Remembering Dith Pran, photojournalist – A ‘Pineapple’ in ‘The Killing Field’

Courtesy The New York Times

“You have to be a pineapple. You have to have a hundred eyes.”

That’s how Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist and photographer who survived the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, summed up the challenge of a photojournalist.

Dith, who died on March 30 in New Jersey, USA, had both the talent and tenacity for his chosen profession. His experience as an interpreter for The New York Times, for which he later worked as a photographer after migrating to the US, and his ordeal surviving the Khmer Rouge became the basis of the Hollywood movie The Killing Fields (1984).

Watch the trailer for The Killing Fields here:

Here’s Dith’s story as summed up in his Wikipedia entry:
In 1975, Pran and New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg stayed behind in Cambodia to cover the fall of the capital Phnom Penh to the communist Khmer Rouge forces. Schanberg and other foreign reporters were allowed to leave, but Pran was not permitted to leave the country. When Cambodians were forced to work in forced labor camps, Pran had to endure four years of starvation and torture before finally escaping to Thailand in 1979. He coined the phrase “killing fields” to refer to the clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered during his 40-mile escape. His three brothers were killed back in Cambodia.

“I’m a very lucky man to have had Pran as my reporting partner and even luckier that we came to call each other brother,” Schanberg was quoted in the New York Times tribute to Dith Pran. “His mission with me in Cambodia was to tell the world what suffering his people were going through in a war that was never necessary. It became my mission too. My reporting could not have been done without him.”

In another tribute to Dith, the executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, said: “To all of us who have worked as foreign reporters in frightening places, Pran reminds us of a special category of journalistic heroism — the local partner, the stringer, the interpreter, the driver, the fixer, who knows the ropes, who makes your work possible, who often becomes your friend, who may save your life, who shares little of the glory, and who risks so much more than you do.”

This is a highly significant statement, coming from a major media house of the western world. Acknowledging – let alone celebrating – the contributions of unsung local counterparts is not yet a routine practice among many western media professionals covering the global South. More often then not, the fixers are used, paid and dismissed. They are lucky to get proper credit. And if things go wrong, the western media companies would bring in top lawyers and diplomatic pressures to get their own out of trouble; never mind what happens to the locals who are part of that same team.

Something like this happened to a Bangladeshi journalist friend Saleem Samad in November 2002. He was working with a TV crew from the UK’s Channel 4 doing an investigative documentary on the state of Bangladesh, when the whole crew was arrested (we won’t go into the rights and wrongs of their conduct here). I later heard from Saleem and other Bangladeshi friends how Channel 4’s main concern had been to get the British and Italian members of the crew out of jail and out of Bangladesh. Saleem’s fate was a secondary concern. Read ‘A Prisoner’s Tale’ by Saleem Samad in Time, 4 Feb 2003

Even after being released, Saleem Samad was hounded and harassed in his native country that he went into exile in Canada. Read his profile here, and connect to his blog.

This scenario keeps repeating with different names and in different southern locations all the time. In such a harsh, selfish world, Dith Pran was certainly fortunate to have worked with Sydney Schanberg who stood by and for his local colleague. When Schanberg returned to the US and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Cambodia, he accepted it on behalf of Dith as well.

Schanberg continued to search for, and write about Dith in newspaper articles – one was in The New York Times Magazine, in a 1980 cover article titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran., which later became a book by the same title in 1985. Dith’s story became the basis of The Killing Fields.

Haing Ngor, the Cambodian-American doctor who played Dith Pran in the movie, worked with Dith in real life to promote human rights in their native Cambodia and to prevent genocide everywhere. Ngor was shot dead in 1996 in Los Angeles.

As the New York Times noted, Dith’s greatest hope was to see leaders of the Khmer Rouge tried for war crimes against his native country; preparations for these trials are finally under way.

Courtesy The New York Times
A 1974 photo by Mr. Dith of the wife and mother of a government soldier as they learned of the soldier’s death in combat southwest of Phnom Penh. (Photo: Dith Pran/The New York Times)

Courtesy The New York Times
In 1979, Mr. Dith escaped over the Thai border. He returned to Cambodia in the summer of 1989, at the invitation of Prime Minister Hun Sen. At left, Mr. Dith visited an old army outpost in Siem Riep where skulls of Khmer Rouge victims were kept. (Photo: Steve McCurry/Magnum)

Courtesy The New York Times
Mr. Dith joined The Times in 1980 as a staff photographer. He photographed people rallying in Newark in support of the rights of immigrants on Sept. 4, 2006. (Photo: Michael Nagle/Getty Images)

Watch Dith Pran speak on NYT Video Feature

All photos linked to from the New York Times online

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Dith Pran, photojournalist – A ‘Pineapple’ in ‘The Killing Field’”

  1. Dear Nalaka,

    I am here reading your mail in Phnom Penh. Ironically, I’ve spent the lsst few hours with a young Cambodian photographer learning about the Cambodian photographic scene, visiting his home, talking about the French domination of local photography and other subjects. Dith Pran’s issue never came up. I didn’t see it in the newspapers (maybe tucked away somewhere, but it certainly didn’t leap out at me), or hear it being discussed anywhere.

    Fixers seem to be forgotten even by their own kind.

    10:45 pm. Sunway Hotel Phnom Penh 1st April 2008

  2. Hi Nalaka,
    I am excited to read your feeling about Fixers by the “foreign” journalists. I am equally surprised to see that my name has been mentioned eloquently in your blog reflecting your impression with Dith Pran, the famous Cambodian photo-journalist.
    Well my ordeal in Bangladesh was not that extreme as I saw in the blockbuster movie Killing Fields. Well it is true that most foreign journalists, as we see in the case of journalists/Fixers in Pakistan. Many of the Fixers were missing or dead after the foreign journalists were captured by Islamic militants or government security agency. Some of them are still languishing in prison, while the foreign journalists are free.
    Saleem Samad, Toronto
    10:10 pm, Toronto April 1, 2008

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