The Vietnam War brought American bombs to Cambodia just as the nation finished an Olympic stadium—a long-shot attempt to lure the Games to Southeast Asia. As the war led to famine, the Khmer Rouge seized power. Under their leader, Pol Pot, two million were killed in the 1970s. Years of civil war followed. The trauma was so long and deep that today some Cambodians will tell you that the Olympics did in fact happen, though they’re not quite sure when.
Anne Elizabeth Moore, a Chicago writer, artist and teacher, explains this aberration by noting that “for Cambodians living after the trauma, there is no before.” Moore has been traveling to Cambodia for five years, reporting on the nation’s first spurts of economic growth since it began to stabilize over the past decade. Her latest work, Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present (Green Lantern Press, $20), is a collection of photographs and essays documenting Cambodia as it moves from terror to growth.
“I wanted to capture the notion of Cambodia without relying on those same old pictures of haggard faces we associate with poverty,” Moore says. “Today is not about poverty, but a shift away from poverty, and the survivors of mass killings are doing this work.” To record this transitional moment and highlight the many forces at play, Moore focused on a group of dancers who lead crowds through hip-hop aerobic routines in public spaces.
“It’s a unique sight, with this weird stuff coming together from all over,” Moore says. The hip-hop moves reveal the hand of globalization, but so does the exercise element, as years of famine and war rendered workouts irrelevant. Nonetheless, hints of traditional apsara dancing also appear, noticeable in the curve of a hand or wrist. For Moore, “Watching these people who have had crazy, horrible lives follow these moves is an overwhelmingly beautiful experience.”
Her photographs convey this uncanny beauty. Long and double exposures blur the images so that streetlights shine through the dancers. The bodies stretch into arcs and streaks, suggesting not just the movement of people, but of culture and money. It’s also hard not to think of ghosts, something Moore says she and the Cambodian people strongly believe in. During this bizarre historical confluence of tragedy and promise, Moore says, “Sometimes ghosts are the only way to explain what’s happening.”
While the economic shift is visible in the motion of bodies, it is also clear in the spaces they occupy. Streets are paved and monuments and playgrounds recently built. Economic development contains gloom as well, however. The book begins with its darkest segment, a moving essay about the selling of a young Cambodian bride to a Westerner. The prose, which meditates on the economic incentives for the girl’s family, is punctuated by black-and-white images of a white man leaning over a young Cambodian woman in a bar. Her smile seems forced.
It should not be surprising that development is uneven. In one essay, Moore muses on the irony of feasting with politicians while people starve on the same city block. While she acknowledges there are both downsides and upsides to development, she insists on “showing how beautiful those complications are.” She succeeds by finding resilience and domination within the image of dancers. In this way, Moore achieves her goal of “honoring without memorializing this moment and these people.”
Moore reads from Hip Hop Apsara Tuesday 28.