For two weeks, crowds of mourners streamed into a Buddhist pagoda in Phnom Penh’s east, clutching lotus flowers and incense.
They had come to pay their respects to Kem Ley, a popular Cambodian political analyst who was gunned down as he bought his morning coffee on July 10.
Clad in white, funeralgoers kneeled to pray in front of a small shrine before circling around the glass casket that contained his body. It was at this point that many reached for their smartphones.
While some snapped close-ups of the government critic’s face, others stood for portraits in front of the casket.
In many cultures, pulling out a camera at such a sombre occasion is widely frowned upon.
“I want to have my picture with his body for my children and grandchildren to see,” explained Kim San, 62, a small business owner from Phnom Penh, as he posed with his wife. “He was a special, good person who dared to speak without fearing death.”
When the Tumblr blog “Selfies at Funerals” emerged in 2013, it quickly went viral as people expressed outrage at what they saw as an inappropriate reaction to grief.
Yet for Cambodians in mourning last month, taking a photograph with the murdered pro-democracy advocate was both a mark of respect and a way to convey their sorrow.
“They want to show that they have come here to [give their] support,” said Ley’s widow, Bou Rachana, who was “proud” yet surprised by the outpouring of grief.
Sydney-based Lavy Sayumborn, 35, who is originally from the riverside town of Kratie said: “People just want to take a picture with him because he is the hero.
“It is unusual [in Australia] … but here, we allow people to take many if they want. That’s the way of the culture.”
Death in different cultures
Death taboos vary wildly from culture to culture, as do imaginings of the afterlife, according to religious studies scholar Erik Davis, author of Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia.
The Buddhist belief in a cycle of life, death and rebirth does not evoke the same sense of finality as in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“For most, the notion of death is that it is a separation from loved ones, but not a final end or disposition; that individual will take a new birth,” Davis said.
A modernisation of religious tradition.
According to Davis, funeral photography represents a modernisation of religious tradition in Cambodia. “I think what you are seeing is … a local version of the influence of technology on religion and vice-versa. You will find very similar sorts of transformations in Christianity, [such as] televised blessings in the Catholic church.”
Bereavement photography is also slowly gaining traction in the West. Mark Taubert, a grief expert and palliative care doctor, said he first witnessed families taking photographs of deceased relatives in 2011.
“It feels a bit strange, but we mostly accept it because it is perhaps a family’s way of working through the experience, or sharing it with others who could not be there,” he said.
Photos at funerals becoming more accepted
Taubert predicted it would gain widespread acceptance in time. “I would find it intrusive if people took lots of photos or videos at a funeral I went to … but I think in 50 years’ time, anyone reading this article will probably think Im a hopeless relic of the past and may find my views rather curious.”
In some ways, it is a throwback to an earlier era, when Victorians began to utilize emerging photographic techniques to replace deathbed portraits, making photography of the dead and dying a common practice.
And neither it is an entirely new phenomenon in Cambodia: before the advent of digital technology, it was not unheard of to hire a photographer to capture formal family shots at a funeral.
More and more photos of the dead are taken with smartphones.
But now, more and more such images are snapped with smartphones which have been enthusiastically embraced by those who can afford them now have the power to galvanize the citizens of a country racked by political tensions.
Kem Ley’s murder, at the hands of a killer who initially gave his name as “Meet Kill”, comes during an ongoing crackdown on opposition lawmakers, activists and civil society by the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party.
Images of his body lying in a pool of blood quickly circulated on social media, and within hours an estimated 5,000 people had gathered to accompany a makeshift hearse to the pagoda.
Hundreds of thousands later joined a funeral procession to his home village on July 24.
“The pictures spoke viscerally to the injustices happening in Cambodia,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, who has described the combination of youth disenchantment and social media as a “powder keg” in a country where half the population is under 25.
“The proliferation of smartphones for the spread of social media and photography mean that word of mouth is instantaneously shared and very graphically,” Ear said. “No one can say they didn’t see the images; they dont know about the injustices. It stares them in the face.”
The overwhelming response to Cambodia’s first political assassination in the smartphone era demonstrates the profound, and potentially long-reaching consequences of these images.
Ou Virak, the head of local think tank Future Forum, said smartphones would “dominate” crucial upcoming elections. The government appears increasingly nervous as rousing images are shared rapidly across the country.
“Smartphones will be a game changer in the 2018 election. Political parties will have to adapt to a much more scrutinised campaign,” he said.
Additional reporting by Bun Sengkong.