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Interview with John Vink June 14, 2012

Posted by Geoffrey Hiller in Cambodia.
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Residents stand on a barricade to confront the police moments before the final eviction of the Borei Keila community. Phnom Penh 2012

Editor’s Note:

Earlier this year I had the chance to talk with John Vink, a Magnum photographer based in Phnom Penh. John is a seasoned professional but he epitomizes the new breed of documentary photographer. He felt the need to be closer to the projects he was reporting on, so he picked up and relocated to Southeast Asia in 2000. John has also been an early adopter of digital technology to better tell the stories that are close to his heart. Sure enough, when we got together he was in the midst of developing a photography App about land issues in Cambodia and was enthusiastic about sharing his ideas about the potential for publishing on the iPad. “Quest for Land” was developed by Robert Starkweather and includes over 700 images and extensive text by Robert Carmichael. Each of the 20 sections also features ambient audio and music.

John Vink (b. 1948, Belgium) studied photography at the fine arts school of La Cambre in 1968 and began working as a freelance journalist three years later. He joined Agence VU in Paris in 1986 and won the Eugene Smith Award that year for his work ‘Water in the Sahel’, an extensive body of reportage on the management of water in the Sahel. Between 1987 and 1993 he compiled a major work on refugees around the world; the book ‘Réfugiés’ was published in 1994. John Vink became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1997. In 1993 he started working on ‘Peuples d’en Haut’, published in 2004, which is a series of chronicles of communities with strong cultural identities living in mountainous areas. He has been based in Cambodia since 2000, a country he has visited since 1989. “Quest for Land”, an iApp about land issues in Cambodia was released in May 2012.

About the Photographs:

“I have been working on land grabbing in Cambodia for the last eleven years, hoping it would stop, that the conditions with which the evictions take place would improve, or that the evicted would at least be compensated properly. It is not happening. Evictions go on ruthlessly as the country develops at a rapid pace. And as the frustrations of the victims increase they turn more violent. Clearly, lessons from the past to defuse social tensions are not being learned here. Photography has to explain again and again…Relentlessly…The people standing on a trunk had barricaded the access road to the Borei Keila community from the police who were going to violently evict them a few moments later. It was the end of what could have been an exemplary on-site relocation. But corruption, deceit and greed took the upper hand. Hundreds of families were ‘offered’ land 45 Km out of town. Others were dumped at the same dry rice field with what was left of their belongings, without even the prospect of being able to remain there.”

Interview With John Vink

Geofffrey Hiller: Take me back to the time when you decided to relocate to Phnom Penh. Where were you coming from and what were your reasons for choosing Cambodia?

John Vink: I relocated to Phnom Penh in 2000 after five years in Paris and decades in Brussels. But Paris and Brussels were merely a place to drop the bags between travels. I was on the road close to eight months a year, the four remaining months being dedicated to the darkroom. The major projects I had been working on during that time made me realize that however hard I tried to get involved in them, there was always a moment when I had to leave them behind. I needed more time spent on a story to avoid superficiality. I needed to STAY in one place. Another reason I found to stay in one place is that you don’t have to waste time in airports and squeeze between the other sardines on planes anymore, that you save money by reducing travel expenses and moreover, you reduce your carbon footprint by not hopping on planes. The choice of Phnom Penh came fairly easily as I had been hovering around it since 1989, that it was a city of less than a million and that it is located in an area recovering from a disaster offering a wide array of stories which lie close to my heart. I’m an aftermath person. I mostly come after a disaster takes place, when things try to stabilize. I am attracted to uprooted things and by their reconstruction. Last but not least, Phnom Penh is where I met my wife in late 1999.


Ceremony by renters who were not included in the on-site relocation of Borei Keila. Phnom Penh 2007

GH: At what point in the project did you think you would spend over ten years documenting Land Issues in Cambodia? That’s a long time to stay with a story. Were there times that you felt the work was losing its freshness? How did you motivate yourself to stick with it? When do you know it’s best to move on?

JV: In fact I might be working on it more than the current 11 years. I am still working on land issues. Some of the stories that are in the app are not over yet. The good thing about an app is that you can update it fairly easily. The future versions of “Quest for Land” will have slightly different content, some stories will be updated, pictures will be added. But anyhow I was not working on land issues continually during those 11 years and did quite a few other stories in between. For nearly one year I covered the Duch trial, the first, and maybe the only, Khmer Rouge to be tried. I was the co founder, manager (well, sort of) picture editor and photojournalist of Ka-set.info , a daily updated website with in-depth information about Cambodia (we ran out of money after one year).

As for the freshness part in your question: yes indeed some of these eviction stories could seem repetitive, but they are so on the surface only. There is always a twist, making the latest eviction a bit different from the previous one. The only thing which stays the same is the disarray of the evicted and the arrogance of the one evicting. But here too things are changing: there is now much more resistance. An eviction is not necessarily a ‘fait accompli’. People fight back, get organized. Spotting all those shifts and differences are sufficient motivation to continue, although the main drive remains the fact that evictions should not happen the way they do. The development of a ruined country is a good thing, but it is the development of people which counts.

I don’t know when it’s best to move on because I am moving on all the time. New story ideas develop into something which takes my mind away from the previous one. There are a few in the back of my head, but they haven’t really taken over yet. More likely they may be stories that are extensions of ‘Quest for Land’. It has been like that for many previous stories. ‘Mountain People’ was an extension of ‘Refugees’. ‘Refugees’ is a continuation of ‘Water in Sahel’, where the drought caused big migrations. ‘Quest for Land’ is also an extension of ‘Refugees’. I am for example probing into a story on vulnerability called ‘On the Edge’. People being evicted are thrown on the edge, but so are many others (elderly, children, flood victims…). So I drift from one story to another. Since I am staying in one place things are less abrupt, even more related, flowing into one another.


Boeung Kak Lake residents demonstrate in front of the municipality seeking land for relocation. Phnom Penh 2011

GH:  In the introduction to the Quest for Land App you mention the interplay of form and content and comment that you are more of a “content guy”. Your images strike me as being very personal and visceral. How do I say it? They have a  strong physical sense, as if you are using your entire body as well as your eye to make the photo.

JV: It is really a matter of balance and what the intentions are. What gets precedence: what I talk about or how I do it? Yes I am a content guy. I think content is more important than form. By not much but still… And depending on the context as well: book, exhibition, slideshow, iPad? Form would get a bit more precedence over content in a book and certainly in an exhibition. Obviously it is better to use a good photograph of an interesting situation than a bad photograph. There are good photographs with shallow content. There are good stories poorly photographed. And there are good stories well photographed. I try to do the latter. We all do… And yes indeed I try to do it in a ‘personal’ way. I try to leave my mark on the way I write. I try to take away the routine of reading a photograph. Readers are much more photographically educated nowadays. They don’t read photographs the same way they did 50 years ago. Their eye has been stimulated by an ever increasing photographic vocabulary. They have so many more references. You have to stand out to be noticed, to be appealing or seductive or intriguing, but you don’t have to betray yourself at the same time.

It is difficult. I often doubt if I achieve anything there. It is my biggest struggle. As to the physicality of some of my pictures maybe it has to do with the fact that by now I know many of those people who were evicted, and they know me. We are close somehow… I believe they trust me, and I believe in what they are trying to achieve. I am disturbed by their frustration. I feel that if I take pictures up close that I somehow support them better.


Residents of the Boeung Kak community appeal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany to intervene. Phnom Penh 2008

GH: Who is responsible for the evictions? What becomes of these people’s lives after they have been relocated and dumped outside of town? How do they survive? Besides the few NGO’s, does the government provide any follow-up services?

JV: Who is responsible? People who put greed and the desire for power ahead of compassion, long-term thinking or even normal common sense, combined with an environment in which the rule of law is still in its infancy. And as the people responsible for the evictions often are the same as those who have political power, obviously support for the evicted does not come from the side of the authorities. Except in a paternalistic way, like dumping a rice bag or two, or an opportunity to strengthen a position of power. The people from Borei Keila, kicked 40Km out of town were for example offered a bus ride to Phnom Penh to participate in the commune elections in their former precinct. Needless to say they were expected to vote for those who promised them they eventually would get a land title… who are the same people who kicked them out in the first place.

Save for a few NGO’s the evicted are basically left on their own, piecing together what is left of their lives. A large fraction of those evicted are much worse off than before and the poverty rate among them has increased. So clearly development does not profit everyone… Only the fact of being pushed out to the periphery of town cuts most of the evicted from their already precarious means of subsistence, or, if they manage to keep the same job, the little daily benefit they make is eaten away by the transportation costs.


Tenants evicted from Dey Krahorm waiting to be assigned a home promised by the 7 NG company. Phnom Penh 2009

GH: Have you been threatened or assaulted by the police for being so persistent? Please explain any specific situations.

JV: Cambodia is one of the easiest places to work as a photojournalist. Correction: a foreign photojournalist. No, I have never been assaulted or threatened. Well… except for that guy looking me in the eyes and passing his finger over his throat during the Sambok Chap eviction or the policeman bruising my stomach with his stick when I tried to get back into the Dey Krahorm eviction site. But that was not so bad. It was a fair and open exchange of different standpoints…

It seems there still is an unwritten law since the presence of UNTAC in 1991 which says: ‘Don’t touch the foreign journalist (he hasn’t got a clue as to what is going on anyhow)’. But the other unwritten law says: ‘Don’t be bothered by the Kmer journalist. You can intimidate or bribe him, lie to him, and when it has to happen for the benefit of someone powerful, you can kill him’. And that happens once in a while. One must remember that Cambodia, for the sake of pleasing the donor countries has to maintain a facade of democracy, a free press being one of the ingredients to that. It is tough being a Cambodian journalist in Cambodia, and, unless one works for a foreign media, very difficult to maintain an ethical integrity.

GH: Witnessing these evictions over and over again must break your heart. Do you have to force yourself to remain detached? Any particular examples of people or families you have bonded with and become friends with?

JV: It doesn’t break my heart. It enrages me. And that motivates me to continue. But I don’t bond with families. They know me, know what I do, why I am there. I know quite a few of them but I don’t bond with them. I rarely even talk to people. I need to keep a distance.

GH: Phnom Penh has rapidly developed during the past 10 years. Is there any connection between these evictions and the growth of tourism in Cambodia?

JV: Except for the very few eviction cases directly related to expanding or to the creation of tourism sites like  the recent concession granted for the construction of a resort in Koh Kong province, there is no direct relation. There might be indirect relations as the powerful people who have a stake in the tourism industry might be the same ones involved in investments in other industries like in the agricultural sector. If one considers that the tourism industry was the first industry which helped Cambodia to climb out of its pit and trigger double-digit economic growth, then yes, tourism being related to growth, growth being related to money, and money being the big motivator for evictions, tourism is related to evictions.

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1. © John Vink / Magnum Photos » ‘Quest for Land’ on ‘Verve Photo’ - June 14, 2012

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