New York Times
March 31, 2008
Dith Pran, ‘Killing Fields’ Photographer, Dies at 65
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Dith Pran, a photojournalist for The New York Times whose gruesome ordeal in the killing fields of Cambodia was re-created in a 1984 movie that gave him an eminence he tenaciously used to press for his people’s rights, died in New Brunswick, N.J., on Sunday. He was 65 and lived in Woodbridge, N.J.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, which had spread, said his friend Sydney H. Schanberg.
Mr. Dith saw his country descend into a living hell as he scraped and scrambled to survive the barbarous revolutionary regime of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, when as many as two million Cambodians — a third of the population — were killed, experts estimate. Mr. Dith survived through nimbleness, guile and sheer desperation.
He had been a journalistic partner of Mr. Schanberg, a Times correspondent assigned to Southeast Asia. He translated, took notes and pictures, and helped Mr. Schanberg maneuver in a fast-changing milieu. With the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, Mr. Schanberg was forced from the country, and Mr. Dith became a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists.
Mr. Schanberg wrote about Mr. Dith in newspaper articles and in The New York Times Magazine, in a 1980 cover article titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.” (A book by the same title appeared in 1985.) The story became the basis of the movie “The Killing Fields.”The film, directed by Roland Joffé, portrayed Mr. Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, arranging for Mr. Dith’s wife and children to be evacuated from Phnom Penh as danger mounted. Mr. Dith, portrayed by Dr. Haing S. Ngor (who won an Academy Award as best supporting actor), insisted on staying in Cambodia with Mr. Schanberg to keep reporting the news.
A dramatic moment, both in reality and cinematically, came when Mr. Dith saved Mr. Schanberg and other Western journalists from certain execution by talking fast and persuasively to the trigger-happy soldiers who had captured them.
But despite frantic effort, Mr. Schanberg could not keep Mr. Dith from being sent to the countryside to join millions working as virtual slaves.
Mr. Schanberg returned to the United States and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Cambodia. He accepted it on behalf of Mr. Dith as well.
For years there was no news of Mr. Dith, except for a false rumor that he had been fed to alligators. His brother had been. After more than four years of beatings, backbreaking labor and a diet of a tablespoon of rice a day, Mr. Dith, on Oct. 3, 1979, escaped over the Thai border. Mr. Schanberg flew to greet him.
Mr. Dith moved to New York and in 1980 became a photographer for The Times, where he was noted for his imaginative pictures of city scenes and news events. In one, he turned the camera on mourners rather than the coffin to snatch an evocative moment at the funeral of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a rabbi murdered in 1990.
Outside The Times, Mr. Dith spoke out about the Cambodian genocide, appearing before students, senior citizens and other groups. “I’m a one-person crusade,” he said.
Dith Pran was born on Sept. 23, 1942, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a provincial town near the ancient temples at Angkor Wat. His father was a public-works official.
Having learned French at school and taught himself English, Mr. Dith was hired as a translator for the United States Military Assistance Command. When Cambodia severed ties with the United States in 1965, he worked with a British film crew, then as a hotel receptionist.
In the early 1970s, as unrest in neighboring Vietnam spread and Cambodia slipped into civil war, the Khmer Rouge grew more formidable. Tourism ended. Mr. Dith interpreted for foreign journalists. When working for Mr. Schanberg, he taught himself to take pictures.
When the Khmer Rouge won control in 1975, Mr. Dith became part of a monstrous social experiment: the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from the cities and the suppression of the educated classes with the goal of recreating Cambodia as an agricultural nation.
To avoid summary execution, Mr. Dith hid that he was educated or that he knew Americans. He passed himself off as a taxi driver. He even threw away his money and dressed as a peasant.
Over the next 4 ½ years, he worked in the fields and at menial jobs. For sustenance, people ate insects and rats and even the exhumed corpses of the recently executed, he said.
In November 1978, Vietnam, by then a unified Communist nation after the end of the Vietnam War, invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Mr. Dith went home to Siem Reap, where he learned that 50 members of his family had been killed; wells were filled with skulls and bones.
The Vietnamese made him village chief. But he fled when he feared that they had learned of his American ties. His 60-mile trek to the Thai border was fraught with danger. Two companions were killed by a land mine.
He had an emotional reunion with his wife, Ser Moeun Dith, and four children in San Francisco. Though he and his wife later divorced, she was by his bedside in his last weeks, bringing him rice noodles.
Mr. Dith was either separated or divorced from his second wife, Kim DePaul, Mr. Schanberg said.
Mr. Dith is survived by his companion, Bette Parslow; his daughter, Hemkarey; his sons, Titony, Titonath and Titonel; a sister, Samproeuth; six grandchildren; and two stepgrandchildren.
Ms. DePaul now runs the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, which spreads word about the Cambodian genocide. At his death, Mr. Dith was working to establish another, still-unnamed organization to help Cambodia. In 1997, he published a book of essays by Cambodians who had witnessed the years of terror as children.
Dr. Ngor, the physician turned actor who had himself survived the killing fields, had joined with Mr. Dith in their fight for justice. He was shot to death in 1996 in Los Angeles by a teenage gang member.
“It seems like I lost one hand,” Mr. Dith said of Dr. Ngor’s death.
Mr. Dith nonetheless pushed ahead in his campaign against genocide everywhere.
“One time is too many,” he said in an interview in his last weeks, expressing hope that others would continue his work. “If they can do that for me,” he said, “my spirit will be happy.”
a multimedia tribute also included by the ny times
I finally saw The Killing Field for the first time yesterday. It was a very heartfelt movie/biography. There were many sad moments and there were moments where i was disgusted. After watching it, I’m really mad at how things were allow to turn the way they did and how dumb those KR were. It was so stupid to think that they were gonna be able to stop everything in this day and age and start >1000 years of history all over. I just don’t understand why. WHY??? For someone who was educated in France, couldn’t Pol Pot see the flaw in starting over? Without modern technology, the country would be prone to outside attack, which eventually were, even if he succeeded in his carrying out hi plan. His stupid ass probably wouldn’t be to study there if France wasn’t the way it was. There are flaws on so many levels to his plan that he failed to see, and as a result 2 million died. He certainly proved that power dilutes the mind and corrupts the person.
I didn’t know who Ngor and Pran were until now. Such a tragedy that Ngor was killed by some dumb gang members. I just wish they would live longer to tell the story. I hope they rest in peace.
Each time that I watch the Killingfild I just rile up too fast ever!!! ROAR! ROAR!! I just cant control my anger at all…ROAR!!! ROAR!! ROAR!!!
Dith Pran is indeed a national hero for us. He not only open the eyes of foreigner, he also open our eyes. Most of you here in KC are too young to appreciate the context of the movie. For the first ten years or so when we left Cambodia, your parents and even my older first generation dare not speak about the Khmer Rouge. We bury it deep, we want to keep it bury, we were ashame of allowing our children, our wives, our mother, our brother and sister to die back then. We blame ourselves for our personal failure to prevent the killing fields, for our life’s past sin, for our karma. Some pretended it never happen while most just want to forget about it and bury it.
The movie forced your parents and my generation to deal with it, to open the dialogue, to talk about it and to accept that we were the victim not the perpetrator. So Dith Pran’s story does much to help the KR holocaust survivor cope and come to term with themselves. And for that I am eternally thankful to Mr. Pran.
[Message last modified 04-03-2008 09:34am by theaprum]