American author Jim Mizerski brings to light the Kingdom’s long-hidden original photographs and 19th century politics, through his new book, Cambodia Captured. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve. 

Tell me about your book.
The title, Cambodia Captured, refers to a number of things. It refers to the photographs that were captured by the first two photographers to take pictures in Cambodia, at a time when it was extremely difficult. It showed the rest of the world what Angkor looked like. Up until then, there were only sketches, [which] often exaggerated and didn’t represent things very accurately. This was also the time in a sense the French captured Cambodia, in that the protectorate treaty was first signed in 1863. It’s also the story of how [King] Norodom captured the throne.

Who were the photographers?
Scottish photographer John Thomson took the very first pictures in Cambodia. Thomson is considered one of the foremost 19th century photojournalists. Thomson was in Angkor February to March, 1866, then went to Phnom Penh, where he took pictures of the King – the first pictures ever taken of the King in Cambodia. When at Angkor, he met [Ernest] Doudart de Lagrée, a French naval officer who was the [French] representative in Cambodia. When he saw Thomson’s pictures, he decided he would bring a photographer to take pictures for the French. He got Emile Gsell to take pictures of Angkor four months later. While Thomson may have taken the first pictures, Gsell has a much more extensive group of pictures he took over the next 10 years. But he has for the most part gotten no recognition or publicity. [This year] is the 150th anniversary of the first photographs at Angkor.

How did they take photographs at that time?
[It was] very difficult. It was called collodion wet plate photography. You would have to take a glass plate and coat it with a soupy solution. Then you’d dip this in another chemical that would make it light sensitive, and while it was still wet, you’d have to put in the back of the camera, take the picture and develop it before it dried. Which means you had to bring your darkroom with you in a tent, and you’d be using all these toxic chemicals. So you can imagine being out in the tropics in the middle of summer, with these chemicals in a dark tent. Thomson had 10 porters just to carry all his gear. In the month he spent at Angkor, he only ended up with 40 pictures.

Why is this book significant?
One, it’s important in terms of the history of photography in Cambodia. The photos document what [Angkor] looked like in 1866. One of the scenes makes it very clear it was an operating religious site; it was not something that was lost in the jungle. Second, it’s important in terms of understanding the beginning of the French protectorate. If you read the well-known historians, those few years when the French first moved in are covered in a paragraph or two. It doesn’t at all get into the human aspects of it, the people involved and how touchy it all was.

How were you able to show the human side?
The book evolved as I got more into it. It turns out the most interesting character in this whole thing was de Lagrée. Almost all of de Lagrée’s records were destroyed, but the letters he wrote to his sister-in-law survived. Those are very personal and down-to-earth, so that human side comes out. He talks about his personal experience with the King. It’s not just names; you get a feeling for how these people reacted emotionally. And it gives a feel for what Cambodia was like back then. There was a lot of turmoil – little revolts all the time, not just against the French but against the monarchy.

How does the book relate to your passions?
I got seriously interested in photography after I retired in 2001. I do it for the fun of it. But this sort of photographic archaeology is something I’ve gotten into; it’s fun to start exploring the archives and find stuff that nobody knew about before. Immediately after college I went into the navy for 11 years. It was probably much easier for me to associate and empathise with de Lagrée, who was a naval officer, and I was a naval officer. There is an account of when the Mekong Exploration Expedition left Phnom Penh to officially start. [I] can relate to that feeling of when you finally leave port and you’re sailing alone, not knowing what to expect. So I can identify with de Lagrée, [but so can] probably any expat who comes to Cambodia for the first time. You really don’t know what to expect, especially when you get off the plane, and that hot, moist air hits you, and everything’s foreign.

Are you also hoping for Khmer readership?
It should be of interest to Cambodians, because I don’t know how accurate the history of that period is, in terms of what’s taught in Cambodian institutions. I get the impression nobody wants to talk about [it], like it was a big loss for Cambodia. I don’t know if it was a loss or a gain, but it is what it is. And it’s not just French history; it’s Cambodian history. I hope more Cambodians write about that part of history. And I hope they write about it in English, so I can read it.

Cambodia Captured is on sale at Monument Books for $25, with a portion of proceeds going towards Friends International.