Killing Fields of Vision: Was Cambodia’s Genocide Just a Moment of Photographic History?

Guy Trebay, Village Voice, May 29, 1997

Hannah Arendt was correct, as usual, when she contended that America cultivates its ignorance about Southeast Asia. Eighteen years after the liberation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese army, that small and devastated country continues to recede from memory. The wounds of Pol Pot’s spectacularly psychotic Maoist regime still afflict that ravaged country, where as many as 2 million people were systematically murdered over a four-year, CIA-supported civil war. Even as the Khmer Rouge continues to run its guerrilla army, repositioning itself as a potential political force in next year’s elections, the Cambodian genocide is relegated to ancient history here. 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.

That, at least, is a charge being leveled at the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit, Photographs From S-21, 22 black-and-white pictures of Cambodian prisoners taken at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. If Holocaust photos were displayed without any real context in an art museum, would we find that morally acceptable? asks Jeff Yang, publisher of A. Magazine, the national bimonthly of Asian American culture. It’s vernacular work, insists Susan Kismaric, curator of photography at MOMA. We’ve always exhibited this kind of photography, starting with pictures of the exploration of the American West. MOMA’s long support of photography has encompassed both the medium s artistic and quotidian aspects, says Kismaric. Gallery 3, where the Tuol Sleng pictures are hung, is, according to a museum handout, a place where the Museum’s curators may share their enthusiasms for particular photographs, their thoughts about particular episodes in photography, and their explorations of the Museum’s rich collection.

Besides exhibiting Diane Arbus and Edward Weston, says Kismaric, the museum has in the past displayed criminal mug shots and photojournalist Gilles Peress’s documentary shots of the Rwandan massacres. It’s all a part of the power of the medium, she explains. The Tuol Sleng pictures help tell the story of the history of photography. Asked in what way the Tuol Sleng pictures advance our understanding of the medium, the curator replies that they show the photograph’s ability to capture people who are terrified.

It was at Tuol Sleng, a converted center-city high school, that the Khmer Rouge secret police (the Santebal) rounded up, interrogated, and tortured over 14,000 Cambodians accused of being enemies of the state. The methods of torture — primitive as they were brutal — are preserved at the prison, now operated as a museum of genocide. Cells there contain bare metal bed frames and the rusted batteries used to electrify them. Blood stains the concrete floors. The exhibits include a map composed of unidentified human skulls wedged behind Plexiglas.

All but seven of Tuol Sleng’s prisoners died there. The berserk efficiency of the Khmer Rouge killers was matched by their bureaucratic fastidiousness. Each prisoner was photographed by the captors, who maintained meticulous dossiers even as they casually dispensed with lives. Years after the Khmer Rouge was toppled, two young American photographers came upon 6000 negatives in a metal file cabinet at the museum, all that remained of the unidentified dead.

With $25,000 raised in the U.S., Chris Riley and Doug Niven cleaned, catalogued, and printed the images from Tuol Sleng in 1994. They then set about selling prints to collectors, museums, and an American publisher. The Los Angeles County Museum purchased eight, as did MOMA. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art bought nine. Offered a chance to publish the pictures, the New Mexico art house Twin Palms issued a somberly luxe volume entitled The Killing Fields. Chris and Doug sent me Xeroxes, says publisher Jack Woody. 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.

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 nonprofit, raises serious questions. Photographs furnish evidence, as Susan Sontag once observed. The pictures from Tuol Sleng are the sole remaining evidence of 6000 human lives. Can anyone truly own them?

A wall panel at the Museum of Modern Art, written by curatorial assistant Adrienne Williams, blandly asserts that these powerful images warranted viewing by a larger audience. That this audience might also include those Cambodians still attempting to find their loved ones seems not to have occurred to the museum s curators. Everyone in Cambodia is still looking for relatives, explains Dinah PoKempner, deputy general counsel at Human Rights Watch. Simply print the pictures up in books and make them accessible to people in the country. That’s what’s needed. Not a show in an American art museum.

The larger audience for Riley’s and Niven’s archive may be found, after all, on the Internet. Along with its other shortcomings, the MOMA show neglects to note the existence of the Cambodian Genocide Project. Part of this undertaking, directed by Yale professor-historian Ben Kiernan, is the recently created database including more than 5000 extant photographs of prisoners taken as they were forced into Tuol Sleng. A response form permits users to send information identifying prisoners. We just heard back from the first, says Kiernan. Not in Cambodia. There isn’t much access to computers there yet. It was someone in France. Presumably, this will continue to happen and help put names to the dead.

The CGP’s database (www.yale.edu/cgp) contains maps of Khmer Rouge mass-burial sites, lists of its leaders, and records of victims, including, says Kiernan, some Khmer Rouge who became victims themselves. It includes information on the young Khmer Rouge loyalist Nhem Ein, whose camera systematically captured the expressions of people soon to die. The photographers are unknown, asserts the wall panel at MOMA, although Reuters reported Ein’s emergence in January. I’m unaware of that, curator Kismaric says.

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 own 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?