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Israeli Photographer Navigates Cambodian Roots

Tomer Kep explores his unusual legacy through haunting images

Joe Freeman
December 22, 2014
"Untitled," 2006. (Courtesy of Tomer Kep)
"Untitled," 2006. (Courtesy of Tomer Kep)

One of Tel Aviv photographer Tomer Kep’s most telling photographs is a black-and-white shot of two different rooms. The left side of the frame features a wall in his mother’s living room in Jerusalem, and the right side another wall and a corridor, this one in his aunt’s apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Drained of color and visually alike, they look like they could be images from the same house. That’s kind of the point. Kep, a 36-year-old photographer and film librarian, has a Cambodian father and a Moroccan mother, and one of the more improbable backstories in Israel and Cambodia, two nations certainly not wanting for improbable backstories.

Of the Cambodian communities scattered abroad–the three best-known of which are the Cambodian-American diaspora, the Cambodian-French diaspora, and the Cambodian-Australian diaspora–the Cambodian-Israeli diaspora is, for many, an unlikely concept. That’s where Kep and his family come in.

“I’m Middle East and Far East together,” he told me in Phnom Penh last week before a talk he had been invited to give, an event that had generated an above-average buzz among locals. When I first requested an interview through Sa Sa Bassac, the Cambodian visual arts organization hosting Kep, I was told he was almost booked solid.

Kep was visiting Cambodia for the second time—his first trip was in 2006, about nine years after an aunt who survived the Khmer Rouge reunited with Kep’s father in Israel. But his ties to both countries stretch back to the 1970s, when his paternal grandfather, Khan Kep, served as a diplomat at the Cambodian embassy in Israel. (Kep isn’t sure about his grandfather’s title, but said he had a senior role at the embassy.)

These were the days of the Khmer Republic, the government that fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Kep’s father and uncle had been living with his grandfather in Israel when Cambodia began to radically change course. As Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge rose to power, diplomats in the embassy fled to the United States and France. Khan Kep made the unusual decision to stay put in Israel. He and his two sons were granted asylum and ultimately became Israeli citizens. Kep’s father joined the Israeli army, married a Moroccan Israeli woman and converted to Judaism. As much as he tried to blend in with his peers, he stood out in the Israel Defense Forces.

“I see a lot of pictures of him as a soldier, everybody thinks it was in Vietnam,” Kep said. It was a difficult transition, and Kep’s family spent time in Canada before ultimately returning to Israel.

In high school, Kep developed an interest in Cambodia, a creative spark which would inform his art. His father showed him eight-millimeter films of elaborate weddings from his native country; this influence can be seen in the staged natured of Kep’s photographs. One image shows his father standing while his brother sits cross-legged on the ground. Another is a collection of four passport-size photos. Three of them are women his father knew in Cambodia, their fates unknown. The fourth is Kep’s sister. Together, they speak to what is and what may have been—where he comes from and where he is now.

“For me, it’s thinking, ‘what would happen if one of them were my mother?’” he explained.

At his talk later that evening, he spoke about Israel and his past, and showcased several other works. Among the more striking images was a blown-up copy of a sketch his father had hastily drawn of Israel and Cambodia full of lines and scratches. Kep saved the doodle and now exhibits it along with his own work, a reminder of the ties that bind us to our native lands and our homelands.

“It’s like a masterpiece for me,” he said.

Joe Freeman is a Southeast Asia-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Nikkei Asian Review.