Montague has brought to light a sunnier side of Cambodia's tormented history in his recently published second book, "Picture Postcards of Cambodia, 1900-1950." He has chronicled the people, culture, arts and architecture of one of Asia's most exotic jewels as portrayed by French colonizers via inexpensive postcards created for domestic consumption.
"Picture Postcards of Cambodia 1900-1950" by Joel G. Montague.
"Postcards are, of course, artifacts ... They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of imagination." Susan Sontag, "On Photography"
Joel Montague isn't your typical tourist who stays in 5-star hotels, visits a few landmarks in the capital and buys some gift shop postcards before flying home in business class.
A frequent expatriate, the Wellesley, Mass., resident has spent much of the last 30 years in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, directing health and development programs for relief organizations and local governments.
"Over the years, I've got to know my way around," said Montague, relaxing in his home decorated with Buddhist statues, African carvings and paintings from the Middle East.
In Cambodia he runs a malaria-control program for Partners for Development, an organization dedicated to improving quality of life for those in developing countries. In September, he traveled to a remote mountainous area that is still peppered with land mines in order to visit the cremation site of dictator Pol Pot whose Khmer Rouge regime killed millions of its own people.
Montague has brought to light a sunnier side of Cambodia's tormented history in his recently published second book, "Picture Postcards of Cambodia, 1900-1950."
He has chronicled the people, culture, arts and architecture of one of Asia's most exotic jewels as portrayed by French colonizers via inexpensive postcards created for domestic consumption.
In the early 1900s, Montague observed, 18,000 postcards were produced depicting Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, which France ruled under the popular name Indochina.
Montague, whose resume lists 20 countries where he's worked, found that French colonizers used postcards as a sort of "marketing tool" to justify their self-proclaimed "civilizing mission" in Cambodia.
Published by White Lotus Press in Thailand, his 327-page book provides a rare visual archive of Cambodian history as revealed through about 650 black-and-white and color postcards in 16 categories, such as "The Mekong River," "The Monarchy" and "Khemer Dance and Music." Montague believes his collection of about 1,700 colonial-era postcards, purchased in flea markets and over the Internet, is the largest of its kind in the world.
During a century in which Cambodia's true history has been erased by colonization and revolution, Montague wrote in his book's introduction that picture postcards provide "an ephemeral record of early 20th-century Cambodia."
Since first visiting Cambodia in 1991, after the Khmer Rouge's overthrow and withdrawal of the invading Vietnamese, Montague began acquiring postcards that depicted the nation's visual history as seen through Western eyes during the first half of the 20th century.
The postcards depict life there as the kind of Indochinese paradise that has excited Westerners' imagination since Marco Polo -- and still does.
Viewers will see very little genuine interaction between French and Cambodians in the postcards, which seem, instead, to show two distinct worlds.
"In the eyes of the French, Cambodians were like infants who needed their protection," said Montague. "Some postcards made a pretense at pseudo-science that saw Cambodians as 'types' for anthropological study."
In the postcards, the French built stately mansions while locals lived in picturesque villages. French administrators built schools, hospitals and roads while monks in robes lounged in temples.
French children wore costumes to catch butterflies or perform in plays while bare-breasted Cambodian women bathed or posed with a casualness not found in France.
Born in New York, Montague graduated from Oberlin University in 1956, earned his master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and served in the U.S. Army. Since 1990, he has been trustee and chairman of the board of Partners for Development, which operates several health programs in Cambodia.
He is married to Dr. Shahnaz Montague, a specialist in internal medicine whom he met while working in Iran. They have two adult children.
Several years ago, Montague wrote with Michael Vann "The Colonial Good Life: A Commentary on Andre Joyeux's Vision of French Indochina," about a French artist whose cartoons about turn-of-the-century life in Saigon were remarkably insightful.
In addition to postcards, Montague also collects pharmaceutical labels and shop signs, which he has exhibited in the Wellesley Library.
For historians, the most striking postcards in Montague's book feature photographs from 1905 of the majestic temple complex at Angkor Wat, which was then being recovered from the jungle, and photos of considerable artistry by French photographer Pierre Dieulefils, who captured many scenes of everyday life.
Montague is now working on a book project about Scotsman John Thompson, who was the first man to photograph Angkor Wat in 1866.
Since first visiting Cambodia 20 years ago, Montague has been intrigued by the question of how people in such a devout Buddhist country degenerated into such violent chaos.
"I looked at postcards all those years until I had a sort of gradual awakening that helped me understand why they show Cambodia they way they do and not the way it really is," he said. "Cambodia went through a horrible stretch of history, including the bombing along the border by the U.S. during the Vietnam war. I hope this book could be helpful in its small way by filling in some of its history."