John Vink on Resisting Human Rights Erosion in Cambodia

Blogathon 3

During the festival the Noorderlicht blog is hosting bite-size interviews with participating photographers about their work. We asked photographers to share their thoughts on how their own projects reflects on the festival theme, and to tell more about their personal engagement with their subjects. All interviews are conducted by Hester Keijser. Today, John Vink expands on his ongoing project documenting social change in Cambodia, a country in transition towards a functional democracy.

Noorderlicht: Could you say in what sense your project relates to the overall festival theme, from a personal point of view? Where in this bigger picture do you feel your work fits in?

John Vink: Cambodia is not at the stage yet where it really questions the structural failings of our super developed and sophisticated societies. After 1978 and the Khmer Rouge regime, it had to start from scratch as a country. Basically there were very few human values left. A democracy was set up at great expense by the UNTAC mission after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, and that is what the people are dealing with now. That is what they try to make exist: a functional democracy. They first have to go through the growth pains every Western country has gone through. Unfortunately, this happens in an extremely corrupt environment, with a governement whose members were educated in a totalitarian environment. Add to that the global pressure from an ultra liberal economy, and the small fish in the murky Cambodian pond find themselves in front of some very hungry crocodiles. Those who resist here are very pragmatic. They go step by step, first thing first: let's have food, let's get back the basic human rights that are being denied to them. I try to show you those small fish...

Noorderlicht: Based on your experience working with different communities and individuals who are affected by this 'crisis of agency', what impression did you get about the likelihood that common people can regain such a sense of agency? Do you feel there are grounds for a realistic hope for improvements?

John Vink: My feeling is a moderately optimistic one for the long term. After all, over the past 25 years I have seen an overall climate of fear to speak out against any kind of authority, of standing out in a crowd and taking another stance, turn into small hearths of resistance which serve as an example for a change in mentality, of developing the notion of solidarity as opposed to greed and selfishness. The mindset of those in power is based on the short term: get rich fast, regardless of who it might hurt. But I doubt that this would be sustainable. I believe the long term always wins. The question though is: what will be the price  to pay in human suffering until we reach some kind of balance? The roots of corruption and greed run very deep indeed.

Noorderlicht: What is the audience that you'd hope would look at your project / series? Who should see this work?

John Vink: The prime audience is of course the people directly involved here in Cambodia, be it those who have the guts and the courage to stand up for their rights or those who are denying them those rights. But then: who is directly involved? Is it only those who are out in the streets of Phnom Penh or in the offices of decision makers in the capital? The international community, by supporting the creation of democracy in Cambodia, back in 1991 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, or today by continuing to provide financial assistance to Cambodia without asking too much questions, are de facto involved. The donor countries bear a huge responsability and definitely should push for much more accountability. And the donor countries, dear taxpayer, that is you and me...

The words I use to define my work on the Magnum Photos website go as follows: "Photography cannot do much. It provides some level of information, yet has no pretensions about changing the world. It is the people who read the photographs who change the world..."