[Editor’s Note: Arjay Stevens has been capturing images of Cambodia since 1996. In a recent interview with VOA Khmer, the German photographer described the process of falling in love with images of Cambodia, from daily life to local art and silk weaving to political demonstrations. Stevens has compiled numerous books about Cambodia, the most recent depicting to the world of a Cambodian Royal Ballet dancer who survived the Khmer Rouge regime.]
When did you first visit Cambodia, and what made you keep coming back?
Well I came now almost 20 years ago in 1996, first to Cambodia, and it was against my intention because I was invited by a Cambodian friend, who left Berlin, my hometown, back to Cambodia. He was invited to build up a Cambodian library again. When he went there I was very surprised because he lost half of his family during the Khmer Rouge time and I did not think he would go back again, but he did it. But then he said, ‘Please you should visit me.’ I said, ‘No. I don’t go to Cambodia. It’s too hot and you still have the civil war and the mosquito and the humidity.’ I had a lot of reasons not to go, but another friend of mine insisted, step by step, and it made me say yes at the end. So we went to Cambodia and it was kind of a virus. From the first day, I loved it very much.
And there was a little story about it when we came out from the airport, Pochentong. At that time it was a little bit too early to see the Water Festival. It was at that time. It was too early, and I was a little bit disappointed that we would not see it. But when we came out of the airport and driving by car into the city, suddenly we saw a big boat transported by a lot of people and I jumped out of the car and took the pictures. So that was the start of the love for the country.
Were you already a photographer before you came here?
Well actually I was an amateur photographer since I was eight years old. I had a simple camera and started photographing all my life. But that was not my professional job. I used to be a scientist. I used to be a scientific assistance to a Nobel Prize winning professor, O.Warburg at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin for many years. And then I changed again. I studied Pharmacy and became head of a pharmacy department at the biggest hospital in Berlin. I retired from that because I love photograph, love arts, then I changed completely into a professional photographer and that how it is now.
I think I was one of the first who made a really big photo exhibition about Cambodia in 1997 in Berlin. It lasted more than six weeks in one of the biggest libraries in Berlin. It was successful. People wanted to know about Cambodia at that time after the Khmer Rouge. It was very interesting.
Could you tell us what you showed people in Germany at that time?
Well it was everyday life. It was about hope. The title I made for this exhibition was a little girl holding a hibiscus flower in her hands. When you look at her face it was like hope. It was the first stage of development. It was not clear if Cambodia could develop well or not, so I photographed the whole spectrum of life. You know: landscape, people, food; everything actually. It was the whole spectrum. It was very interesting for people to see also about things from Khmer Rouge like S-21, the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, and Choeung Ek. And also from Siem Reap, the temples—that was a special focus. And then I made another exhibition about the first elections in 1993. I did this also in Berlin. That was also very successful.
Do you have photos of big historical events in Cambodia?
Yes, I have. Well, in the beginning I counted my pictures then I came to maybe 20,000 or so, but after many years I forgot to count. I cannot count them anymore. Maybe I have millions from all the civil society, from art, from people, everything. Also from the demonstrations we had last year, you know. I was in the middle of it all. When you are in a country in transition, then the photographer should focus on everything not only on certain thing—not only on art.
What made you compile your book, “A Century Artist,” about the ballet dancer Neak Krou Em Theay?
Well, Neak Krou Em Theay, I met at the very first year , as I write in the book. I realize there is somebody special. Later, I found out who she is and what her history is. During the years, she is still active. Suddenly I thought to myself, well, that this octogenarian lady will not live forever, so I should try to get an interview with her. I did this in 2012, and she was very kind and very warm as ever. When I did the interview, I also realized her living condition and I was surprised about how, an icon of art in Cambodia, such a famous lady, is living under poor condition. I thought to myself, I should do something for her. First of all I should make an homage not to forget her by doing an exhibition, but also to make a book a catalog. Also, future generations will not forget her and know what she did—what was her great work? During that time I got the opportunity to find sponsors to fund this work, which was not easy.
So it took more than 10 years to compile the book?
Well, since the beginning, since 1996 actually. I wanted to photograph Reamker Lakhaon Khaol [a form of traditional Khmer theater]. Em Theay was directing that, helping to do the custom and giving the instruction on what to do and so on. That was the first time I saw her. I did not know her before. But the context that makes me become familiar with her, and actually we became friends in a way, you know. We did not meet so many times, but always again and again during festivals or during Oum Tuk when we meet. We always meet somehow, so I was really surprised she was still teaching, and even now she still goes every Sunday to the orphanage in Sre Ampil and is still teaching. On the back of the motorbike, she goes 30 kilometers or more on that dusty and bumpy road every Sunday. For me I would not do that, but she still does that all the time. It’s really amazing and it shows her passion toward the art and give to the next generation to not be forgotten—it's so important.
You are planning a book on the Reamker tradition of epic storytelling. Could you explain how you photograph this subject?
Well first of all, the old ones, you can go to the temple and Angkor, you can see many of them. For instance in Bapuon and Vat Nokor. And then you have the mural painting in the royal place. And I took these pictures in 1997. I think I was the first [photographer] who took all the 620 meters in colors. Before that, it was only taken before the Khmer Rouge in black and white. I was told half of them vanished and were destroyed somehow, so this is the other part of the mural paining is the shadow game. It is the Lakhaon Khaol theater. Many of these things and also modern kind of advertisement, the youth characters from Ream Ker like Hanuman. You can see many times. They used Reamker. Because all the people know them, know the characters, but nowadays, younger people are not so sure anymore. When I talked to the younger people, [they say] ’what is this what is that. I’m not sure.’ That’s why I also want to make this art to not be forgotten. It is so important, so interesting and so heart touching. I really love it. It’s a lot of work, but I will do it.
Do you have any advice for the young generation in Cambodia?
I definitely have advice. I always tell them when I meet young friends and students, to read books, read newspapers, get information. That’s so important. When I compare Cambodia with Vietnam I see people reading books. They [Vietnamese] sit in the cafe or in the streets reading books. I’ve never seen that in Cambodia. Cambodians read magazines mostly. They need to be opened to the development in the world.