Starting in the early 1990s, photographer Stuart Isett documented the Cambodian Refugees who made Chicago home.
Photographer Stuart Isett was studying for his MFA at Columbia College Chicago in the early 1990s when he heard about a Cambodian Temple on Argyle Street in Chicago's Northside. He first went to visit for Khmer New Year, leading him to a long-term project documenting the lives of the Cambodian diaspora living in the city. The resulting body of work has now been published as On the Corners of Argyle and Glenwood by Catfish.
The start of this tale is how the Cambodian refugees who call Chicago home came to the city. It is a story of war, unspeakable terror, and genocide. But knowing this part of the story, even in a truncated form, is important to understand the situation of the Cambodian American population, who they are, and where they came from.
From 1969 through 1973, during the Vietnam War, the United States bombed the eastern part of Cambodia in an attempt to disrupt the supply lines of the North Vietnam Army and their bases within the country. This led to a US-backed coup in 1970 by Lon Nol, who wished to expel the North Vietnamese, to overthrow the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had allowed the North Vietnamese to set up bases in Cambodia. The United States then illegally sent in ground troops to further try and dislodge the North Vietnamese stationed there. The North Vietnamese responded by aiding the Khmer Rouge in their fight against the government.
When the Khmer Rouge finally took control, a reign of terror began. They drove the population out of the cities and into the countryside, rounded up political enemies, those tied to the previous government, and intellectuals, killing over a million people in genocide dubbed the Killing Fields. Starvation and disease killed countless more. Vietnam finally invaded in late 1978 ending the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled to refugee camps along the border with Thailand to escape the fighting and as famine swept the country. Many would-be eventually be resettled in the United States, settling in communities in Long Beach and Stockton, California, Tacoma, Washington, and Chicago.
Stuart Isett's own interest in Southeast Asia, the situation in Cambodia, and the Cambodian diaspora began before his time in Chicago. "After finishing my BA at the University of Michigan in 1988, I spent a year in Thailand studying Thai language and traveling around the border regions on a motorcycle. I had an interest in Cambodian and Thai history and was planning on being an academic. But after a second trip to the Thai border in 1991 when I visited Cambodian refugee camps, I decided to become a photographer rather than an academic."
While he decided to become a photographer on that second trip to Thailand, Isett's interest in the medium began long before that trip. Both his mother and grandfather were amateur photographers, and his early interest in the medium came from them. While he was growing up, Isett's mother had kept a small collection of antique cameras that she had gotten from her father, who was a hobbyist photographer starting in the 1920s through the 1950s. His mother was also an amateur photographer, having learned from her father, and used to take family photographs with a Rolleiflex. "I guess it’s in my blood. But I was the first in the family to try to make a living doing it."
The time spent in Thailand and learning Thai language also played a role in his ability to introduce himself to the community that he found at the Temple in Chicago, and made the project possible. "Many Cambodian refugees, especially the elders, speak Thai, so I was able to access the community very quickly and was welcomed. Cambodians are very open to outsiders generally, so one family’s introduction led me to another family, then another and another etc."
Along with meeting the families through the temple, Stuart Isett also became friends with and photographed a local gang of Cambodian kids, called the Original Loco Boyz, who hung out in the area around the temple. This connection went beyond just making photographs. “I spent two solid years hanging out with the guys. I was only a few years older than them and I never pretended to be anything other than I was; I never hid my class or education, but I always showed genuine interest in their lives and photographed them without judgment. You have to remember, you’re not photographing all the time, you spend most of the time just hanging out, talking, having beers, smoking. A few times the guys would crash on the floor of my apartment or come over and just watch a video to get out of their crowded apartments. I guess you would call it ‘empathy’, an ability to see myself in their shoes, to try to understand what forces shaped their lives.”
It has now been thirty years since the project first began, and the lives of those involved and the community of Cambodians around Argyle Street has been displaced by gentrification and the rising costs in the city. Some members of the community moved to the suburbs while others headed to other parts of the country that are more affordable. Isett is still in touch with many of them, however, wherever they have ended up. “I’m still in touch with some of the people. One of the people who I spent the most time with while doing the project, Gino, I talk to every few months. Some of the younger kids are now adults and have reached out and asked for prints”.
The project has also led to photographic projects beyond Chicago back to Cambodia and to work to raise awareness of the Cambodian diaspora in general. “Starting in 2006 I started working on a project on the same age group of Cambodian men, who are now being deported back to Cambodia for convictions in the 1990s. Most did not realize they were not even US citizens and that they could be deported. For a number of years, I traveled to Cambodia to photograph these kids readjusting to life after deportation. In the U.S. I worked with Cambodian activists to share the work and stories to raise awareness.”
The book itself is also a work of collaboration between Stuart Isett and the Cambodian American community. Isett wanted them to be involved in the book. “When I started working with Charles Fox at Catfish, we wanted Cambodian Americans to help shape and edit the work. I worked with photographer Pete Pin and activist Silong Chhun and we spent 3-4 months during COVID meeting over Zoom to edit down hundreds of images, sequence them and create the text. This was important to me, I wanted people who lived through this period to help shape the book.”
And once the book was published, the reaction of the Cambodian American population was one of overwhelming positivity and support. “What was fascinating was when the book came out it just took off in the Cambodian community, especially with younger Cambodian Americans who would have been pretty young kids back then. I got streams of emails and phone calls, people thanking me for publishing the work, and for acknowledging this period of the Cambodian diaspora’s history.” This support has led to the first printing of the book selling out. Stuart Isett is hopeful another run can be printed.
By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.
Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.
On the Corners of Argyle and Glenwood is published by Catfish, and is available for £12.
An interview with Stuart Isett, Silong Chhun, Pete Pin and publisher Charles Fox can be found on YouTube.
More information on Stuart Isett on his website.