A New York Times staff photographer for almost three decades after he came to America, Dith died last Sunday in New Brunswick, NJ, after a brief battle against pancreatic cancer. He was 65.
Viewing hours will begin on Saturday, April 5, at the South Plainfield Funeral Home from 2 to 4 p.m., and the family will welcome visitors and friends.
The service will be Sunday, April 6, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the funeral home.
Dith's family says he will be cremated in a private service the following day and his ashes will rest at a Buddhist temple in Philadelphia until his final resting place at a temple in Washington, DC, can be arranged.
The family asks that in lieu of sending flowers, contributions are invited in the name of Dith Pran. The family intends to put donations toward a foundation that will be established in the coming weeks according to the photojournalist's last wishes.
Cards, letters, and contributions can be sent to The New York Times, 4th Floor Picture Desk, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY, 10018, marked to the attention of Melissa Bellinelli. All items will be delivered to Dith's family.
Word of Dith's death in a New Brunswick hospital Sunday morning came from his long-time colleague at the Times, Sydney H. Schanberg. Dith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January. He was hospitalized for three weeks starting in mid-February, and in early March he was released to the Roosevelt Care Center in Edison, NJ.
Escaping Cambodia in 1979, he was made famous by the movie which showed him in his role as a translator and journalist assisting Schanberg, then a foreign correspondent for the Times, covering the Cambodian civil war until the Communists took over in 1975. While most reporters left, Schanberg and a few others stayed and Dith continued to assist him as a photographer and translator.
Eventually Dith and the journalists were arrested by the Communists and held for execution when Phnom Penh fell in 1975. The photographer convinced authorities that the foreign journalists were French Nationals (they were not) and they were released. While Dith was sentenced to a Cambodian labor camp, where he somehow avoided death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge – unlike nearly two million of his countrymen – Schanberg won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his coverage of Cambodia. Schanberg insisted on sharing the Pulitzer with his friend.
To keep from being executed by the Khmer Rouge, Dith hid the fact that he was educated, acted dumb, and denied that he knew any Americans. The Times reports that he even threw away any money he had, dressed as a peasant, and posed as a taxi driver.
Four years later when the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Dith returned to Siem Reap, the Cambodian village of his birth. Fearing they might discover his American ties, he escaped and on October 3, 1979, walked across the border to Thailand where he was reunited with Schanberg. His survival is a miracle; Dith lost 50 members of his family to the Khmer Rouge including his father, three brothers, a sister, nieces and nephews. Then Schanberg wrote "The Death and Life of Dith Pran" for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. That piece was the basis for the movie "The Killing Fields" and it made the story of Dith Pran a famous one.
Schanberg has said that it was Dith who coined the phrase "killing fields" to describe the piles of corpses and skulls he saw during his journey to freedom. "That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp," Schanberg was quoted as remembering.
Dith and Schanberg, who wrote about his own guilt and fear about what had happened to his Cambodian friend, have been close friends for the many years since then. After Dith settled in the States he became a staff photographer for The New York Times and enjoyed a 30-year career there as an accomplished photojournalist.
During the past few weeks, Dith's bedside has been well attended by family and old friends including Schanberg, who told an inquiring editor that he did not want to stop right now to write a piece about Dith, preferring instead to entirely spend his days "taking care of my friend."
Before he died, while he was still able to receive visitors and converse, Dith's visitors included a documentary film crew, a group of Buddhist monks, journalism friends, and photographers.
Times's assistant managing editor Michele McNally said that actor Sam Waterson (who portrayed Schanberg in the movie) came to Dith's bedside to visit in the final days.
In early March, Dith told reporters that he intended to "beat the odds" of pancreatic cancer but that, ultimately, "this is my path, and I must go where it takes me."
Today in the Times, Dith was remembered for his "imaginative pictures of city scenes and news events. In one, he turned the cameras on mourners rather than the coffin to snatch an evocative moment at the funeral of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a rabbi murdered in 1990."
The photojournalist founded the Holocaust Awareness Project to educate American students about the mass killings and reign of terror the Khmer Rouge brought down on Cambodia. He testified before the U.S. House and Senate subcommittees on East Asia and the Pacific, and was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1985.
Dith compiled “Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors” (Yale) in 1997. The child witnesses, now grown up, wrote of babies killed by bayonets and adults killed with the backs of hoes — to save on bullets. In a review of the book in The New York Times, Lance Gould wrote, “The overwhelming simplicity of the contributors’ recollections builds a solid, irrefutable censure of one of humanity’s most shocking crimes.”
The Times reports that Dith is survived by his companion, Bette Parslow; his daughter, Hemkarey; his sons, Titony, Titonath and Titonel; a sister, Samproeuth; six grandchildren; and two stepgrandchildren.
Schanberg says that Parslow along with Dith's first wife, Ser Moeun Dith, have both been at his bedside these past few weeks bringing the photojournalist rice noodles.
From his bed, Dith did a video interview with The New York Times a few weeks ago about his life story, and about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide and suffering of his beloved Cambodian people, hoping that the world will never forget what happened there in the "killing fields."
"He cared about this one story most of all," Schanberg said.
"Please, everybody, the world must stop the killing fields. One time is too many. If they can do that for me, my spirit will be happy," Dith said.
"The Last Word: A Video Interview And Profile With Dith Pran" can be seen here.
And The New York Times also published a multimedia presentation about Dith that can be seen online here.
Journalist Stephen Wolgast contributed to this report