A very special relationship with Émile Gsell

Update: April 10, 2021

Émile Gsell was the first to photograph the musicians and actresses of the Royal Palace of Cambodia in Phnom Penh in the years 1866-70. Little is known about him, but thanks to our meticulous research, with his help since the "stay of the ancestors" and that of his descendants, some complementary elements come to enrich our knowledge.

In the career of a researcher, there are sometimes beautiful stories, even miracles! The story that I (Patrick Kersalé) tell in this chapter is totally unbelievable, and yet all the facts reported are authentic. If I dare to publish them today (July 2020), it is because my life as a researcher is going through some unexpected rebounds and discoveries on the methodological level. Quantum physics is now beginning to explain what some people considered until then to be the domain of esotericism.

First steps to a meeting

In February 2012, I find on the Net an old photograph of a chapei player (hereafter captioned "Chapei player 1") taken around 1866-70 by a French photographer named Émile Gsell. According to the caption of the image, she is a musician from the Royal Palace of Cambodia. Then other images of female musicians by the same photographer are offered to me. In the end, four photographs represent a chapei: two in the hands of isolated female players and two in an orchestra.

The chapei, now called Chapei Dang Veng, is a long-handled lute played in Cambodia and, to a lesser extent today, in Siam at that time, the chapei was not of capital importance to me. My first contact with this instrument dates back to the 1980s. At that time I was living in Paris and discovered it through a record by Kong Nay entitled "Kong Nay. Un barde cambodgien. Chant et luth chapey" produced by INEDIT and the Maison des Cultures du Monde. The voice of this musician fascinates me and will mark me forever.

When I move to Cambodia in 2012, I am ten thousand miles away from imagining that I will one day meet the master Kong Nay! In my imagination, he belonged to another world, another time. I had no idea how old he was when I first heard him and I didn't even know, in 2012, that he was still of this world.

Chapei player 1
Chapei player 1
Chapei player 2
Chapei player 2

Research on Chapei Dang Veng

In 2016, Chapei Dang Veng is inscribed by UNESCO on the "List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding". In 2017, the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) organization, through its Heritage Hub department in Siem Reap, offers me a research mission around this instrument, which I gladly accept. I then propose to work on the history, the organology and the symbolism of the chapei. Then, in 2018, CLA offered me a contract extension until 2020, which I accepted again.

About Émile Gsell

Émile Gsell (December 30, 1838 at 9 a.m. - October 16, 1879) is a French photographer born in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines (Haut-Rhin). He took part in several exploration missions in Southeast Asia, including the Mekong Exploration Mission led by Commander  Ernest Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier, during which he was the first to take pictures of Angkor temples.

Son of a printer on canvas, also named Émile, and of Marie Catherine Jordy his wife, without profession, he was introduced to photography during his military service in Cochinchina. At that time, conscription concerns all men between 20 and 25 years old for a period of 6 years. Assuming that Gsell leaves at the age of 20 for Cochinchina, around 1858, he finishes around 1863-4. We do not know if he returned to France after his military service. He lives in Saigon and is noticed for the quality of his photographs by Ernest Doudart de Lagrée who hires him. From June 24 to July 1, 1866 at 10:00 am, he left on a first mission to explore the temples of Angkor with Ernest Doudart. He returned in 1870 (?), 1871 (according to his autograph of Angkor Wat), in 1873 with Louis Delaporte, and in 1875 (?) (additional evidence must be provided for 1870 and 1875). These photographic expeditions to Khmer temples, and more broadly to Cambodia and Vietnam, brought Émile Gsell a certain notoriety. He was awarded the Medal of Merit at the 1873 Universal Exhibition in Vienna. His photos depict daily life and the Indochinese atmosphere, with its people of very varied wealth and origins. He is recognized for his art of staging daily life, trades and customs.

Touched by the fevers of the regions he crossed, he fell ill and died in 1879. His photographs continued to be sold in his store.

Birth certificate of Émile Gsell

No. 413 Émile Gsell

In the year one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight, on the thirty-first of December at eleven o'clock in the morning, before us François Henry Marqueur second deputy, fulfilling by delegation of the mayor on September twenty of last year the functions of civil registrar of the commune of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, district of Colmar, department of the Haut-Rhin, appeared the lord Émile Gsell printer on canvas, twenty-nine years old, domiciled in this city which presented us a male child, that he declares to have been born in his home, house of Mr. François Chenal located on rue du Temple in this city, yesterday at nine o'clock in the morning, of declaring him and Marie Catherine Jordy his wife, without profession, aged twenty-three, residing in this city, and to whom he declares wanting to give the first name of Émile, which presentations and declarations made in the presence of the lords Louis Gsell engraver aged twenty-six years and Nicolas Ancel maneuver aged sixty-four years, residing in this city, and have the father and witnesses signed with us the present birth certificate after reading and interpretation.

The signatures follow...

Émile Gsell's ancestry

Thanks to the genealogy site heredis online and the patience of its authors, we can learn a little more about the ancestry and collaterality of Émile Gsell. In particular, we know that his parents married in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines on April 27, 1837, his father, also named Émile, being 27 years old and his mother Marie Catherine Jordy, 21 years old. Émile Gsell fils was born eight months after this union. We also know that he had a younger brother named Charles, born October 15, 1840. 

However, we know nothing about his marriage or his direct descendants. We only find the trace of the lineage from his grandson Jean-Louis. See below.

Meeting with a descendant of Émile Gsell

In December 2018, while on mission in Luang Prabang, I stayed in one of the many guesthouses in the city, run by a Vietnamese family from Hanoi. In the entrance hall of the establishment, in front of me, a Frenchman married to a Vietnamese woman. He and I had not decided beforehand to choose this establishment, so we arrived there "by chance". The conversation begins when suddenly I ask him: 

- What is your name? 

- Gsell... Frédéric Gsell.

This name, whose French pronunciation I am discovering for the first time, resounds in me. The only times I had heard it pronounced was by an Australian, Nick Coffill, during his lectures on the history of photography in Cambodia, at Bambu Stage (Siem Reap). He pronounced it "djezel". However, I make the connection instantly since I was working, that very morning, on the photograph of Emile Gsell's screed player. I then ask him:

- Are you related to Émile Gsell the photographer of the 19th century?

- Yes, he is my great-great-grandfather... He was born in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines...

No doubt, by this instantaneous detail, that he was telling the truth.

There was a one in a thousand billion chance of meeting this man at this very moment. Could it have been a teleguidance by Emile Gsell himself from the afterlife? It was then that my relationship with Émile Gsell began, or at least, that I analyze as such. 

Prior intentions

Even before I was commissioned to do research on the chapei, the instrument represented in the hands of the "Chapei player 1" had fascinated me by its elegance. So I had planned to reconstruct it according to the photograph, which I considered at the time as sufficiently detailed, for lack of anything better!

In 2014, I am leaving for Thailand, on the border of Myanmar, where there is a huge workshop of instrument making working notably for the Thai Royal Court. About sixty workers work there and produce high quality instruments. I order four copies of this chapei, but will never see the realization of this order.

My meeting with Frédéric Gsell then decided me to change my strategy and pushed me to have the instrument made in Cambodia, which makes much more sense to me because it is the best way for Khmer makers to reappropriate a know-how that has disappeared. But the making of such an instrument is complex and I would like to make it in Siem Reap where I live rather than in Phnom Penh, even if there are two screed makers there. At the beginning of 2019, I decide to have a copy of a more recent chapei made by Leng Pohy and Thean Nga who already make the Khmer harps for Sounds of Angkor. Both of them have never made such an instrument but I have confidence in their ability to adapt and surpass themselves. 

Meeting with the medium Katia Kolobaeva

In April 2019, I meet for the umpteenth time the Russian medium Katia Kolobaeva with whom I have already worked in the framework of my research. We have an appointment at the Bread of Heart on Taphul Road in Siem Reap. I present her with the photo of the "Chapei player 1" because I want to know if the instrument was made in Cambodia or Thailand. She says to me:

- The maker was small, black, with small fingers.

- But was it made by a Khmer or a Thai, I insisted?

- By a Khmer!

Then I presented her with a photograph of the instrument from the Musée de la Musique de Paris (below). She said:

- It was made by a different person, with tapered, white fingers. But in the same workshop. There is an inscription inside... (This statement will be confirmed during my expertise of the chapei at the Musée de la Musique in Paris!).

In the Pain du Cœur store is a panel of old photographs, among which is a xylophone player whose author is none other than Émile Gsell. I then ask Katia to try to connect to Émile and get information about him. Her answer is not long in coming:

- Emile suffered before he died. He wore small round glasses (like yours!), was taller and wider than you. I see a lot of light in his personality, an intelligent man. But he didn't get the recognition he would have liked for all his work. He helps you...

These elements deserve some comments. It is known that he died from fevers contracted in Southeast Asia. He must have suffered before he left this world. There is no doubt that he was intelligent since he was hired by Ernest Doudart de Lagrée, the head of the Mekong Exploration Mission, to take photographs of the expedition. This frigate captain, a student of the École polytechnique, surrounded himself with the best elements of each discipline. The quality of Émile Gsell's photographs and the subjects captured testify to his intelligence. As for his physical stature, it can be seen in his portrait (see below).

A complementary study, based on Émile Gsell's "life path" from his date of birth, allowed me to confirm Katia Kolobaeva's mediumistic approach.

Chapei of the Musée de la Musique in Paris
Chapei of the Musée de la Musique in Paris

Portrait of Émile Gsell

It is written on the Internet and in books about Émile Gsell that there are no photographs of himself. His family also confirms that they have no portrait of him. On several occasions, I have searched the Web for a photograph that could correspond to a possible self-portrait or anachronistic image of a Westerner among the populations photographed by Gsell. On May 26, 2019, with a description of the Russian medium Katia Kolobaeva, a photograph of Émile's grandson named Jean-Louis and my meeting with Frédéric, I tried my luck once again. From the very first seconds, I discover a photo I didn't know existed. It is a group of Western archaeologists in Angkor Wat. It could be the Delaporte mission of 1873. In the front row on the left, a figure dressed in a dark shirt, while all the others are in white. I immediately think it could be Émile. Two elements immediately abound in favor of this intuition: first, he is in the front row, legs bent, with his feet on the step just below him, ready to pounce towards his camera in place since he has nothing in front of him. Here, Émile has adjusted his camera and asked someone to press the shutter release. He is ready to intervene or to go and retrieve his glass plate. Second, his face and hairline are similar to those of his descendants (published below). Moreover, it seems that Émile himself validated my hypothesis by synchronicity. Indeed, at the very moment I have this intuition, my friend, a PhD student, Marylou C., whom I regularly inform of the progress of my research, including my relationship with Émile, sends me this message via WhatsApp at 1:20 pm: "You have received confirmation of your connection with Emile?

I tell this story to my psychologist friend Sylvia M. who tells me that it is indeed a synchronicity. On May 28th, I call Frédéric Gsell who confirms without hesitation the family resemblance!

As a hypothesis, the young man in the front row wearing dark pants and greyish pea jacket could be one of Gsell's assistants.

Émile Gsell among archaeologists, circa 1870-75.
Émile Gsell among archaeologists, circa 1870-75.
Portrait of Émile Gsell.
Portrait of Émile Gsell.

Below, his grandson Jean-Louis Gsell (1882-1972), his great-grandson Pierre (1945-) and his great-great-grandson Frédéric (1970-). For the time being, we know nothing about his wife and his direct descendants. 

Jean-Louis Gsell (1882-1972). Grandson of Émile, in 1918.
Jean-Louis Gsell (1882-1972). Grandson of Émile, in 1918.
Pierre Gsell (1945-). Great-grandson of Émile Gsell, in 1974.
Pierre Gsell (1945-). Great-grandson of Émile Gsell, in 1974.
Frédéric Gsell (1970-). Great-great-grandson of Émile, in 2020.
Frédéric Gsell (1970-). Great-great-grandson of Émile, in 2020.

Emile Gsell at Angkor Wat

On July 31, 2020, I discovered by chance (?) an autograph of Émile Gsell at Angkor Vat. I passed by dozens of times without ever paying attention. Yet Émile had chosen a strategic location to leave his mark, since it is on a pillar of the central gopura of the west entrance, nothing less than the royal entrance! According to the book "Explorations et Missions de Doudart de Lagrée" published in 1883, Gsell explored and photographed the temples under the orders of Doudart de Lagrée from June 24 to July 1, 1866 at 10:00 am.

I sought to authenticate this autograph by comparing the characters with those written on his photographs. The correlation between the capital characters of his name and the numbers of the years is perfect. I did not know until today if the numbers on the photographs had been written by him or by an assistant. I now have confirmation of this.

Under the name E.GSELL (21 cm x 4 cm) in capital letters there are three dates: 1866, 1871 and 187?:

  • 1866: The 8 is difficult to read; in negative, it appears more clearly. The totality of the date was covered with a brown glue as well as all the graffiti under G.GSELL. It seems that this same material was used to glue a cornerstone during a restoration work in this gopura (central west entrance). It seems to be 1866. On the other hand, the two 6s of 66 are not made by the hand of Emile Gsell; his are more slender and the loop is narrower. The graffiti under Gsell's autograph is believed to be earlier; it was re-covered between 1866 and 1871. One can see very clearly the traces of the worker's gesture in a movement from top to bottom from the right. These are believed to have been repairs to the temple made by the Khmers before the EFEO took charge of them around 1908. 
  • 1871: The sculpture conforms to the photographer's cursive script.
  • 187?: The first three digits were indeed made by Gsell's hand. As for the fourth character, it is slanted, smaller, in superscript like the 1 of 1871, but does not represent a number, except for a 2 or a 3, knowing that Gsell returned in 1873. Enigma!
  • Under this last date, a long graffiti (in pink) also covered with glue. It seems to be written "LY(I)Z Y GSEL", the following characters not being legible. Now we know from the Duperré's roll of 1866 to 1868 that there was a man named LUYS in the commission who spoke Tagal (now the official language of the Philippines). But at that time, Spanish was the lingua franca of that country. Also, the name LYZ is perhaps a nickname or a shortened writing of the name of this character. The letter Y would then be the Spanish translation of the English coordinating conjunction AND. The serifs of the E and L are similar to those of the completed version above. The G and S are shallower because it is more difficult to make curves than straight lines when you are not a sculptor. Thus, in 1866, Gsell (or Luys?) write with an iron point what he can and Gsell premeditates, at the time of his return in 1871, to start again the work with better adapted tools. We believe that he then found his previous graffiti, including the date 1866, already covered.
  • At the bottom, the other graffiti (in blue) seems to be independent. Both LL are sans serifs. They are probably from the same period since they were covered before 1871.

Émile Gsell and his mobile development laboratory

Émile Gsell (1838-1879) was born at the same time as photography (1839). During his first steps in Angkor in 1866, a quarter of a century passed. Processes have evolved, but it is not yet the era of the Smartphone! The technique remains restrictive. Among the constraints are the size and weight of the shooting and developing equipment, glass plates, photographic paper and chemicals, to which must be added the high temperature and hygrometry of Cambodia for processing prints, or the long distances to be covered by boat, on foot and by ox-cart. Such a cart can be seen on the left of the image opposite.

On August 13, 2020, I discovered on one of Émile Gsell's photographs, taken in Angkor Wat, a stunning detail: his mobile photo development laboratory with a character in front! At first glance I don't think it could be Émile Gsell since he is supposed to take the pictures. But by enlarging the image and inspecting his position and clothing, I am able to see it again. He is wearing white pants and a grey looking jacket, as in the photograph of the archaeologists (above). His leg position is not that of a Khmer. I deduce from this that he operated as in the archaeologists' photograph: he prepared his camera, set himself up and asked an assistant to trigger the shot. This hypothesis was validated by a synchronicity on August 14, 2020 at 5:22 p.m., Cambodian time.


A century and a half elapsed between these two shots (1873 ? - 2020). The naga balustrades were restored, some palm trees died, others grew, a wooden staircase was installed over the stone one... Émile Gsell remains alive through his work and the synchronicities!

We know from cross studies (psychological, mediumistic, "life path" from his date of birth) that Émile Gsell was looking for notoriety. One might then be surprised to find no self-portrait. We know from his "life path" that he was both seeking fame while trying to escape it, one of the many paradoxes of human nature! Dan Millman writes, in "Votre Chemin de Vie"  (Octave Éditions, 2010) p. 384 about the 26/8s (a combination of numbers obtained from Émile Gsell's date of birth): "When they are recognized, it is usually for the quality of their work. They may work hard for fame and money, but their natural idealism will continue to inspire contrary feelings about it". This deliberate staging of himself, seen from behind, in his mobile development laboratory, seems to be one manifestation of this ambivalence.

Émile Gsell through literature

If Émile Gsell acquired a certain notoriety through the sale of his photographs in his studio in Saigon and the publication of a number of them in scientific and popular works, his name is also mentioned in the notes of the explorers he accompanied.

Voyage d'exploration en Indo-Chine, 1873 / Exploration trip to Indo-China, 1873

In his Voyage d'exploration en Indo-Chine*, Francis Garnier (1839-1873) quotes Émile Gsell once (apart from the captions of the photographs), p.10: "We had time, before the arrival of the Cosmao, to go and visit these famous Angcor ruins located at the north-western extremity of the Great Lake and of which so many wonders had already been told to us by eyewitnesses. Mr. de Lagrée, who had been working for a long time on the plans, wanted to complete his work before his departure, and he had brought with him a photographer from Saigon, Mr. Gsell, to have him reproduce the accessible parts of the ruined monuments. We could not have made this excursion under a better guide, and the arrival in Compong Luong of two Frenchmen, Mr. Durand and Mr. Rondet, who had come from Angcor and showed us some admirable drawings, increased our impatience". (Original in French. Our translation)


*Paris, Librarie Hachette, 1873.

Explorations et Missions de Doudart de Lagrée / Explorations and Missions of Doudart de Lagrée, 1883

The name of Émile Gsell is mentioned several times in the book published in 1883 and entitled "Explorations et Missions de Doudart de Lagrée, capitaine de frégate, premier représentant du protectorat français au Cambodge, chef de la missions d’exploration du Me-Kong et du Haut Song-Koi / (Explorations and Missions of Doudart de Lagrée, Commander, first representative of the French protectorate in Cambodia, head of the exploration missions of the Me-Kong and Haut Song-Koi). Captain Bonamy de Villemereuil mentions in his preface the presence of Émile Gsell as a member of the expedition: "Around May 1, the future head of the Commission came to Saigon, and the Commission was finally definitively constituted under the orders of Commander Doudart de Lagrée. It was composed of Mr. Francis Garnier, second in command of the expedition, Delaporte, Joubert, Thorel and de Carné, and to him were added as auxiliaries or members of the escort: Sergeant Charbonnier, soldier Raude; the sailors Reynaud and Mouello, order of the commander of the expedition; the interpreters Séguin, European, Alexis Om, Cambodian, Alévy, Laotian; the tagals Luys and Pédro; a doï and six Annamite soldiers. All these personnel figure in the role of Duperré from 1866 to 1868. We must also add the photographer Gsell, who was not to leave Cambodia. It was twenty-three people in all." We do not know why Gsell "was not to leave Cambodia". At that time, it seems he was living in Saigon where he had a photography studio.

Gsell's role as a photographer is again confirmed here : "We have said that he was assisted by Mr. Loederich for plan surveys, by Mr. Gsell for photographic views, and we would add that on his last visit to Angkor he was surrounded by Messrs. F. Garnier, Delaporte, de Carné, Dr. Joubert and Dr. Thorel."

At that time, the members of the Mekong Exploration Mission discovered with fascination the possibilities of a photographic art that was still in its infancy but already successful, as evidenced by the quality of the images of the time. Gsell was at the service of the expedition and at the orders of Doudart de Lagrée. But Émile Gsell was not the only photographer, the English once again proved to be the pawn to the French. The Scottish photographer John Thomson, of the same generation as Gsell, is around. The author writes p. LXXIV, LXXV: "Struck by the results the English had obtained from photography "that nothing can replace," he wrote, not even the pencil, however skillful it was, of Mr. Delaporte he had been careful to ask for and he had taken photographer Gsell, whom he put to work as soon as he arrived in Angkor vat, pointing out to him the useful points to be captured and with which he had long been familiar. Gsell took a series of shots of which we reproduce all those we could get our hands on". From this expedition, Émile Gsell brought back more than a hundred photographs on albumen paper.

To know more …

> The musicians of King Norodom, by Émile Gsell 

> King Norodom's actresses and dancers, by Émile Gsell