Poignant Faces of the Soon-to-Be-Dead

Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, June 20, 1997

For four years starting in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, rounded up Cambodians at S-21, a converted high school in Tuol Sleng, a district of Phnom Penh, where they were tortured and killed. In all, more than 14,000 people were imprisoned there. Seven survived.

Left behind, after the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power, were reams of documents and thousands of black-and-white photographs, mug shots. The routine, evidently, was for inmates to be photographed upon their arrival, then starved and tortured until admitting to whatever crimes against the state the torturers wanted them to admit to, after which they were trucked to fields, forced to dig their graves and shot or bludgeoned to death. Steeped in paranoia, the Khmer Rouge killed many of their own at S-21. Many never knew why they were arrested. Some were Khmer Rouge soldiers whose treason was to let slip that they missed their families. For this, wives and children were often arrested and killed.

The Museum of Modern Art has 22 of the Tuol Sleng photographs on view, uncanny timing considering that Cambodia is suddenly back on the front pages with violent disarray in its Government. The names of the people in the 70's photographs are not known, although they are surely now dead. Most of the pictures show them sitting or standing against a bare wall, eyes at the camera, with hands tied behind their backs or chained to other prisoners, numbers pinned to their shirts. One woman cradles a baby. An image of another woman shows only the tiny arm of a child reaching up to grasp her sleeve.

I hardly know how to talk about these pictures, so painful are they to look at and so mesmerizing, a paradox that is the essence of horror. Maybe the closest analogy is with police murder-scene photographs, but in those, the crimes have been committed and the victims are corpses, while here we see the dead walking, and the impact is even more powerful. As Roland Barthes wrote about a death-row photograph of Lewis Payne, who tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward in 1865, ''I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.''

This is one of the basic truths of photography: it captures what was and no longer is, and the degree of our melancholy equals the gap between the image and the present. Murder scene photographs may be gruesome and tragic, but they are rarely as poignant as these Cambodian pictures because there is no gap.

After the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng became a Museum of Genocide, and 6,000 photographic negatives were discovered in a cabinet there by two American photographers, Chris Riley and Douglas Niven. They raised money to clean, catalogue and print the negatives, some of which were published last year in a book, ''The Killing Fields,'' by Twin Palms Publishers of New Mexico.

The Modern's selection comes from that book, which also includes recollections by Vann Nath, one of the jail's seven survivors, who was spared to paint giant portraits of Pol Pot. I leave it to others to decide what this says about the power of art.

At the Modern's show, someone has commented in the visitors' book that grief isn't what one expects to feel in an art museum. It's true. Art implies artifice, and the artifice in art tends to act as an emotional buffer: it reassures us that what we see is not altogether real.

This is the case with most photographs. We know that the photographers for the Farm Security Administration in the late 1930's, among them Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, took dozens of pictures of sharecroppers until they got the shots that best expressed poverty, dignity, exploitation and other ideas they wanted to convey.

''In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects,'' Susan Sontag has written. ''The work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.''

Yet clearly these Cambodian photographs are not the kind of pictures that Evans or Lange took. An alternate analogy might be with the family photographs of French children deported by the Nazis that Serge Klarsfeld, the Nazi hunter, has put together into a book, and that were shown at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan a few months ago. They are devastating to contemplate. But they are less immediate than the Cambodian photographs, whose subject is the actual confrontation between victims and killers.

Is it defiance, doom, exhaustion, confusion or sadness that these prisoners convey? Who can be sure? No matter how closely we look at a photograph, it stays mute: this is another basic fact about photography. Barthes wrote about his impulse to enlarge a photograph ''to see it better, to understand it better, to know its truth.'' By enlarging a picture of his mother, he had hoped ''finally to reach my mother's very being,'' only to discover that ''if I enlarge, I see nothing but the grain of the paper.''

That's the impulse here, to struggle for deeper truth in the pictures. One image here shows a girl, seemingly calm, against a white background and without a number to identify her as a prisoner. It might almost be a yearbook picture, except that, in this context, the calm seems to be incomprehension, which makes the image unbearable. Another shows a boy, maybe 12 years old, hands tied behind his back, his expression only slightly less placid. The wrenching detail is the number safety-pinned straight into his bare chest: he is like St. Sebastian.

This exhibition has provoked a small storm of protest, and it is certainly fair to ask what these sensational photographs are doing in an art museum. Does this imply that the killers who took them are artists? Can genocide be art? And does the book from Twin Palms, so glossily produced, estheticize and exploit the dead?

I'm not sure how to answer these questions. I suppose the museum ought to have done more besides a brief wall text to instruct the public and to place these works in a context less rareified, more sensitive to the possibility that the people in the photographs have relatives who may still not know what happened to them. But I'm also not sure how the Modern -- which makes the fair point that in exploring the parameters of photography it has always shown mug shots and documentary pictures along with Adamses and Westons -- can be said to demean the lives of Tuol Sleng's victims by drawing attention to them.

I do know that I go to an art museum not only to be instructed, but to be moved. In the show is a photograph of a man staring at the camera. He is handcuffed to a taller, blindfolded man. The difference between them brings to mind a parent and child, but is it too far-fetched to think, also, of the blind Oedipus with Antigone or the giant Orion with his guide Cedalion? Judging from Vann Nath's experience, the men may actually have been strangers, shackled by chance at Tuol Sleng. Only after a few seconds did I notice, in this shadowy photograph, that they were holding hands.

''Photographs From S-21: 1975-1979'' remains on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53d Street, Manhattan, through Sept. 15.