When New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran covered a press conference or a news event in the area, he looked like any other photographer doing his job. Unless you knew otherwise, there were no signs that Dith was the man who endured four years of starvation and torture in Cambodia and that his story was the inspiration for the 1984 film The Killing Fields.
When I learned that Dith had passed away from pancreatic cancer Sunday night, I immediately recalled a brief encounter I had had with him back in 1997. The story tells a lot about the type of a person he was.
At the time, I was working as the public information officer in Woodbridge Township and our mayor, Jim McGreevey, was embarking on his first quest for the Governor’s Office. The New York Times was doing a profile on McGreevey and an editor asked me to provide some pictures of his work as mayor.
Being that this was long before the days when digital photography was commonplace, I had a stack of snapshots — most of them taken by the police department’s ID Bureau, which was much more adept (and rightfully so) at photographing crime scenes than municipal ceremonies.
I picked out about a dozen or so of what I thought were the best photos and set them aside for The Times. When Dith (who lived in Woodbridge) arrived at my office to collect them, I expected him simply to take the photos and be on his way. Instead, he carefully looked over each picture and politely informed me that I might want to reconsider my selections. He spotted things that only a photographer’s eye would see – an awkward glance, an unflattering shadow, a misplaced background object, etc. He took a look at the huge stack of pictures on my desk and explained that he had to go shoot an assignment, but would return to help me select the best photos of the mayor.
True to his word, he came back to Town Hall and spent the better part of an hour perusing pictures of press conferences, proclamation presentations and VFW dinners until he found several suitable photographs. I didn’t yet realize who he was, but I was touched by the fact that he cared enough about how the mayor would look in his newspaper that he would take time to look through several hundred photos – and explain to me why he chose some and rejected the others.
As he looked through the photos, we made small talk. When he learned that I lived in Hamilton, he asked for directions to the College of New Jersey in nearby Ewing, where he was scheduled to give a lecture. He also was interested in Woodbridge Township’s new web page. (Municipal web sites were just starting to make an appearance at the time.) He explained that he was starting his own web page and offered to show me the page while it was under construction. Still unaware of just who he was, I asked him about the subject of his web page.
“You know who I am?” he asked out of amusement.
Although I still didn’t know, I remained silent as his web page appeared on the screen of my computer revealing that he was the real life person upon whom The Killing Fields was based.
More than a decade has passed since this brief encounter, but I never forgot that Dith Pran – a man who had survived conditions more horrific than most of us will ever know –- cared enough to take time to help me do my job better.
May he rest in peace – a peace that clearly is deserved.