression,” Henry said. “Any images therefore were much more [like] somebody just happened to be at the right place at the right time, rather than somebody that was sent there to chronicle or document an event.”