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Cambodian-American Photographer Chronicles Displaced

  • Brian Calvert

BRONX, NY - What's it like to be stuck between worlds - to feel like you're neither one thing nor another? That's the situation Pete Pin finds himself in. Pin, a Cambodian-American photographer based in New York, is currently working on a long-term project to chronicle the lives of Cambodians in America. Called Displaced, the project, he says, is an exploration of psychological disconnection and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.

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At 30, Pin is on a quest. The photographer is searching for his heritage amid the Cambodian enclaves of America. Along the way, he is documenting dislocation.

Today, he has come to a Cambodian temple, in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City.

"This temple is the center of the Cambodian community, and it's very, very small as you can see," Pin notes. "There's only one monk here. And it's carved out of the space here in this neighborhood where it's this backyard here, and right outside is someone else's backyard. There's a very amazing sense of community in the Bronx, but you see it in people's homes, and you see it isolated in certain areas."

Isolation is a recurring theme in Pin's photographs - from California, where he grew up, to Philadelphia, New York and other corners of America. Another theme is disconnection:

"What's kind of beautiful about photography is that these things are just there, you know, they're always there… but the photos are a manifestation of my own generational, cultural and historical displacement," Pin explains.

Only a few hundred Cambodian families live in the Bronx. This temple is a main center of worship for them. It is the Cambodian New Year, and these boys are learning to write in Khmer, the language of their motherland.

These are the moments Pin seeks to capture, as he puts together a growing exhibition for Cambodians in America, for those back home, and for non-Cambodians who may not understand the difficulties Cambodian refugees have had in the US.

But Pin, whose parents survived the Khmer Rouge, also shoots to find a part of himself.

"The name of the project is Displaced, and what that really means is that there's of course this physical displacement in terms of what it means to be a refugee," Pin adds. "I can't say myself that I'm physically displaced, because I'm not. I'm American, this is my home. But I am culturally displaced. I exist in this vacuum of identity, where I don't know what it means to be either fully American or Cambodian. And in addition to that, there's this legacy that I have in my heart and on my shoulders that was given to me at birth as a result of what my parents lived through. And I am trying for most of my adult life to really understand what that means.

Today what that means is a short language lesson of his own, once the camera is put away.