Unity is first of all, the coming together of the people of a whole country, Cambodia, united by deep sorrow. It is the sorrow of a people suddenly dressed in white because King Father Norodom Sihanouk is gone, and with his death has ended a key period in the complex, painful, but also joyful history of a land that has experienced independence and then war and horror, the end of the nightmare, and reconstruction, always keeping as a reference the father figure of a politically astute leader, filmmaker, writer, singer, skilful negotiator, and close to this country which he loved.
Of this unity a photographer bears witness, he, himself, being part of this intertwining of a people. He is not, during this time of grief, ever an outsider: The mourning is his mourning; he is only one among the millions who gathered in front of the Royal Palace or at the site of the cremation ceremony. And his photographs are akin to others’ offerings, his actions both similar to and different from theirs.
Unity is also the subtext of what the photographer deeply felt. He found intuitively and with ease a golden tone of light, soft and at the same time criss-crossed by rays of sharper tone. It bathes everything in a magical color and provides a rare consistency that ignores minor distractions, the passage of time, event chronology. Rather than just describing, this work is about translating the emotions on the street and of a nation into a cohesive vision that, from beginning to end, captures an inner feeling, a whole world materializing through the emotion on faces and in discreet gestures of respect.
The smoke of incense; lotus flowers gently passed from one person to the next; children carried on shoulders or held by the hand, discovering the world through the feeling of belonging to a huge family; discarded hair; monks in groups, part of a profoundly moving geometry of modest lights reshaping the world; and a calm even in an unexpected torrential rain: All contribute to this mysterious unity of tone, the reason why no moment, image, or character is more important than the other, although each is essential.
A rare balance between the individual feelings of a deeply-moved photographer and the professional distance he was able to maintain, which is evidenced by his perspective, immerses us in the palpable fluidity of a crowd that gathered effortlessly, without any turbulence, driven by a sincerity born of need: The need, in mourning, to come together in order to feel that humankind does exist as one sole, huge body, alive in spite of pain.
There is in this a unity of the utmost purity: That of light, a kingdom of light without which photography would not exist.
The death of former King Norodom Sihanouk in October 2012 was a hugely significant event for Cambodia, and left the country with a profound sense of loss.
At the end of the rainy season, Cambodians celebrate Pchum Ben, a 15-day religious festival also known as Ancestors’ Day, during which families gather together.
On that Pchum Ben morning of October 15, 2012, I was still in bed at my parents’ home near Battambang City, letting my mind wander. My mother was preparing food to take to the monks at our village Buddhist temple as is the custom, and my dad was listening to the radio. Suddenly he came to us and said, “King Norodom Sihanouk has just passed away.” My mother and I were shocked. My mother’s eyes filled with tears and she seemed to be praying. I froze, silent. But at the same time, I felt I had to do something.
The King Father had died in Beijing. His remains were to be flown back to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. I said to my parents, “I have to go back to Phnom Penh.” I rushed to the bus station to get a ticket, but the buses were sold out; everyone wanted to be in Phnom Penh for the late King’s return. So on October 17, 2012, when the plane carrying the body of the King Father, accompanied by his widow, Queen Norodom Monineath, his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, and Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was flying toward Phnom Penh, I was sitting on one of the extra plastic chairs in the aisle of a bus heading for Phnom Penh. During my journey of more than six hours, I sent text messages to many of my friends to let them know that I would be trying to get to the Royal Palace.
As we approached the city, the bus repeatedly slowed down until it stopped. We were gridlocked in a traffic jam due to the thousands of people rushing into town. I got impatient and asked the bus driver to open the door and let me out.
I found a motorcycle taxi right away, which was fortunate because the driver could maneuver much faster in the traffic. When I arrived at my home, I quickly changed clothes. As every Cambodian man in mourning does, I put on black trousers and a white shirt with a black ribbon on the left-hand side. Then, with one camera and one lens, I headed for the Royal Palace via Sisowath Quay along the Tonle Sap River.
A dense, sober crowd filled the area. Looking around, I saw that most of my photographer friends and colleagues - Cambodian as well as foreign - were also there. Policemen and security guards were taking their responsibilities seriously and prevented us from standing in any one place for long.
I kept asking myself: Where should I go to be in the right place? Eventually, I found a spot among regular people, very close to the main entrance of the Royal Palace. Within minutes, the vehicle carrying the coffin of the King Father was just in front of me. Then, suddenly, the voices of old and young people alike, praying and crying, broke out and blended into one single lament.
It was a difficult moment. I could not stop my tears, which blurred my vision as I was trying to take photographs. A friend of mine who happened to be near me said, “Hak, put down your camera.” But I could not stop; I kept shooting without really thinking about the images I was recording.
I later learned that, according to TVK - a Cambodian government television network - 1.2 million people had lined the streets of the capital from Phnom Penh International Airport to the Royal Palace to see the late King Father come home. Almost all of them were ordinary Cambodians like me.
The Cambodian government decreed that the period from October 17 through October 23, 2012 would be the seven days of mourning that are observed according to custom. During that time, people came from every corner of the kingdom to pay their respects to the King Father at the Royal Palace, where his body lay in state. The smoke from their lighted candles and incense made the palace look ablaze and smoky, as if it were shrouded in a surreal mist. The mourners who filed past Norodom Sihanouk's body, solemn and silent, also brought jasmine and lotus flowers - another tradition. The perfume of the blossoms added to the aura of spiritual mystery that had turned the Royal Palace into a site of pilgrimage, a sacred place.
Buddhism is Cambodia's state religion, and the King Father followed that faith. On holy days, Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads as an offering to the Buddha. People in mourning also shave their heads; many Cambodians did so for Norodom Sihanouk.
On October 20, 2012, 5,000 monks, their heads shaved, gathered in front of the Royal Palace, chanting and praying. Other people joined in and, besides praying for the soul of the late King, also asked to be able to live peacefully in their country and for peace in the whole world. Suddenly, rain fell as a heavenly blessing, refreshing the mourners as more and more arrived to chant and pray.
In keeping with Khmer tradition, the cremation pavilion was built and the funeral ceremony grounds prepared. This was done very quickly and beautifully in less than two and a half months. The King Father's body lay in state at the Royal Palace for three months until the royal cremation ceremony, which was held from February 1 to February 7, 2013.
When the flame touched the body of the King Father at 6.30 pm on February 4, 2013, I raised my hands to my forehead as a sign of respect and farewell. It was time to sing to Norodom Sihanouk - a man who had loved music - the last song he had performed publicly in Phnom Penh: “Goodbye, Cambodia.”
Unity is dedicated with love and respect to the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, to the Royal Family, and to my fellow Cambodian citizens. The former King’s passing and its aftermath were a special moment in the history of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and I was there, one among other ordinary citizens. I was fortunate enough to be able to capture with my camera what was happening around me. I am now sharing this experience in photographs so that other people can see what I saw and feel what I felt.