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Photos Show Chams in Another Light

In one photo a Cambodian Cham carries a traditional scarf over his left shoulder, his home festooned with lights to welcome friendly spirits and keep the malicious at bay. In another, three old Cham men in white dress and headscarves worship at a mosque. Such are the divergent portrayals in a new photo exhibition highlighting nine years of work by Emiko Stock, a French anthropologist who studies the minority group here.

“The exhibition is to show the public that there is not just one group of Chams, or the same Cham community, in Cambodia,” said Stock, whose 88 black and white photos were on display Monday night at Phnom Penh’s Reyum Institute. “In fact, the Chams in Cambodia have various characteristics in terms of celebrating marriages, religious rituals, or even the way they address their parents.”

The photos were taken from 2000 to 2009, in the provinces of Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang and Mondolkiri, as well as Phnom Penh.

“I think the show will enable viewers to understand that the Chams are different from Islam or Muslims, as is widely misunderstood,” Leb Ke, a Cham, said at the exhibition.

The Chams are descendents of the lost Champa empire, located in today’s Vietnam. When the Vietnamese conquered the kingdom in the 15th Century, the Chams were forced to move into southern Vietnam and Cambodia.

In Cambodia, the group numbers nearly half a million, and most—but not all—are Muslim. And though the group has been here a long time, it is little understood.

“Some people who were led to believe bad rumors about the Cham will better understand their ethics,” said Nos Sles, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, of the exhibition.

The exhibition, which was shown in Malaysia in October, will move to Hawaii in January.