Like many, I knew of Dith Pran through the Oscar award winning movie, The Killing Fields. The movie came out in 1984 and was still fresh in the cultural landscape when I began working as a staff photographer in New York City late in the fall of 1985.
I had just graduated college the prior spring and this was my first full-time photographer job. As a staffer at Wagner International Photos my work consisted of running all over the five boroughs doing corporate and public relations photography. The pace could be intense, 3-4-5 assignments per day, and the work varied from the frivolous (photographing a large orange being rolled across the Brooklyn Bridge to announce that Orange Crush was coming to New York) to the somewhat newsworthy (covering Gov. Mario Cuomo’s visit to the newly built Javits Center and its first exhibition).
The work often brought me in contact with news photographers, folks from the New York Times, the Daily News and the Post. Many of them were of the same breed, jaded and just trying to get through the day. Dith Pran was different. I had the honor of working along side of him a number of times. He didn’t complain like the others, he didn’t question the value of what was being covered and he always seemed to be concentrating on the work. He also didn’t have any airs about him, something you might expect if a feature film documenting your life had come out a year or two earlier.
He wouldn’t know me at all but for a newbie, knowing his history, just to be in his presence and watch him work was a thrill. I did help him one day when the rewind knob on his Nikon FM2 broke and we both tried to figure out a work-around.
It’s always interesting how history can call on individuals to act and to survive. Dith Pran responded to that call in a way few others would and did what he could to turn his life experience into a force for good in the world.