In one of those weird synchronicities some call coincidence, I photographed Ran Vann, a refugee from Pol Pot's Cambodia, on Holocaust Remembrance Day in May, for Miller-McCune. The violent lime green of early spring in Connecticut was stark contrast to Ran. She's delicate; a sad petite woman living in a small basement apartment. She speaks of the ghosts who live with her. Her loneliness is a presence in the room.
While we talked and I tried to figure out where to make her portrait, I couldn't put aside memories of the Holocaust survivors I knew growing up. In my suburb in western upstate New York, everyone working at the bakery had tattoos from Hitler on their forearms. Each July my grandmother visited from Brooklyn with her 3rd husband, Harry. He'd had a horrific childhood in the concentration camps of Europe, surviving as a teen by feigning death in a mass grave while camp guards shot down into his pile of bodies, as the liberators approached. Harry felt it his personal responsibility to retell this, in a chilling heavily accented narrative, once every summer. I'd spend his visit avoiding eye contact but knowing at some point he'd corner me, and I'd hear it again. Bearing witness, I guess, but I was too young to get the importance to him.
a wall in Ran Vann's apartment
With all that in my upbringing, it bothers me that while Pol Pot was destroying Cambodian culture and lives, I was oblivious. Roughly 2 million people died, and many more, like Ran Vann, are suffering in the shadow of his reign, still. It was in the newspapers but I was busy being a teenager not noticing the details, hearing about Kampuchea but not understanding that a genocide was going on. Didn't really get it until the movie The Killing Fields came out. (It's worth a watch, still, if you haven't seen it).
There's not much we can do about history but try not to repeat the parts that went horribly wrong, and to acknowledge the needs of the Ran Vann's and their ghosts, in our midst. That's what the Miller McCune article does. (You can read it, from the link.)
So very glad and honored to have had the opportunity to meet her.
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