BBC News

Treasured family photos buried to hide the past

Published
image copyrightCharles Fox

From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, under the rule of the ultra-communist leader Pol Pot, claimed the lives of up to two million people.

Millions were forced from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside with the result that entire families died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork.

The Ramas, like so many others, lost close family members. Krishna Rama was killed in the last months of the regime as it crumbled and turned in on itself.

Yet the family had taken steps to protect their treasured photographs, burying them so they would not be found by the Khmer Rouge.

image copyrightCharles Fox
image caption“Dad was a wonderful man - although my time with him wasn’t long, he taught me so much and I hope I live those values and have passed them on to my siblings and children. Dad was taken away/killed in the summer of 1977. His crime was being an educated man,” says Vira.

"We buried the images to hide our family's identity of a privileged life before the Khmer Rouge," says Vira Rama.

"The Khmer Rouge would conduct random searches, they looked for evidence that tied people to the city."

The regime was determined to purge people of wealth, status and education.

image copyrightCharles Fox
image captionVira in Khmer boy scout uniform aged four or five.

The regime fell in January 1979 and the Khmer Rouge melted back into society.

Like many families, the Ramas made the dangerous journey to the refugee camps on the border with Thailand, but not before they recovered their buried images.

The Ramas were lucky, receiving sponsorship from two US doctors working in a refugee camp in Thailand.

image copyrightCharles Fox
image captionThe family in February 1981 at the Chonburi Refugee Camp, Thailand. The photo was part of the immigration process to travel to the USA.

Fast forward to Phnom Penh 2015 and photographer Charles Fox, who has been working in Cambodia since 2005, received an email about his project Found Cambodia, which looks at family images pre and post-Khmer Rouge.

"I had wondered if anyone would submit images to the archive," says Charles.

image copyrightCharles Fox
image caption“I have no memory of when or where this picture was taken," says Sundaram Rama. "Judging from the picture I must have been one year old, 49 years ago. I am glad to see this picture of me and my parents, especially with my dad, since I was the last one to see him before the Khmer Rouge took him away. I love you Dad."
image copyrightCharles Fox
image captionVira (right) holding hands with his brother Monyroth

"The Ramas were the first and it was one of the most poignant relationships I have ever developed," says Charles, who now splits his time between the UK and Cambodia.

Over a period of four years Fox has spoken at great length to Vira, and his wife Fe and family, about the significance of their collection;

The pictures have now been published by Charles in a book called Buried.

For Vira the message remains simple: "This is a photo story of my family's life before and after the Khmer Rouge regime.

"It is about my family, and many other families like mine, who endured and persevered through hardships of war, survived, sacrificed, and with new hope and optimism found healing, forgiving, peace, and happiness.

"It tells a story of our journey to a new life."

image copyrightCharles Fox
image captionVira's maternal grandfather, Na Tao Ky, (1916-1978). He did not survive the Khmer Rouge regime.
image copyrightCharles Fox
image captionVira's brother Monyroth the day they left Lumpini Camp for the Philippines
image copyrightCharles Fox
image captionAt the Philippine Refugee Processing Centre, near Morong, Bataan, in 1981, where the family stayed for four months as they prepared for life in the US
image copyrightCharles Fox
image captionVira's sister Sundary, her brother Nadirak, and other Khmer children dance at a barbeque in City Park, New Orleans in 1982.

All photographs courtesy the Rama family / Charles Fox / Buried is published by Catfish Books.

Related Topics

  • Photography
  • Cambodia