Dith Pran – Out of the Killing Fields

dith pran and camera

I went to Cambodia in 1986, on an assignment given to me by Kathy Ryan of the New York Times Sunday magazine to photograph Dith Pran and Haing Ngor.

My assignment coincided with Diane Sawyer who was doing an ABC news piece on Dith Pran and Haing Ngor returning to Cambodia after filming the movie “The Kiling Fields.” It was the first time Pran had returned to his country, and it was still a bit dangerous because there were still Khmer Rouge in the countryside.

Pran grew up near Angkor Wat and as a young man had been a tour guide, when he met Sidney Schanberg, the New York Times reporter, whom he worked for as a translator and fixer.

Schanberg was eventually forced to leave the country, but while he won a Pulitzer for his coverage, Pran became a virtual slave of the Khmer Rouge in a death camp. Dith Pran watched the country descend into the hell known as the killing fields, but was able to survive from 1975 until 1979 during the time when a third of the population was killed. Pran later said, “Only the silent survived.”

Eventually Schanberg found Pran in a refugee camp and brought him back to New York and helped him to immigrate to the United States where Pran became a photographer for the New York Times.

Pran and I became friends after our time in Cambodia so after he retired from the New York Times, we returned to Siem Reap. It was moving to be with him as he returned to his country and revisited his family. While there, we visited nearby Angkor Wat. I was so struck at the magnificence of this temple complex, I planned to come back and photograph it as soon as I had the opportunity. Years later, I went back and photographed Angkor Wat on assignment for National Geographic.

Haing Ngor, who played Pran in the movie, “The Killing Fields,” won an Oscar for his role. Tragically, Ngor who was a doctor in real life, was murdered in Los Angeles during a robbery.

Pran and old friend

Pran and pictures on wall

Dith and Haing

Pran and Schanberg

15 Responses to “Dith Pran – Out of the Killing Fields”

  1. Thanks for this great article and pictures.

  2. Just stumbled upon this wonderful article.This is extremely exciting.I’ve bookmarked it and will come back routinely.Hope to see more such articles.file_links\xrumer_resource\km_sig.txt,1,L]

  3. thank you very much , so so horror back end story , people never forget if they see this moments. thank you we need people like you to publish rare images.

  4. Magnificent story. I visited the Killing Fields in August this year, and was lucky enough to photograph the people of Phnom Penh and the temples of Siem Reap. I have also recently read “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him. Thank you Steve, for sharing these photographs.

  5. I visited Cambodia over two years ago… it literally changed my life. I can not wait to go back! Thanks for sharing this story.

  6. An amazing story, an inspiration!

  7. Correction: the Pran/Ngor photo, strolling on the Phnom Penh street, would be perfect. Hope to hear from you …

  8. Dear Steve, I’d very much like to reproduce one of your photos — either the Pran portrait you have in high-res at the outset, or a high-res version of the photo of Pran/Schanberg strolling — in the forthcoming second edition of my book, “Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction” (Routledge, 2010; see http://www.genocidetext.net). Would you allow me to do so? Please contact me at adamj_jones@hotmail.com. Congratulations on your fine work, Adam Jones

  9. This must have been a special part of history to witness and live. Thank you sharing the history and personal experience.

  10. Thank for this blog, and those pictures about Dith Pran. I was always following you on your site, but this blog is something more then I hope ever to get personal feelings from behind your pictures. Thanks for the motivation to get my camera in my hand everyday.

  11. I love to hear about these stories behind the pictures. Thank you for sharing.

  12. I have followed your work for years and now your blog. Thanks for taking time to post these images and background. It adds more to the story for me.
    I look forward to hearing and seeing more about your images. You have been a great source of inspiration for my own work…thank you!

  13. Thank you for these photos. I especially like the one with Schanberg, which I’ve never seen before. I understand they were friends to the very end of Dith Pran’s life.

  14. thanks for sharing this Steve.

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