In “Generation One,” American photographer Jon Ryder offers a moving collection of portraits exploring the youth of today’s Cambodia and the country they have inherited.
When Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, they began a forced evacuation of the city.
Pol Pot’s manic vision for the country called for a completely agrarian society. From that day forward, everyone would work on collective farms. The state would provide subsistence. Those who did not fit the vision, or opposed it, were executed.
Pol Pot called it “Year Zero,” a brand-new beginning to history.
Set against this backdrop, American photographer Jon Ryder offers “Generation One,” a collection of portraits of children whose parents survived Pol Pot’s year zero. On display at the FCC Phnom Penh beginning April 19, the exhibition explores the life of today’s Cambodian youth and the country they have inherited.
It is a moving collection. And while it ultimately leans in favor of the optimist’s sense of hope, it does so without glossing over, or glamorizing, the very real struggles that these children face. There are heart-melting smiles, to be sure, but many of Ryder’s photographs are marked with undercurrents of tension and a perceptible sense of brooding.
Ryder frames the devastation of drug addiction in one enigmatic portrait of a teenager. In it we see half the boy’s face, slightly scarred and blemished from adolescent acne. By all appearances he looks like just another kid, except for the stare.
Taken at an orphanage in Siem Reap, Ryder titles the image “Glue”. The caption below the picture explains: “At fifteen years old, he said he had been sniffing for about ten years. Other children referred to him as ‘the strange one’.”
Another image of two girls in a rowboat provides a snapshot of social problems facing Cambodia: education, jobs, child labor, gender equality.
Titled “Boat-girls,” Ryder tells us in the caption: “I was walking over the hill from the Killing Fields down along the expanse of rice paddies when these two girls offered me a ride in their boat. They spend most days offering themselves as picture models to tourists for $1.”
Ryder illustrates the essential struggle best in a photo called “Beauty and the Beast.” In the foreground stands a young girl with a determined look. She is wearing a blue summer dress with white frill, a gold necklace and earrings. Behind her, clearly visible yet ghostly and out of focus, loom shelves stacked high with skulls unearthed from the country’s killing fields.
It is a stark contrast, incongruent and unsettling, but by no means forced. Like her peers, she never experience Pol Pot’s tyranny first hand. She knows it only from her visits to the “filling fields,” in the stories her elders tell. Nevertheless, that brutal legacy will influence her life in ways she cannot imagine.
But like her parent’s generation, she too will find a way to negotiate the madness. For like the country itself, she too is a survivor. You can see it in her eyes.