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Thursday, 3 September 2020

Tuol Sleng Prison Photographs

So Duch, the director of Tuol Sleng prison has died at the age of 77. He oversaw a torture and killing prison where over 14,000 people were killed. 

It was a horrifyingly cruel regime ( you can read more about it in lots of places including David Chandler's  Voices from S-21 ) that left a horrifying photographic legacy, through the archives discovered when the Vietnamese liberated the prison in 1979. They found a handful of survivors, a bunch of bodies lying dead in the torture rooms/cells (which they photographed - the same photographs are still on display in the cells for the important prisoners), and voluminous records including photographs. 

The photographic records were soon  hung on the walls of the prison to create a record of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. They were the evidence to the world (and in one way or another, most of the world had more facilitated the Khmer Rouge regime than opposed it, with the exception of Vietnam. But they... well you get the picture) of the atrocities, but made to serve a political purpose (Chandler talks about how the original Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum  was founded by Mai Lam, a Vietnamese colonel who had organised the Museum of American War Crimes in Ho Chi Minh City).

So right from the start the pictures became a political tool. That's not to question them, that's just to say that pictures are not neutral, they can be used in different ways, in different circumstances. There is not one way of viewing them and how you view them depends on who you are, where you are, and what your agenda is. 

In the introduction to the book, Chandler talks about his first visit to the museum in 1980 (and interestingly, many of the original prints made by the Vietnamese are still up on the walls of the museum today) and the way in which he was far more haunted by the pictures of the still living than  those of the recently brutalised to death.

This is touched upon in many places, including in Atrocity, the "As If", and Impending Death from the Khmer Rouge (in Picturing Atrocity) where Barbie Zelizer talks about the "About to die" image and the difficulty of making Cambodia newsworthy during the war. 

"Cambodia is proving a difficult subject for television to cover. On the one hand, there is too little, as American crews have limited access to the country. On the other, there is too much, as the few films that are available provide scenes of devastating horror."

She links this absence of information to the S-21 pictures and wonders at the images, at what we think when we see them. The lack of information, she says, makes them more real in some ways than if we did have all the information.

We project ourselves into the lives of the people we see in other words, and though we might imagine their death (and we do, and it's horrifying), we also imagine their lives. 

The photographs inhabit a parallel universe that cuts across space and time, that links in to how we emotionally process them, that cuts through a single way of seeing or being or thinking about images.

It is very strange to talk about the death of Duch, and then the images, because what Duch did isone thing and the visual documentation is another. Ultimately the pictures that were made at S-21 are only photographs, made in as mundane a fashion as you could care to imagine. 

            From Voices from S-21

This is how Nhem En, head of a team of six photographers at Tuol Seng describes how he made the images (he's now deputy mayor of one Anlong Veng, one of the last Khmer Rouge hangouts. 

“‘Look straight ahead. Don’t lean your head to the left or the right.’ That’s all I said,” he recalled. “I had to say that so the picture would turn out well."

Chandler's book (or one of the versions I have) has a flawed image as its cover, an unacceptable image where the woman is closing her eyes. It's almost like a resistance to the photographer and his orders and the grid of approved photography that we all still cling to. 

The museum has evolved since Chandler's first visit. It was opened to foreign visitors in 1979, then to Cambodian visitors in 1980. 300,000 Cambodians came in the first few months, many examining the pictures in search of their lost relatives. The function of the museum changed as it became a monument to genocide (Chandler points out the political ramifications of this), then a place of witnessing where visitors were guided around the museum by survivors, to and educational establishment for the youth of Cambodia, to the present day audio-guided museum (where the youth of Cambodia are very much not encouraged to visit I am told). 

I went to Phnom Penh last November as part of the SEAD fellowship, and visited the museum. It is an awful place, and the pictures are awful, a relentless display of faces coming at you in room after room. But the pictures are only pictures, it's the lingering miasma of what happened in this place that conveys the real suffering, even though they are horrifying (the picture below right is from one of the holding cells for the less important prisoners. They didn't get their own cell/torture room). 

In the few days I was in Phnom Penh, the Tuol Seng images came up again and again. I think one of the most significant things for me was going to a performance of Rithy Pran's brilliant Bangsokol  (and again there are different edits for different audiences) and seeing  images of some of the most iconic S-21 pictures, and then seeing people posing with smiles in front of those pictures which I wondered at. 

But then once I had left the building I wondered what right I had to question people whose relatives had suffered and died during the Khmer Rouge era. Because the pictures were only pictures, we weren't in the museum, and the relationship between present and past had shifted completely. I found that it was my reaction that was inappropriate, a polarised  Abrahamical view of photography projected onto images in a place and of a time of which I know little.

Images change with time, with place, with company, with viewing. Even writing this short piece, I have been struck by how the same faces appear again and again, the ways they are used, the discussions that have surrounded them, and the ways in which they have been seen and understood in a range of circumstances. 

In the museum, the woman with the baby is 'the wife of Sek Sath, Secretary of  Region 25 Southwest,' but they do highlight the Bertillonian way of photographing with the caption, 'this chair was used for taking photographs of the victims'captioned.

In Chandler's book, the woman has a name, Chan Krim Sun, and the husband becomes a 'DK foreign ministry official' which is very different in tone to Secretary of Region 25 Southwest.

Go around the corner of the museum and Chan Krim Sun appears again, this time in a memorial to the imprisonment of Duch. 'The Supreme Court Chamber decides to impose a sentence of life imprisonment against Kaing Guek Eav (Duch)' reads the caption. That is a statement.

Some faces stand out and so appear in illustrations or on book covers again and again. They become star pictures which is cold to say the least, and at the top of this emotional pyramid are children and mothers. It's hard. It's cruel. But photographs work on emotional levels. That's why the girl on the cover of Susie Linfield's book is on the cover of Susie Linfield's book.

The image above is of Bophana (read her story here - that's her above) , who the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh is named after (the Bophana Center is archiving experiences, images, films, arts, and music from the Khmer Rouge era and beyond - give them some money if you have it. They need it for digitising their archives) appeared again and again, both at the center, at the museum, and in books and publications around Tuol Seng. And each time the context shifts a little, and so does the meaning. It always does, because there nothing is fixed.

The story of Bophana is another view to the as if" (I originally wrote the case against, but it's not the case against. There are multiple views and ways of seeing things). We learn her story, we get her background, the violence against her extends beyond Tuol Seng, and begins to join up different periods of Khmer history, going back to the rule of Lon Nol and Sihanouk. The violence is not just political, it is social, cultural and ideological and it extends our idea of how history works at a personal level. It changes how we see the image, but to be honest, I am not sure how. 

Going to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum  was a visual and emotional pounding.  But the photograph that most affected me, however, was one I saw at the Choung Ek Killing Fields Museum, stuck in the frame where the tower of skulls is held. When I went into the tower, it wasn't there, when I came out it was. That meant something, somehow. I'm not sure what but perhaps it is that as if moment, but attached to the man who put it there. 


See more images at the Tuol Seng Image Database

And visit the Yale University Cambodian Genocide  Program here

And the Cambodian Documentation Center here.

Human Rights Watch report on Cambodia today

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