Lately when I've gone to my library I've returned to my mother's Summer Reading policy - get whatever you like but get at least two biographies.
One bio I just finished is the story of Comrade Duch. As prison commandant in Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge Duch is responsible for at least the deaths of the twenty thousand Khmer Rouge who passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng Prison to be tortured and executed. The Lost Executioner chronicles author Nic Dunlop's travels through Cambodia and pursuit and eventual discovery of Comrade Duch.
The book was excellent - thought provoking (Duch is now a converted Christian who repents of his sins and sees being discovered by Dunlop as perhaps God's judgement on his many sins; does this make you feel differently about the mass murderer? Tuol Sleng is a prison camp for Khmer Rouge purged from the party. Every prisoner who comes through the doors is complicit with the crimes of the regime in some way.... Does this make you less sympathetic to the prisoners? ) and at times difficult to read. The account of the Vietnamese soldiers pushing into Cambodia and up to the capitol city of Phnom Penh only to find a city emptied of its population which had been forcibly relocated to rural areas and filled with piles of destroyed telephones and washing machines - with the smell of blood in the air leading to Tuol Sleng - drove shivers up my spine. It doesn't help that the events feel so close - Duch is still currently awaiting trial currently scheduled to start in 2009. The events of the Holocaust feel safely removed by history to me, events of a different era, a different time. The Cambodian genocide is not so safely removed and resonates with current events - the guerrilla war, ineffective bombing, a UN refugee presence that makes the lives of refugees worse, the lack of political will to do anything about the situation and the haste to cover it up afterward all feel current and reflect facets of current events.
A section in the middle of the book however, a meditation on the use of photos taken of prisoners at Tuol Sleng as art especially stood out to me. Dunlop is a photographer but finds himself troubled by the aesthetic exploitation of murder (every prisoner admitted to Tuol Sleng had a mug shot taken. These photos are of excellent technical quality and are now posted on the walls the prison.) I would expand Dunlop's condemnation of the genocide-photos-as-art school of photography to art in general - I find most modern and postmodern art to be inhumane and for the same reasons.
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Many of the images from Tuol Sleng were taken in isolation, with a white backdrop, without a context, as though in a void between life and death. More than twenty years after the horror this allowed peple to view Ein's pictures simply as portrature. Viewd in this way the photgraphs make subjects real to us buut at the same time deplete any sense of urgency. In a gallery, they become studies in the photography's aesthetic possibilities first, and evidence of mass murder second
The book of mug shots was a sumptous volume of more than seventy photographs. It was called The Killing Fields, borrowing its title from the film, even though all the pictures had been taken in S-21. There were no captions and the two essays in the back were added, it seemed almost as an afterthought. To view them in this way one feels almost predatory. The victims are presented as teh Khmer Rouge saw them: without a name, without a family, without an identity or a country.
It seems disingenuous to me to display these photographs without making clear why it is considered important to show them. There is a danger of it becoming a self-defeating exercise in highbrow voyeurism. One of the reasons there are so few photographs in this book is because of my increasing frustration with photography's limitations. The display of the images becomes a passive act of remembrance, rather than a call for justice.