Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Look straight into the camera."

The Khemr Rouge in Cambodia established a secret detention facility at an abandoned local high school in Tuol Sleng, codenamed S-21. Party members accused of treason were sent there for a photograph, interview, interrogation and hand-written confession. Of the more than 14,000 prisoners - men, women, children - only seven survived.

Nhem Ein, the son of a farmer, joined the Khemr Rouge at the age of ten. At the age of fifteen he was sent to be trained as a photographer, filmmaker and cartographer. By sixteen he was named head photographer for Tuol Sleng, a job which consisted entirely of documenting the prisoners.

When a new prisoner was brought to Tuol Sleng, he was always blindfolded. He was placed in a chair (which was never used during torture, only for portraits) before the blindfold was removed. This was the prisoner's first sighting of Tuol Sleng: a slender sixteen-year-old boy standing in front of a camera repeating only one sentence and answering no questions.

Often prisoners were brought in truckloads, chained or roped together at the ankles; sometimes alone. A number was pinned on each prisoner, one boy's number pinned to his chest. But the numbers meant less than they seem to now and probably, imaginably, seemed to then because they were recycled every twelve hours. The numbers were only a consequence of circumstance. Twenty-four meant only chance. One, for instance, meant really nothing.

This was an identification photograph.

And also an identification of cognition. Tuol Sleng was a prison built to root out enemies from within the party's own ranks. The torturers sent to be tortured. And since photographs of the interrogators were also taken, the same person may be present on either side of the table, and only a few days apart.

The Interrogators:

Nhem Ein, along with others, looted homes and shops in search of photographic equipment. He choose large format 21 inch film because it was the most abundant.

7,000 negatives were found in a metal box on the second floor of the main building in the mid 1990's. Many were covered in mildew to the point of disintegration, but not all.

The remaining photographs cover a 3 year, 8 month, 20 day time period. The 78 printed images are now, and have been, part of a traveling exhibition and also the interior of a gray cloth bound book. But the most violent images, of which there are but few, are not included in either collection. A selection of highly excerpted yearbook photographs dusted off and placed on a brass table.

To shoot his photograph now, Nhem Ein charges $300 an hour but can be argued down to $50. In his wallet he carries a photograph of himself taken by an assistant photographer at Tuol Sleng.


text on tape said...

Dith Pran, Cambodian Photo Journalist (on photography):

"You have to be a pineapple. You have to have a hundred eyes."

c.harris.stevens said...

incredibly executed restraint. the tortured tortured. would that be a correct statement? or was the schematic a one way circuit from interogator to tortured? curious to find out. once the strength of a body's resistance is measured through disoloving that resistance, does the myth of the sterling and impenatrable interogator lose its capacity to siphon information from the "weaker" body? or are bodies merely occupants of positions within a system, their histories and transgressions insignificant to the situation placed upon them? who then occupies the body? the situation, or the person? "there is no doer, only the deed" nietzsche said, yet in our world the deed requires a body, and with a body, accountability. in our world, the law is absolute in the fact of event. the individual is always responsible for its own actions. situations are irrelevant in the context of freedom. but what of the job interview? the parole hearing? the correlation of crime and economy, of murder and gun rights? ok ok. thanks for this. very much. i've now blunted all those silences with implanted meanings, a prosthetic morality. my apologies.

c.harris.stevens said...

my point in the ramblings: you didn't judge the individual, not once. the entrance of economy suggestive, but by no means limiting.

garbage blanche said...

When you say the most violent images are not exhibited, do you mean violent identification photos, or photos of other goings-on in the detention center?

t. said...

To refer to two questions, as far as I've read, only on a couple of occasions did anyone who was tortured become a torturer. Ein, the photographer, was one of them, but though complicit, he never committed the brutal torture which was commonplace.

And to the second question, the violent images to which I refer are photographs of the actual torture and photographs of the dead in the positions in which they were executed.

That said, Comrade Duch, who was the last person to vacate Tuol Sleng (as head of the Khmer Rouge he did not leave the prison until an hour after the Vietnamese invaded), stayed precisely to destroy and burn evidence, mostly photographs, he claims. (He also burned documents and executed all of the remaining prisoners.) In fact, out of the seven thousand negatives, you can only find two photos of him -- in neither of which does he participate.

He's another fascinating person. After he left Tuol Sleng he escaped to the Thailand border and worked with the UN who did not know his identity. When he was 'found out,' his fellow workers all made statements about what a wonderful man he had been in the hardest of times, always taking less of his share in supplies and providing more service than he should have been able to give. He said, pre-trial (he swears that he didn't say this now), that the period of time working with aid organizations was the best part of his life.

Please forgive this haphazard retelling. He's an incredibly smart man with a necessary story, and this retelling does it no justice, I'm sure. But there's lots of information if you're interested.

Here's a decent start with a lot of quality sources bibliographed at the bottom: