Monday, November 30, 2015

Documenting the Cambodian diaspora with Pete Pin

Art Radar recently posted a great interview by Lisa Pollman featuring Pete Pin, "Inter-generational project reveals complexities of Cambodian diaspora"  that also has many implications for those of us who are documenting the Lao diaspora. It's well worth the read, espeically for its questions of art with intergenerational dimensions and a sense of community-centered creation.

His projects have included “Cambodian Diaspora,” “Cambodian Diaspora: Memory”, and “I am Khmer,” which may not strike some as particularly ambitious titles, but they're functional enough.

There's a lot that should resonate with Lao artists here. In the Khmer community, he didn't grow up with much access to art, and he felt a great disconnect from his culture and his identity. Pete Pin defied the statistics and went on to puruse his graduate degrees.

What's encouraging to me is that he purchased his first camera in 2008, and got what many would consider a later start in life as a photographer.  He found inspiration in the work of Richard Avedon and Robert Frank thanks to exhibits in San Francisco. I would hope this encourages Lao not to be intimidated by the idea of starting later in an art.

One notable concept he mentions is the "hinge generation" put forward by Eva Hoffman. It's an idea of trauma experienced through recieved memory, which is particularly of interest for Lao who were born in the 1970s and on. Many of us have a sense of what our elders went through but did not directly experience it. For Lao, there's a consistent frustration that elders, particularly parents and grandparents don't talk about those experiences in any great detail, and there's not much of a clearinghouse for these stories where we can reassemble a sense of what really happened during the Secret War. In an era of such intense personal documentation, it remains a very visible gap in our human record.

Hoffman notes that those of us interested in preserving the memories of our elders and discussing our journey have to beware of self-indulgence and narcissism. Without naming names, I can say that I've seen that in action in Lao and Southeast Asian narratives. Hoffman has further warned that we can't see ourselves as''a victim of victims, as damaged by calamities that had been visited on somebody else.'' She notes that "if we insist on fidelity to our childhood knowledge, we may run the risk of being unfaithful to what our parents themselves knew." So this could become a challenge.

Pete Pin's present work is centered on documentary photography, not photojournalism, so these are images that are taken over a long-period of time, and not necessarily shots centered on things we'd consider breaking news. I can see many Lao photographers across the country working with this method. Pete Pin makes note of some other interesting approaches to photography, such as participatory, collaborative and performance photography.

Pete Pin and Lisa Pollman discuss a New York Times article by Teju Cole "Memories of Things Unseen" and the idea that photography is a memorial art, and one that intersects "memory, space, and time."

Pete Pin mentions an issue in putting together exhibitions that we learned during the Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibit in Minnesota five years ago, that you have to be careful not to reintroduce trauma. There's a challenge because we can't always be sure what's going to trigger those memories or where the outcome goes. You need responsible facilitation and use a safe space. Pete Pin even suggests having mental health resources on hand, which is not an issue other communities exhibiting community-centered arts typically include.

The project shifted for Pete Pin, which originally was concieved as creating an archive of family stories, but I find his current conclusion interesting, that family stories should really stay with the families. I think about this as I remember The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and some of the conversations we were having about this back then. He now makes efforts to get people to participate at their own levels of comfort.

Overall, there are some very interesting ideas presented here that I think many in the Lao community need to consider as we go forward with our own efforts to document our diaspora. Be sure to give this a read.

No comments: