Lineage and Legitimacy: Exploring Royal-Familial Visual Configurations in Cambodia by Joanna Wolfarth in Trans-Asia Photography Review, vol. 8, n° 1, Fall 2017 : Art and Vernacular Photographies in Asia
As with those of many other rulers, the portrait of Norodom Sihanouk (1922–2012), the former king of Cambodia, has been used at various times in order to convey his sovereign status. This was particularly true of his official portrait, which remains a common presence in both public and private spaces throughout Cambodia. This portrait and multiple versions of it were put to work with press photographs and newsreels of Sihanouk engaged with everyday life, along with the king’s own cinematic oeuvre, to create a visual landscape that reinforced his central presence in Cambodia’s spiritual, social, and political life. All versions of Sihanouk’s official portrait comprise a head and shoulder shot, with his face slightly angled to the side and his gaze focused on a space beyond the frame. He wears a suit and tie, although their colors vary. In some versions the digital manipulation is minimal and lines are visible on his face; in others, the portrait has been more obviously altered and his face becomes shadow-less and wrinkle-free, his hair a solid gray mass. The official portrait is often accompanied by those of his wife, Monineath, and his son, King Sihamoni, presenting a royal-familial triad expressing kingship, past and present.
This paper explores this royal-familial portrait-triad by probing how and why legitimacy and lineage are expressed through visual representations of family ties. Consideration will be given to examples of historical antecedents and the particulars of their resurrection in twentieth-century Cambodia. I suggest that there is a structural power inherent within triadic configurations and that such an arrangement reinforces dynamics of legitimacy. Indeed, longstanding notions of political order in Cambodia are grounded within the triune of Nation, Religion, and King. Often more complex, multidirectional flows of power are expressed in these visual configurations, whereby the authority of the sovereign son strengthens that of his parents, which enables the son to retroactively inherit the power conferred upon his ancestors. Although the right to royal inheritance is “in the blood,” royal succession in Cambodia is not tied strictly to primogeniture and thus there are often competing heirs to the throne, meaning lineage and legitimacy must be more forcefully articulated. This paper will also consider the materiality of the images in question: how such portraits are replicated, disseminated, and displayed.
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