Displaced souls: beyond the killing fields
Beyond The Killing Fields
Photographs by Kari Rene Hall
Text by Josh Getlin and Kari Rene Hall
Asia 2000/216 pages
A RECENT reader's letter to Life! started an interesting debate
about photography and its role in society. The reader said that
"from the time the camera was invented, photographers seemed to
have taken a licence of voyeurism".
Such blunt statements about photography and its practitioners are
unfair to many photographers like Kari Rene Hall.
her book, Beyond The Killing Fields, Hall, a Los Angeles Times photographer,
reminds the reader that photography can be powerful and credible.
setting of her book is Site 2, a refugee camp in Thailand less than
1 km from Cambodia. Of the estimated 350,000 refugees stranded in
camps along the Thai-Cambodia border, about 200,000 are in Site
Unlike the globe-trotting journalists who rush from one conflict
to another, Hall devoted four years to this project.
The result is a body of work that is, in the words of Rich Clarkson,
former director of photography at National Geographic magazine,
"beautiful, insightful, warm and sympathetic - much like the people
While many would like to believe that the worst is over, this book
is a reminder that a lot more needs to be done to help the people
trapped in Cambodia.
It is hard to understand the plight of the displaced Cambodians
without knowing why or how they lost their homes and country. Co-author
Josh Getlin, who is also Hall's colleague at the LA Times, provides
a concise but informative run-up to the situation in Indochina.
He points out that, technically, the residents of Site 2 are not
refugees but "displaced people". This label means they do not qualify
for resettlement in foreign countries or protection from the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In conveying the powerful messages of this book, pictures and words
work together and both are essential.
The book is more absorbing and credible because the authors take
extra steps to identify and interview the people. This gives a human
face to the sufferings.
For example, you will meet Oum Kheama, a 19-year-old library worker
and one of the better-off residents in the camp. Like most women
her age, Kheama is concerned about her looks and boyfriends.
Her dream is to be a tour agent, to see other parts of the world.
You will also meet Soeurth Tha, a 38-year-old man who killed his
wife and children for disobeying his order not to go out.
Hall will make her first visit to Cambodia this month to photograph
the coming May elections and write more stories on people she met.
Her approach to her work is straightforward and honest, with no
frills. She does not employ fanciful techniques. She treats her
subjects with the greatest respect and she is careful never to endanger
the lives of the people.
Her dedication to her profession is rare at a time when magazines
and newspapers are turning away from long-term investigative reportage.
The cutbacks did not deter her commitment to the book.
Besides a technically superior presentation, her personal sacrifices
must be noted and applauded. To complete the project, she spent
some of her personal savings and vacation time.
In many ways, the book is a reminder of the golden age of photojournalism,
when photographers spent extended periods, at company expense, investigating
One example that readily comes to mind is W.Eugene Smith and Aileen
M.Smith's Minamata, an essay on mercury poisoning in a small Japanese
Two more recent examples are Donna Ferrato's Living With The Enemy,
which documents the victims of domestic violence; and Stephen Shames'
Outside The Dream: Child Poverty In America.
These works deserve the highest accolades for several reasons. They
are done with good intentions, whether to celebrate life or advocate
a good cause. They are mostly self-generated, and often self-funded,
stories. They require a great deal of research, resources and perseverance.
They address important issues.
Such work can cause governments to take corrective action.
Shames testified at a government hearing on child poverty, and victims
of the Minamata poisoning received compensation, partly because
of the attention the Smiths generated.
Hall's work won the 1991 National Press Photographers Association's
documentary project competition, while Ferrato received the Kodak
Crystal Award For Impact In Photojournalism, the highest award in
After viewing Ferrato's work of abused wives and children, one judge
echoed the feeling of the audience.
He said he would henceforth treat his wife and children better.
Such is the power of photography.