I must say I was delighted and a trifle nervous when the Diplomat told me she was going to meet up with the renowned photo journalist Nic Dunlop for a couple of beers as she had been liaising with him on his upcoming new photo book – Brave New Burma (due to be published by Dewi Lewis Publishing on May 15). After all, this was the man who “found” Comrade Duch in 1999, one of the most notorious executioners of the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot, and then wrote a book about the experience, published in 2005. A book that I will add is immensely readable being perfectly pitched between a travel journal about a search, a biography of Comrade Duch, and an insight into the lives of ordinary Cambodians during the period 1975-9. Oh and he’s directed a film or two.
In the event we were able to meet Nic twice (the second time being over sushi; this first time at Indigo, a little French restaurant on Thanon Convent, just off Silom) and, as with all things, I discovered that he was an affable chap with an unquenchable drive to hunt down the truth behind things that make him curious. Snippets of information emerged during our conversation; one was of the inspiration the film “The Killing Fields” had on him. It led him to travel to the Golden Peninsula as a freelance journalist working for The Guardian newspaper in the 90s on several occasions. Each time taking photos of Burma, snapshots of ordinary people, ordinary lives. He spoke briefly of his foray into Cambodia, of the hunt for Duch, was kind enough to answer my quick-fire questions on his new book, his old book.
And then…the conversation turned aside. I suspect my love of history shone through and we spoke about his interest in a fishmonger chap named Jackie Clarke in Ireland who had passed away in 2000 leaving a legacy of all things Irish to his shocked widow. This wasn’t a collection of newspaper clippings but a hoard of mementos stretching back a few hundred years. There is a fascinating article about it here. Nic was musing over whether to pursue it further, to write about this man who sought to be a guardian of Irish history. This was what stood out for me. Nic wasn’t necessarily interested in the history itself, but rather the history of the ordinary man with an extraordinary secret.
From there we talked about Nic’s love of ghost stories. He chooses not to dissect them, not to quibble over truths or myths. Rather it is the story that matters; the telling of it, the hushed whispers in a darkened room with the wind howling outside, candles guttering in a bone chilling breeze at the precise moment everyone looks into the shadows to see if the ghosts are still there. A true lover of storytelling. I was able to talk briefly of my like for authors such as M.R.James (“Oh, whistle, and I’ll come to you lad” and “The Haunted Dolls’ House” are stand out ghost stories for me), Ann Radcliffe (no finer writer of the Gothic theme – check out “A Sicilian Romance” if you’re interested), and James Herbert (sadly recently deceased). We were able to share a common time, a common geography of the ‘Great Storm of 87’ when the entire South Downs was blown down. Both of us were in the middle of that storm and its aftermath walking through English country lanes, scrambling through hedgerows, clambering over fallen trees, ending up at pubs that had a single light to welcome the weary foot traveller. All very “Jamaica Inn”, but splendid for being so.
Of course, I couldn’t monopolize the conversation as the Diplomat had far weightier matters to discuss with Nic around Burma and his latest book. So whilst that went on I dove into a 6pm cocktail. This was called something I forget, had grenadine, claimed to have tequila. Ah, yes, that’s it. A Tequila Sunrise. Anyway, given I really love Tequila (I know, odd) this was utterly revolting. It was sickly sweet, too brightly coloured and soon had me ordering a Corona instead. I have a rule that wherever I go in Asia I always try a new cocktail (doing the Traditional Singapore Sling was a recent highlight in Singapore at The Raffles Hotel). So far I’ve discovered some good stuff. White Russian and Mojito are a staple in these blistering hot climes.
Unfortunately, Nic had to leave us after an hour or so to head down to a local hospital where elderly people were learning to pole dance. Yes, I know, I raised an eyebrow as well. Surely that’s not the best for your hips at such an age? Still, given I probably misunderstood what was actually going on, I was happy to let it slide whilst ordering some dinner. Indigo is not a bad bar restaurant at all. The Diplomat and I enjoying a quick repast after Nic took his leave.
A week later (upon our return from Singapore) we met up on Rama IV at a popular Japanese luncheon chain (I also forget the name) where we perched on stools at the chef’s bar, happily munched our raw and cooked fish and I got a chance to flip through a pre-release copy of Nic’s new book. The photos are what you’d expect of an award winning photo journalist. I confess I did ask if he takes or selects every photo with a view to it being able to grace the cover of National Geographic. The Afghan Lady photo is probably one of the most iconic photos of the last century. The book isn’t just photos, there is a story to tell of how Nic has seen Burma change in 20 years, taking us from the early 90s right up to December 2012 with all the publicity around Aung Sun Suu Kyi. There is a memorable quote (which I cannot remember word for word) but is of a woman lamenting that she is not allowed to be in one place for any length of time. “Tell me” (I paraphrase) “Where is my home, then?” Poignant stuff.
Anyway, look at the book if you get a chance. It is a different view of Burma away from the usual CNN/BBC driven portrayal. A more street level view, one of the people rather than the politics. Fascinating in every sense.
So, that was my chance to meet Nic Dunlop. A shared like of ghost stories, a man who is driven to understand that which he finds curious, a very British sense of humour, and the inevitable worldly calm of a man who has witnessed the world away from the security of an armchair…a latter place that spawns too many pompous opinions and judgements, if you ask me.
“What about you, then.” I hear you retort. Me? I am as guilty as all the rest of watching from afar and judging through my Western-media-tainted spectacles. It’s nice to meet someone who’s actually tasted, smelt, felt, seen and heard the reality of what he so eloquently talks about and photographs.
I’ve met Nic Dunlop. I’m glad I did.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?