Using Photojournalism to Bring Cambodian Landmines into Focus
An Interview with World-Renowned Photographer Colin Summers
“They were the devil’s handwork and carried his signature: they were cheap to make and expensive to clear, easy to lay and hard to detect: and besides, they knew no cease-fire.”
This is how the former MP Martin Bell eloquently described landmines in his maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1997. The United Nations estimates that one hundred and ten million landmines are now strewn across the world. This is only a figure; the reality is that millions of people live day-to-day with the threat of landmines destroying their lives.
I have seen the effects of landmines, through my five-month teaching placement in Vietnam: the limbless children, and the signs banning entry. But I never had the capabilities to capture the immense feeling of human tragedy in a single second.
“I met photographer Colin Summers in July 2001. He was armed with his portfolio of photographs just after his return from his most recent expedition to South East Asia.
Colin’s travels, like his cameras, have advanced a lot during his career. After his travels in the early 1990s in South East Asia and India he was enthused to take an A-level in photography. His studies led him to become stimulated by Don McCullin’s images of conflict around the world. When I met him, Colin returned just returned to South East Asia and visited Cambodia, seven years after his first visit.
Cambodia possesses an estimated four to six million landmines dotted throughout the countryside, all awaiting their victims. Since the Ottawa Treaty / Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention of 1997 most countries have ratified it; however a majority of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (including the USA, Russia and China) have refused to sign, leaving them free to use, produce, trade and stockpile anti-personnel mines.
The stark reality is that for every fifty thousand mines cleared in the world approximately two million new ones are laid each year.
Colin has captured multiple feelings through his camera, reflecting the day-to-day effects of landmines on the people of Cambodia.
I asked him about his photographic mission.
How did your Cambodian expedition differ from your earlier travels?
Well, I felt I was travelling for the purpose of taking photos rather than ambling around taking pictures of things of interest on the way. I had a change of camera, a Nikon F100, chosen because of its strength and durability (though its downside is its weight).
When I arrived in South East Asia I headed into northeast Laos and photographed the clearance of unexploded ordnance dropped by the Americans during the secret war in the ’60s and ’70s.
On the surface the country seemed much more stable, but still hidden in the countryside were millions of landmines.
People always ask me why there are still so many victims in the countryside: surely they should know where they are by now. Unfortunately the landmines can become re-located through the rainy season, so there is no such thing as a safe paddy field.
Who has left a lasting impression on you, not just your camera film, through your photography of the consequences of landmines?
On my first trip to Cambodia I had met Akira. He was clearing mines, which he admitted he had once laid. He was aiming to display the mines and weapons he had retrieved in a museum that he was establishing just off the road to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. I found his life story deeply moving. From the age of five the Khmer Rouge, who had killed his parents, brought him up.
At the age of ten he was shown how to use firearms. So when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, Akira had already learnt how to fire machine guns, rocket launchers and to lay mines. He was thirteen when the Vietnamese captured him and told he could either fight against the Khmer Rouge or be killed.
He decided to fight and was conscripted into the Vietnamese army and forced to fight on the front line.
Akira stayed with the Vietnamese until they pulled out in 1990. He then joined the Cambodian army who were still fighting the Khmer Rouge in the north and northwest of the country.
In 1993 he worked with the UN clearing land mines and put together a nine-year collection of diffused ones to display. While I was with Akira he showed me how to find mines and diffuse certain mines and even how to lay booby traps using crude explosives.
I later returned to Cambodia to try to gather more information about mines from Akira only to find that his museum had closed and he was in a hammock contemplating his future. The government had forced him to close and were going to confiscate everything he’d collected. Akira worked on a donation basis and a lot of the money went to help the victims of landmines. The government was looking to open its own museum in Siem Reap and cash in on the many tourists now visiting Angkor Wat.
For Akira he had no choice but to give up the life he had managed to rebuild and try and start afresh.
I spent some time with Akira and his wife and also visited the hospital and rehabilitation centre for landmine victims. I photographed many of the patients: men, women and children. I also tried to gather more information on the growing number of civilians still being maimed every day.
I have now reached the stage when I am no longer in the distance with a long lens; I get close to people and try to understand their situation so as to be able to portray how they feel in a single expression.
Do you feel that since the death of Diana Princess of Wales the public interest in landmines in Cambodia has decreased? I once spoke to Akira about Princess Diana and was surprised to hear that he had never even heard of her. I feel there was no public interest in landmines in Cambodia to start with. I think public interest was directed towards African and Eastern European counties, but like many issues people need to be reminded regularly; otherwise problems far away can be easily forgotten.
Have there been any scary moments regarding photographing subjects related to landmines?
Yes. Most of these go back to when I first visited Cambodia in 1993. Then the country was lawless and life was cheap.
Just the thought of what might happen is scary in itself. When you see how many people are without limbs and photograph them close up you realise that the devices in the ground are real.
There are a lot out there and they know no cease-fire.
More Information on Cambodia, Landmines and Colin Summers
If you’re inspired to see Cambodia for yourself, you can find more advice on Cambodian gap years in the Cambodia country section. The wonderfully talented Gapyear.com Writers Academy author Louise Denton has also written an excellent guide to Cambodia covering everything from country’s rich history and politics, to the top sights to see whilst travelling there.
To see more of stunning photojournalism, visit Colin Summers’ Photography website or check out Ben Davies’ experiences with Landmines in Cambodia, in another great article on gapyear.com, featuring more of Colin’s emotive travel photography.
Don’t forget to let us know what you think of Colin’s photos below, and if you want to get chatting to fellow gappers about travelling to Cambodia, there is no better place than the Cambodia message board.