• August 12, 2015

Diving in the Darkness to Clear Cambodia’s Underwater Minefields

Alexa Keefe

Propelling themselves through the murky water, the divers feel around in the darkness at the bottom of Cambodia’s rivers and lakes, using their hands to locate unexploded ordnance. They might find bombs dropped by American planes during the Vietnam War, fragments of grenades, or weapons that went down with ships attempting to supply the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

Portrait of UXO salvage diver in Cambodia
Leng Channak, 42

The fact that these remnants of war still exist, decades after the conflicts that bore them, is a source of deep interest for British photographer Charles Fox. Fox fell in love with Cambodia a decade or so ago while traveling in the region. “I crossed the border from Laos into Cambodia, and I don’t know, something just grabbed me about the place,” he says. After working there on and off as a photographer and learning the language, he made the country his home in 2012.

Portrait of UXO salvage diver in Cambodia
Sok Narun, 45

When he learned about a joint program geared toward training Cambodians who had learned to clear the country’s notorious minefields to do the same task underwater, Fox was intrigued.

Portrait of Cambodian UXO salvage diver
Tri Khun, 45

The program—run by the Cambodian Mine Action Centre in conjunction with the American nonprofit Golden West Humanitarian Foundation—employed former American military divers to transform a group of volunteers from barely competent swimmers to a tactical team capable of conducting military-grade salvage operations.

Portrait of UXO salvage diver in Cambodia
Lorn Sarath, 26

Fox spent two and a half years alongside the men, sharing meals, making friendships, and marveling at their fearlessness in facing what many would consider absolutely terrifying: searching for unexploded, potentially deadly bombs by hand in zero-visibility conditions. “They’d say things like, ‘Well, we’ve done it on land. So we’ve got the opportunity to do it in water, so why not do it in water?’” Fox remembers.

Portrait of UXO salvage diver in Cambodia
Sok Chenda, 38

Fox also learned to dive so that he could photograph them during their training exercises. “I would essentially dive down following a rope,” he says. “And I would just literally sit on the [deactivated] bomb and wait for them. I got a real sense, like a fly on the wall, kind of fish-in-the-sea view of what these guys actually have to do.”

Portrait of UXO salvage diver in Cambodia
Morm Vuth, 42

In actual practice, the divers use the knowledge of local fishermen to get a rough estimate of the location of the unexploded ordnance. Then they either use handheld sonar or just search by hand to find the bombs. The divers are always tethered by a rope and have learned a series of “line pulls” to communicate with the surface.

Portrait of UXO salvage diver in Cambodia
Piseth Dara, 24

Fox created a series of documentary photographs showing the men undergoing the training process. But once the men went from wearing mismatched gear to full tactical suits, Fox had the idea of making a series of portraits. The experience of watching the divers in the dark water informed his style. “I wanted this notion of … the absolute black but also some of the merging out of this darkness as well,” Fox says. And the fact that most of them are looking up?

Portrait of a UXO salvage diver in Cambodia
Prak Hean, 47

“There’s [a lot of] interest [in] formalized portraits in Cambodia. Particularly with military personnel,” Fox says.

When asked what he would like the world at large to take away from these photographs, Fox’s emotional connection to his subjects—and to his adopted home—was evident.

Portrait of UXO salvage diver in Cambodia
Phorn Pheakday, 36

“Everyone knows about land mines and explosives in Southeast Asia and this legacy of conflict. But no one really sees the people who go and deal with this stuff. We see victims all the time. And that’s incredibly important, and they should be seen. But I really wanted to show the people who do this. There is something very special about this country. I’m sure anyone who’s obsessed with the place says that.”

Charles Fox’s project, “Dark Water,” is on display at the Brunei Gallery in London until September 26, 2015. Fox recently received funding from the British Foreign Office to use the photographs to educate local fishing communities about the importance of the work being done by the dive team.

There are 6 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Luis Rodriguez
    September 15, 2015

    Great story. As a former US Navy EOD Diver and having worked all over the world deactivating bombs and landlines, this is a story very dear to me.Great job and please continue to educate the world to the dangers present by these UXOs!

  2. Thao Duong
    September 5, 2015

    Great pics and the stories behind them. That’s good to know about them and their special mission 😀 Thanks so much, Fox.

  3. kira
    August 27, 2015

    ni hao ma this is beautiful

  4. Jane Tearle
    August 13, 2015

    I love the way these portraits have been taken..and to read the stories.

  5. Allen Tan
    August 12, 2015

    Great piece! I would note that the creation of this dive team was made possible through support from the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Defense.

  6. mark lichtman
    August 12, 2015

    Great piece!

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