Anne Elizabeth Moore wants to you to see Cambodia through her eyes, or at least through her camera’s lens. A Fulbright scholar, UN Press Fellow and award winning author, Moore has “spent much of the last five years in and thinking about Cambodia.” Now she’s ready to tell an image-driven story that celebrates a country rife with contradictions.
OT Your book is called Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present. Can you talk a little bout the title?
AEM Well, Hip Hop Apsara was what I'd always called these public dances down on the riverside, because they really do combine blasting hip hop music (and other kinds, too) with intricate Apsara dance moves. The dance scenes I photographed—it's sort of becoming standard now, for films shot in or about Cambodia in any way, to show these big dance parties. They're very tourist-friendly, and they do make for some amazing images. But it is an extremely odd mix of very traditional Khmer ballet with a deliberately janky, clunky, hip-hop sound and fashion aesthetic, especially when, earlier in the evening, you see it's mostly survivors of mass killing and genocide out busting a move. The subtitle, Ghosts Past and Present, is equally important. Between 1.7 and 2.2 million people were killed in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and before that American bombings killed hundreds of thousands of people and livestock, which some estimate eventually killed about as many as under the brutal regime. Then after that, there were 20 years of civil war and poverty. A lot of people died. Its important to remember why and how, even if you're getting over the loss.
OT How does one unite words and images? Were the photos and essay done independently? Did you write essays to compliment chosen photos? Did you snap pictures that related to already written pieces?
AEM After five years of traveling in Southeast Asia, I had all these images, experimental things I would do with my camera when we were out at these big aerobics gatherings—the young women I was living with, and who are still my friends, who took me there—they were not terribly impressed by my dancing ability. So I photographed. Almost every night I could, actually: I loved being out in public that way with Cambodians enjoying themselves, taking up space, being loud. I did end up with several thousands images, though. Once the images were edited down, I sat down and was like, OK, my publisher says I have to write something. I'd wanted to create an interesting and complex enough narrative from the images alone, but she kept saying, I think a little bit of explication would be nice. So when I sat down to write, I didn't let myself get caught up in, is this factual? Will I be able to get permission to quote this? Am I saying it in a way that will damage the people I know there?—These are all the dangers of journalism in Cambodia: that the people you write about will be prosecuted for saying the things you have written down. It's pretty nerve-wracking. A journalist, covering the illegal logging trade, was just discovered dead last week; another one was shot a few weeks before that. So loosening the stories from this journalistic directive and letting them stand as solitary narratives that maybe aren't hinged in traceable location—it let me tell a different kind of story. A deeper story, and one that's maybe more true than anything else I've been able to write about Cambodia before. But it's not journalism.
OT Cambodia seems in flux at this point. What have your experiences been like relative to the rapidly changing culture?
AEM That's actually the subject of my next book, which is a follow-up to Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh—which just won a SATW Foundation Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism! It's called New Girl Law, and it looks at the impact of neoliberalism and globalization—like the kind Nick Kristof espouses in Half the Sky—on the women I've worked with over the last five years. Although it's great that fewer people are in poverty, women are still paid about half of living wage to work in the garment factories there—70% of which export clothing to the US. Even if we pay attention to someone like Kristof and focus on education, we see loss: young people's traditional values are being replaced with a very Western set of desires, which directly benefits global media and disadvantages folks there who might have something to say. And that's really just the good side, still: Press freedom doesn't exist, corruption is still out of control, domestic violence common. This White Savior Industrial Complex business is, in even the medium run, going to be very, very damaging—I mean, I've already seen it. If we can foster critical thinking and support communities of resistance there—local folks, like the Messenger Band that show up toward the end of Hip Hop Apsara—who have a good idea of how to make international support useful—at least we can mitigate some of the negative effects of globalization.
OT As someone outside of Cambodian culture, what does it mean for you to write about/photograph Cambodians? What role does privilege play?
AEM Well, it's a pretty big deal. But being a girl involved in punk culture, you know: you're just never going to feel like you fit in. And, the history of white people—Americans, especially—in Cambodia is really not pretty. It's disgusting to be a part of it, for sure, and that media makers have always been on the cutting edge of shitty behavior there is deeply uncomfortable. I mean: media is for sure capitalism at its purest. And media in and about non-Western cultures? Ugh. But the bulk of my work there has been about giving away tools—media-making tools for folks to either represent themselves or, at the very least, understand how and when they want to participate in media. And, grounding my work in that has given me an amazing education in what the people I work with want and need from the rest of the world. My privilege has been enormous, of course—and not financial. This work's incredibly expensive and most of it has been paid for out of pocket. But meeting the most amazingly kind and open people who have been willing to teach me about their culture has been really great. I make mistakes, though. In the last week, I've actually gotten daily emails from people who want advice about going to Asian or African cultures to teach self-publishing. I mean: most of these people haven't ever made zines! They learned about them from Cambodian Grrrl! A couple of them are even planning to write books on their experiences! Which is just insane to me: to sign a book contract for a memoir of an experience you have not yet had, and which you know nothing about implementing. That's really concerning, to me: that means that folks are caught on an idea—the White Savior idea, maybe—instead of genuinely thinking through local problems and potential solutions. And here's what I have to say about that, and about privilege, the way we normally talk about it: when your privilege is blinding you to really genuinely hearing the needs and interests of others, it's a problem. But when you can be open and caring enough to know that most of your ideas are definitely wrong, you will begin to see ways of using your privilege for good. Really. The most radical thing you can do, ever, anywhere, is listen.
Anne Elizabeth Moore will be at Quimby's September 28th at 7 p.m.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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