The Tuol Sleng photographic archive

Gevers talks about the problems encountered when photographs are exhibited in gallery spaces – they are immediately elevated to the level of aesthetic artefact, no matter how brutal or harrowing their subject matter (as has been demonstrated when I looked at the work of Nachtwey, Meiselas and even Salgado). This issue of photographs being assigned artistic value to the detriment of an understanding of their historical context would seem to be purely a matter of curatorial decisions, but as Gevers points out, even attempts to present images in environment markedly removed from the museum aura can backfire and be perceived as devices to enhance the aesthetic experience (she cites the example of Christian Caujolle exhibiting the S-21 photographs in a dilapidated shed, which was seen as a way of heightening “artistic appreciation of the weather-stained photographs“). As noted by Guy Trebay in an article for the Village Voice: “the Cambodia genocide is relegated to ancient history… The artifacts of the killing fields are put on display in glossy art books and museums. The Cambodian dead are held up for consideration in the cool light of formalist concerns” (1997, p 34).

Of course, the fact that the images from the Cambodian genocide have an aesthetic quality about them was what attracted Douglas Niven and Christopher Riley to the negatives in the first place: “Even though they were of horrible subject matter, with horrible stories, we saw the possibility of making beautiful photographs” (Juan I-Jong, “An Interview with Christopher Riley and Douglas Niven,” cited in De Duve 2008). However, it has also been pointed out that how the photographs were subsequently used casts doubt over the motives of the archivists “Although motivated initially by a desire to save the precious negatives from destruction, Riley’s and Niven’s ensuing decision to sell art-quality portfolios of 100 prints from the Tuol Sleng archive, and to obtain international copyright on them for their recently incorporated non-profit, raises serious questions. … The pictures from Tuol Sleng are the sole remaining evidence of 6,000 human lives. Can anyone truly own them?” (Guy Trebay, Village Voice). The issue of ownership is further complicated by the fact that the original photographer, Nhem Ein, is still alive and practising photography in Phnom Penh (“upon learning of the Arles exhibition, Nhem Ein declared himself proud to be the “star” of a photo festival in France, and virtually thanked the organizers for the nearly bestowed title of artist” – Thierry de Duve, Art in the Face of Radical Evil).

S-21 photographs have been turned into emotional portraiture, icons of atrocity and injustice that make us feel and even project ourselves into such suffering. This transformation, obscuring the reality of Tuol Sleng (e.g. actual identity of the victims, procedures of control) has far-reaching historiographic consequences. It impacts on forms of remembrance and identity politics. Indeed, of all the issues raised, the fact that our empathy for the victims stems from portraits made by their very murderers is not the least puzzling(Benzaquen 2010, p 210).

By looking, are we partaking in the process of genocide, since we are on the same side of the camera as the murderers? Benzaquen quotes Marianne Hirsch: “Are we able to escape what Holocaust scholar Marianne Hirsch defines as ‘the monocular seeing that conflates the camera with a weapon’? ‘Unbearably’, Hirsch argues, ‘the viewer is positioned in the place identical with that of the weapon of destruction: our look, like the photographer’s, is in the place of the executioner’.” In fact, following up the reference I discovered that the term ‘monocular vision’ is falsely attributed to Hirsch, and is in fact appropriated from an essay by Christian Metz (1985), and is not a position that she herself holds: “…the assumption that a monocular perspective represented by the camera rules the field of vision, as Metz suggests … In my own work … I have tried to extricate us from the monocular seeing that conflates the camera with a weapon.” It appears that Metz, like Sontag, conflates the camera with a firearm (shooting, monolithic and potentially lethal), but this is not Hirsch’s point of view. In fact, Hirsch’s distinction between the gaze and the look struck me as interesting, and I will look at her writing in more detail later.

Understanding that these images were taken by the Khmer Rouge secret police, and the people portrayed were subsequently tortured into confession and killed – are we as viewers complicit in these acts of violence? What is our role and what is the aesthetic experience? Asked by Trebay precisely how these pictures advance understanding of the medium of photography, Susan Kismaric, curator of photography at the MOMA, where 22 of the photographs were exhibited in 1997, is quoted as claiming: “they show the photograph’s ability to capture people who are terrified.” Can this be considered as real justification for displaying the images without any historical context? The publisher of an album of the photographs, Jack Woody, recalls when he first set eyes on copies of the images: “I thought they were the most amazing photos I’d seen in years. The emotional rapport the viewer has with subjects I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I thought to myself, ‘That’s as good as photography gets.’” I think for me this is where the power of the portraits lies, but does that grant us the right to gaze at the subjects, knowing their powerlessness and their ultimate fate? It all smacks to me of voyeurism and morbid curiosity. Trebay has the last word: “Is it ignorance, though, or moral attrition that makes possible the exhibition of pictures from a genocide with only the flimsiest framework of context? Who are the people in the Tuol Sleng photos? Who are their families? What is the role of our amnesiac culture in the atrocities that took place in a former public high school and beyond it in the killing fields? Where, a viewer might ask, are the bones?” perhaps the reason for not tackling the history of the genocide is political – the 4-year civil war in Cambodia was CIA-backed, after all. Dearth of context may avoid potential political issues, questions of accountability…

The Phnom Penh Post interviewed New York playwright Catherine Filloux, who after visiting the MoMA exhibition was moved to write “Photographs From S-21“, a play where two of the prison’s young victims, a man and a woman, emerge from their portraits to discuss their final torture and execution with one another. “There was no context to the exhibition,” [Filloux] told the Post in March 2001. “It was almost like a tribute to Khmer Rouge photography skills.”

Archivist Dawne Adam in an exhaustively researched article (Adam 1998) suggests that the Khmer Rouge used the photographs as part of a mass of documents that were intended to rewrite history, abolish the old order, monitor their progress and activities, and to codify their beliefs: “Obsessive documenting allowed them to reassure themselves that all measures had been taken to cleanse the country… the Khmer Rouge killed to defend their ideology… they documented what they did for the same reason.” (pp 18-19). On the issue of using the images in the ways that Riley and Niven did (exhibition, book, selling prints) she has this to say:

“It is one thing to get permission from a family to publish a dead relative’s photograph. It is quite another to treat the photograph as though its contents are merely symbolic and the person portrayed is anonymous and therefore divorced from the wider human contexts of grieving family and ruptured community.”

She also reiterates points of view that I analysed when looking at issues of personal privacy vs. the right to know:

“While seeing that information is accessible is critical to making perpetrators of inhumane acts accountable, its availibility [sic] can also revictimize victims. All public attempts to bring individuals or regimes to justice risk further injuring their victims. In pursuing accountability, the stakes are high, and those in control of the evidence have a special responsibility to ensure that their use of the evidence exclusively supports the victims’ pursuit of justice.”

As I have already noted, when the victim’s identity is not essential to the case, or when exposure would subject the victim to further suffering, it is inadvisable to use such images. In the event, a tribunal was finally set up with UN assistance and leading members of the Khmer Rouge sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

It has also been argued that the portraits might be put to better use in Cambodia, helping to identify the subjects and survivors to locate their loved ones; a representative of Human Rights Watch observed: “Everyone in Cambodia is still looking for relatives… make [the photos] accessible to people in the country. That’s what’s needed. Not a show in an American art museum.” Ultimately the images did get displayed on the Cambodian Genocide Program website, where searches can also be made for individuals who became lost during the conflict.

Another way that the images have entered into contemporary discourse is through their appropriation into other works of art. For Me Instead of Them, 2008, the Greek artist Despina Meimaroglou scanned five different people and printed each head in life-size on a paper bag. After putting the bag on her head the artist tries to imagine a position reflecting the facial expression of each individual and to reproduce it with her own body:


With 88 out of 14,000, 2004, Brazilian artist Alice Miceli selected the portraits of inmates for whom the dates of both arrest and execution were available: eighty-eight people. She projected the portraits, chronologically, onto falling sand. One day of survival means one kilogram of sand, or four seconds of visibility, somehow reinvesting these portraits with life rather than simply viewing them as pictures of death.

The wide range of contemporary art treatment that the pictures have undergone (here I have looked at just 2, but there are countless others and are sure to be still more in the future, as with all iconography) show that there is still room for a continued evaluation of their production, currency and meaning – they are active in social relations, not just to be viewed as passive commodities. The pictures are “reconfigured through a long chain of remediation and transformation, integrated within multiple social realms of remembrance, resounding in other contexts, signifying differently, sometimes at the expense of their original meaning” (Benzaquen 2010, p 222).

Although there are multiple issues arising from the use of this photographic archive, Gevers condenses them into the idea of the ‘muteness’ of those portrayed – the denial of their voices, and conflates this with the imbalance of power described by Sontag and evidenced by the images that were leaked from Abu Ghraib. Gevers may have a point about the content of the images, but I am hard pushed to find similarity between the way the Abu Ghraib images of torture were displayed and the synecdochic value they are afforded and the use of the S21 images. There may be an ethically unjustifiable power relationship between photographer and photographed (there always is an imbalance of power, to some degree), but here the problem is with the editorial and curatorial use of the images post-production – indeed, Gevers’ polemic is not aimed at the producer of the images (as it is with the Abu Ghraib pictures), since she does not even mention Nhem Ein by name (is he reduced to a mere bureaucrat who was simply following orders, evil in a banal way like Arendt’s Eichmann?). It seems to me that this merely clouds the discussion about responsibility of all the players involved in the transfer between photographer and viewer that she enumerates (press, press agency, publisher, gallery, museum, photo album). Interestingly enough, this list only includes institutions rather than individuals; in her equation, once the photographer has produced the image it is subject to the whims and decisions of large organisations rather than the choices made by any individuals therein (editor, photo editor, darkroom worker, printer, designer, curator).

Gevers talks of the shift in documentary tradition from grand narratives and ideologically-based imagery to more intimate and personal narratives, the goal no longer being to change the world, but to know it. Personal experience is combined with the image being viewed; this collaborative process engages the viewer not merely as passive spectator, but as co-author in the formation of truths and histories. I have seen this in the work of Meiselas, but Gevers uses the Atlas Group to illustrate her point. The audience is invited to supplement the work with their own experiences and observations: “These photographs and films challenge viewers to see beyond what is already known, beyond their own limits, so as to ‘leave the realm of the known, and take oneself there where one does not expect, is not expected to be’.

This is the emancipated spectator that Rancière was speaking of: “those in attendance learn from as opposed to being seduced by images… they become active participants as opposed to passive voyeurs” (Rancière 2009, p4), appropriating the narrative and interpreting it to make it their own, “a community of narrators and translators” (ibid, p 22).

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