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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
“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.
“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.”