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Cambodia Reflected

By Marilynne S. Mason / October 28, 1993



CAMBODIA has seen too much suffering. The eyes of a Cambodian child reflect back at the viewer a modern history of unspeakable anguish. The photographer caught this sweet visage swathed in golden light just as the sun rose and her own eyes were opened to events going on around her. Melanie Stetson Freeman was on assignment, covering the United Nations' repatriation of Cambodians from Thailand in April of 1992.

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``We'd stopped overnight [in Pursat], and I got up early in the morning to walk all over the city,'' says Freeman. ``That early morning light we all love.... Kids were just getting up, sitting by the side of the road, or eating. I don't know anything about the boy.... It's the look on his face - the haunted feeling you get when you go there. It's the most tragic place I've ever been as a shooter. The country has been destroyed from within, and the people who have lived through all these disasters have a [haunted] look.''

Nevertheless, Freeman found that amid the poverty, the deforestation, the destruction of the infrastructure, and the terrible threat of the Khmer Rouge that the Cambodian people go on. So many remain kind; so many remain serene.

``I'm not the same since coming back from Cambodia,'' Freeman says. ``There are people I met there who have changed my life - just by their example, going on in the face of adversity. The woman who was our translator lost everyone dear to her [at the hands of the Khmer Rouge]. Yet she is still the most compassionate, loving, joyous person. She is not afraid to care. She is very gentle. Whenever I go through a crisis in my life, I think of her.''

The decision to remain compassionate in the very face of the worst kind of atrocities requires a greatness of spirit Freeman saw in her translator and in so many others she met in Cambodia. The photographer's camera reflects not only what is objectively out there, but also what the photographer herself sees and feels about those facts.