Cambodia's brave face

ARMED with 300 rolls of film and a suitcase full of cash, British photographer Tim Hall ventured into the heart of a country known more for its killing fields than its beauty.

His journey resulted in unique photographs of the land and people of Cambodia, recently published in the form of a book Cambodia: A Portrait (Elsworth Books).

The idea originated with Asia-based publisher Paul Andrew in 1991. A peace accord had just brought a temporary halt to 13 years of relentless civil war and Mr Andrew was inspired by his first visit to Cambodia.

''There was a feeling that the country would sort itself out and there was a regeneration in culture, commerce and religion,'' he said.

''I thought this would be an opportunity to present a peaceful image of Cambodia to the world.'' The talents of Mr Hall, a London-based photographer, were enlisted and a visit was arranged through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh.

The initial trip lasted over two months, during which Mr Hall travelled through the countryside with an official guide and interpreter.

He found the government helpful and co-operative as it was clear his project intended to portray the positive side of life in the new Cambodia.

''They realised we were not doing anything political, so I was quite free to do what I wanted.'' But he admitted it was strange having every move he made monitored by the guide who made a weekly report to his superiors.

Mr Hall specialises in art and travel photography but found Cambodia a challenge unlike anything he had tackled before.

''I knew very little about Cambodia, except through the press, and expected to find a war-torn country.

''Instead, we found a beautiful land inhabited by resilient people [who were] still working, still smiling even after all their troubles,'' he said.

The 26-year-old Westerner cut a strange figure in rural areas where ''kids followed [them] around while their parents hid behind trees''.

But once contact had been established the people proved more than willing subjects.

''I have a very long list of people who want me to send them prints - particularly monks,'' said Mr Hall.

Despite the regeneration, Cambodia still bore the scars of bitter conflict, and there were always reminders that its troubles were not yet over.

''In some places we had to be accompanied by a military escort and others were inaccessible to us because of landmines.'' De-mobbed government soldiers, who roam the countryside, presented another danger.

''They have no homes, no work, just their weapons. When we came across them we had to throw cigarettes to get past,'' he said.

On one occasion, the old Russian jalopy they were travelling in was shot at, but there were no casualties.

''You can sense there is a lot of anger beneath the smiles. Nearly everybody has lost at least one loved one through the violence,'' said Mr Hall.