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.
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.