CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Photographer Mario Nascati Jr. and Bonna Neang Weinstein, owner of Khmer Art Gallery, look over a photograph from Nascati's archives.
via CAAI News Media
Fri, Feb. 5, 2010
By Jeff Gammage
Inquirer Staff Writer
In one photograph, a girl, perhaps 7, stares at the lens with a mixture of intrigue and trepidation. The sag in her too-big pants hangs almost to her knees.
Another shows a boy on a front porch, his hand on his chin in dour contemplation, the wall behind him patched with plywood. Nearby, half-hidden in shadow, a girl smiles brightly.
A third depicts a dapper man in suit and tie, his fingers pinching the corner of an American flag draped over his shoulder. It takes a minute to recognize him as Dith Pran, the journalist whose life was portrayed in The Killing Fields.
To photographer Mario Nascati Jr., the pictures reveal not life, but what he came to think of as afterlife - the lives his subjects found or made in Philadelphia after fleeing their war-torn Cambodian homeland.
"This was their new life," he said. "The culture that was left behind lives on here."
Tonight, Nascati's black-and-white photos go on display at a Khmer Art Gallery exhibit titled "After Life: Documenting Cambodian Diaspora in Philadelphia." The show runs through Feb. 28.
Nascati's archive exists as a kind of time capsule, because he caught his subjects at a key moment - the mid-1980s, when waves of Southeast Asian refugees were changing the racial makeup of Philadelphia. In some neighborhoods, their arrival sparked resentment and violence that linger today.
Last month, the Justice Department was asked to investigate the Dec. 3 attacks at South Philadelphia High School, where 30 Asian students were assaulted by groups of classmates.
Nascati, a freelance photographer, in the 1980s was working as an instructional aide at William Penn High School on North Broad Street. His Cambodian students told harrowing stories of escape from a country turned war zone.
Nascati started visiting their neighborhoods, shooting people, events, and even a wedding. During two years he took thousands of photos, mostly in West Philadelphia. Some he snapped in the other large resettlement areas of North and South Philadelphia. The shot of Dith was taken in New York City.
"We are still haunted, in big ways. And the photos speak to that," said Bonna Neang Weinstein, the Khmer gallery owner, herself a survivor of the Killing Fields.
Cambodians here make up a tiny minority, about 6,570 people - less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city population. Today they organize through groups such as the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, though many still struggle with poverty and prejudice.
"I'm proud that our community has grown, despite the challenges we still face everyday," said Rorng Sorn, executive director of the association.
When her family arrived in 1987, after eight years in a refugee camp in Thailand, it had 12 people living in a small apartment - that was common among newcomers. Today, many of the children of those families own their own homes. Still, she said, life is hard for older people who had little schooling.
Thoai Nguyen, executive director of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, said many less-educated refugees remain "stuck in semi-permanent poverty."
"For the most part, present day, the Cambodian and Laotian community in Philadelphia continues to be the most underserved, the community that is most vulnerable to the economic disaster of the last year and a half," he said.
But, said Nguyen, whose family came here from Vietnam in 1975, "the community has survived. In a lot of ways you can argue that it's thrived."
Walk down Seventh Street in South Philadelphia and you see Cambodian businesses and shops. The lawns of Mifflin Square are a gathering spot for summer cookouts.
Nascati, 56, has never been to Cambodia. He was born and raised in South Philadelphia, lives near Glassboro, and still works for the School District, now as a photographer and videographer.
He was too young to be drafted during the Vietnam War, but old enough to have experienced the public uproar over the U.S. bombing of Cambodia.
Neither was particularly on his mind when he went to shoot. But it's impossible to look at the faces in the photos and not consider the circumstances that drove them here.
For 25 years, the photos lay in Nascati's files. They would be there still if he hadn't happened to drive past the gallery and notice the mural of a Khmer queen outside.
To grasp why 6,570 Cambodians are living in Philadelphia today, it's important to understand the events that occurred at a different place and time.
In March 1969, with President Richard M. Nixon's approval, American B-52s began to secretly bomb Cambodia - a neutral country during the Vietnam War, at the time sliding into civil war. The administration wanted to stop the North Vietnamese from using bases inside Cambodia to supply their forces in South Vietnam.
For 14 months, the bombers hit targets that covered nearly half the country. The campaign killed between 100,000 and 500,000 civilians, and left two million homeless.
"Cambodia," Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote in Manufacturing Consent, "was being systematically demolished."
It got worse.
On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, expanding the war and triggering protests across the United States.
The insurgent Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975, beginning the genocide known as the Killing Fields. The regime, bent on creating a society of farming communes, killed 1.7 million people through execution, torture, starvation and forced labor.
Thousands of Cambodians fled to Thailand. More escaped during the 1979 Vietnamese offensive that toppled the Khmer Rouge. In the early and mid-1980s, Cambodians were resettled in countries from Australia and New Zealand to Canada.
More than 100,000 came to the United States. A few thousand settled in Philadelphia. They joined an influx of refugees that would help double the city's Asian population within a decade.
Often the newcomers were pushed into decrepit buildings by resettlement agencies that needed large numbers of apartments, and found the answer in slum landlords.
It was about then that Nascati picked up his camera.
The Khmer gallery at 319 N. 11th St. is a place where past and present collide, both in its collection, which runs from ancient to contemporary, and in its owner.
Weinstein, 45, was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge began turning the country into a labor camp. Confined separately from her father and brother - her parents had divorced - she recalled being ordered to dig a pond, certain she was digging her grave.
Her father escaped to Thailand. In 1979, at 15, she and her brother made their way there, too. She emigrated to the United States in 1984 and now lives in Abington.
For her, Weinstein said, Nascati's photos show that the Cambodian people "still matter, despite many decades of being used for war pawns."
To have lived through the Killing Fields is to live restless, she said, and the photos capture that.
"I was wondering, by projecting these pictures, is it helping the Cambodian people or pulling them down?" she said. "For me, it's an encouragement."