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Online Grad School Alumna’s Photography Project Honors Cambodian Survivors

Kirsten Belloni believes the best way to avoid repeating a crisis is to preserve the memories of those who went through it. That’s why the 2017 MFA graduate of Academy of Art University’s online education program under the photography school is documenting the images and experiences of elderly Cambodians who went through the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign of the late 1970s.

A portrait from Kirsten Belloni’s photographic project

Finding Her Path

She conceived her project in 2015. Belloni was in Cambodia, where she’s lived on and off since 2011, teaching and doing missionary work through the organization Asian Hope. Part of her job is to create a record of students and their families for the organization.

MFA Photography graduate Kirsten Belloni in Cambodia

In one household was a young student and his grandparents. Conversation with the grandfather turned to the past: He revealed he was part of the opposition army fighting the Khmer Rouge, the ruthless communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Two million Cambodians died—from execution, starvation, disease or overwork to fulfill the Khmer Rouge vision of an agrarian communist utopia.

While this grandfather survived, he suffered. “He told us about being captured, chained to the back of a truck, and dragged down a dirt road…he also showed us a scar on his leg where he had been shot trying to escape,” Belloni recalls. She says he teared up. His young grandson was lying on the ground, listening.

“At the end of our interview, I asked the grandfather if he had ever shared that story with his grandson before, and he said, ‘No, this is the first I’ve talked about it. I haven’t told anyone.’ My jaw dropped!” Belloni says.

From Kirsten Belloni’s website

Preserving Lessons of the Past

At that moment, she realized this history could fade. “These old men and women were being swept aside by modern society and passing away, without sharing. So much was being lost.”

Belloni says that if you don’t record these atrocities, they may repeat. The realization set her on a new course—to document the older generation of Khmer Rouge survivors for a series of black and white portraits. The subjects are at least 60 years old. Most are 75 to 90. The oldest is 99. Some are nuns from a Buddhist temple near her home.

Belloni is up to 38 portraits. Her goal is to reach 50 by the time she leaves Phnom Penh in June 2020. She’s taking notes on her subjects’ stories along the way, with the help of translators.

She intends to show these portraits, displayed as large as possible, in a gallery. She would like viewers to take in each portrait as if the subject was standing there in person.

Academy Preparation

Her approach to photography is something she honed as an online student at Academy of Art‘s School of Photography. Belloni observes that had she not studied at the Academy, she’d be lost as to how to tackle this “intersection of passion, purpose and the training that came from my time at the Academy.”

“Photography as a medium often makes stories very real for the viewer,” says Tamara Hubbard, associate director of online graduate photography.

When [a viewer] can see someone’s eyes, the lines of their face, or their hand and body gestures, it helps to connect us as humans in ways that text alone is often not able to accomplish to the same degree.

Tamara Hubbard, Associate Director, Online Graduate Photography

Hubbard was Belloni’s thesis advisor and continues to support her.

To help pursue her vision, Belloni established a portrait studio in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s her other home base when she’s not in Cambodia.

Measured Technique

Belloni’s shooting process is simple. She interviews her subjects first to establish a relationship for closer connection. The interview is also important for her Cambodian translators, who sometimes assist her in photographing. She notes that you don’t walk up to an older person on the street and just ask about this sort of thing “But, because I’m a foreigner, I have some [leeway] to be able to do that.”

From Kirsten Belloni’s website

She photographs outdoors, sometimes on the side of a road, using natural light and a black backdrop. She uses a 100 mm lens on her Canon 5D Mark III. After prompting subjects to just be themselves, she shoots quickly, often in 5- to 10-minute sessions.

Belloni describes her subjects as stoic. Even after such adversity in their youth, they’ve picked up and moved on, she says. “Most of the women I’ve talked to have said, ‘Oh yeah, I had 15 children total but seven of them died in the war.’ Or, ‘Oh yeah, my husband was murdered.’”

Sensitive Matters

Kirsten Belloni

Some subjects don’t want to revisit certain memories. Belloni said she makes a point to respect that. But when emotions bubble up, the process becomes even more meaningful. While interviewing one man, Belloni sensed she had probed too deep. The man cried.

“I started to apologize all over the place,” Belloni recalls. “The translator explained, ‘Oh no, he said he’s moved that anyone cares to hear his story.’”

Belloni isn’t yet posting photos from her project on social media. It feels too poignant and weighty for a thumb’s-up emoji, she says. “The overall purpose is to educate and inspire, while simultaneously honoring those who survived.”

Photos courtesy of Kirsten Belloni
Original article by Cristina Schreil of Academy Art U News,

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