Anthropologist Connects Communities to Archive of Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia

Jenna Grant first learned about the complexities of modern-day Cambodia while working on a World Health Organization project along the country’s northwest border with Thailand.

There, she lived and worked with people who had been separated from their villages during the Khmer Rouge regime decades before — a time of violence and authoritarianism under Pol Pot that left up to one-quarter of the country’s population dead and a devastating legacy affecting generations. After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, many fled starvation, uncertainty and war, some living up to a decade of their lives in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. The majority were repatriated in Cambodia in the early 1990s, and some settled in other countries, including the United States. Trauma, poverty and language barriers have left young and old unclear, unable or unwilling to communicate about the past.

Since Grant arrived as an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Anthropology, she has worked to create sites for stories of and about Cambodians to be told, through teaching, guest speakers, a multimedia installation and work with the local Cambodian community.

Grant’s newest endeavor explores a collaborative approach to narrating history. Through a $10,000 Whiting Foundation Seed Grant, she will turn to an collection of photos and documents from the final weeks of the Khmer Rouge, an archive that — serendipitously —  is housed in Special Collections at UW Libraries. Donated in the late 2000s by journalist and UW alumna Elizabeth Becker, the archive provides unique insight into a difficult, and in some ways mysterious, period in Cambodian history. Grant’s Archive Actions project uses the unique documents of the Becker collection as prompts, provocations and raw materials for storytelling and artistic production by communities affected by the Khmer Rouge.

Elizabeth Becker was a Washington Post reporter in 1978 when she was one of two journalists from mainstream Western media invited to visit Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was then known. Photo of woman standing against a wall.

Elizabeth Becker was a Washington Post reporter in 1978 when she was one of two journalists from mainstream Western media invited to visit Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was then known.Elizabeth Becker

“When I learned that Elizabeth Becker’s archive was at UW Libraries, I was just blown away,” Grant said. “This is a unique and special collection because there aren’t a lot of images and texts from that period of time. It is important that Cambodians and Cambodian Americans shape the archive and representations of their histories.”

Becker was a Washington Post reporter in 1978, when she was one of only two journalists from mainstream Western media invited to visit Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was known under the Khmer Rouge. In her coverage of the trip and subsequent recounting of it, Becker noted the empty cities, children working the farmland and rumors of mass killings — a contrast to when she had lived in the country in previous years. She took notes and photos and managed to save enough not only for an archive, but also for use years later during the genocide trial for leaders of the very regime she covered.

Grant first looked through the archive in 2017, when she, along with UW Southeast Asia Librarian Judith Henchy and filmmaker and UW graduate student Adrian Alarilla, created an interactive installation at the UW Research Commons Library. Using some of Becker’s photographs of people and scenes from her 1978 reporting trip, the team superimposed a map of Cambodia’s killing fields, projecting the whole piece against a floor-to-ceiling window. That work, “The Age of the Kampuchea Picture,” was installed in honor of a visit to the UW by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, who had collaborated with Becker on an earlier documentary.

Henchy notes that Becker’s photographs are among the few taken by an outside observer during the Khmer Rouge regime. Becker’s tour was carefully managed by that regime, but her photos are nevertheless striking, Henchy said, demonstrating a critical issue for any such archive: “how to describe and represent the material history of violence in ways that are both objective and morally aware.”

“Thinking about what stories we inevitably weave around these images, it is disturbing how little we know of the lives of the people represented – we know nothing of their political views, their status in the brutal society in which they found themselves, and above all, we know nothing of their fates,” said Henchy.

Becker's tour of the country was carefully managed by the Khmer Rouge, which wanted to show people content and at work in the countryside. Photo of couple outside a house.

Becker’s tour of the country was carefully managed by the Khmer Rouge, which wanted to show people content and at work in the countryside.Elizabeth Becker

Washington state — primarily the Seattle-Tacoma area — is home to the third-largest population of Cambodian-Americans in the United States. According to the Center for American Progress, Cambodian-Americans are more likely to be first-generation immigrants than the United States average, and more than 80 percent speak a language other than English at home. In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau identified 17 percent of Cambodian-American households as “linguistically isolated,” in which no one over the age 14 speaks English proficiently.

Yet the interest is there for others to learn about Cambodian language, culture and history, Grant said. At the UW, she teaches a Cambodian studies class in which she connects students with local Cambodian Buddhist temples. The UW is also one of few institutions in the U.S. that teaches the Khmer language. A growing interdisciplinary community of UW faculty at Seattle and Bothell, and organizations like the Khmer Student Association, are working together to build scholarship and pedagogy across Southeast Asia and Asian American studies, Grant said.

Art and film are just some of the storytelling methods Grant wants to employ in opening up the Becker archive. The project will kick off with workshops including the Cambodian American Community Council of Washington and the local arts organization Spean Rajana.

“My desire with Archive Actions is to explore methods of opening the collection to Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans so that they may learn from, challenge and expand public histories of this period, of the Cold War and of refugee experience in the United States,” Grant said. “What silences do they find in the collection? What beauty and horror? What courage and culpability? How might storytelling reframe what we know, and do not know?”

Eventually, Grant hopes to work with residents of the Mount Baker Village Apartments in Seattle, home to many Cambodian-Americans, on a storytelling exhibit. The initial workshops will introduce participants to the archive, discuss what would be helpful for people to see and use, and come up with ways to engage the larger community in sharing the materials and their stories.

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For more information, contact Grant at jmgrant@uw.edu.

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