The Tuol Sleng Photograph Collection: Varying Contexts of Cambodia’s Tragic Memory


Specifically highlighted in this essay is a collection of photographs that I believe addresses the assignment’s requirement in records supporting “actions relating to acknowledgment, redress, restitution, reconciliation and replevin involving those who have been repressed, persecuted, colonized, ignored, despised, or forgotten.” The photographs hold loaded meaning when passed from various locations: this essay investigates the collection’s context in the hands of the photographers, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the MoMA, and ultimately, the memory of a collective memory versus a Cambodian memory. The exploration of these meanings is meant to bring to light the difficulties with access, authenticity, and context concerning these representations of Cambodian tragedy and heritage.


I first became aware of the Tuol Sleng photographs through Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of OtherS-21_0212s. As a crude over-simplification, her essay, published in 2003 in book format, stresses the potency of war photography in their representations of horror, violence, and death. Near the book’s halfway point, the author argues that “to catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something that only cameras can do” (59). Then, contained to a single powerful sentence, is the main mention of Tuol Sleng. “More upsetting,” writes Sontag, “is the opportunity to look at people who know they have been condemned to die: the cache of six thousand photographs taken between 1975 and 1979 at a secret prison in a former high school in Tuol Sleng, a suburb of Phnom Penh, the killing house of more than fourteen thousand Cambodians charged with being either “intellectuals” or “counter- revolutionaries” –the documentation of this atrocity courtesy of the Khmer Rouge record keepers, who had each sit for a photograph just before being executed” (60).

Oppressors as record keepers is not a new concept, of course: for example, Nazis kept archives of arrest warrants or death lists concentration camps, and various countries maintained slave registries. However, photography as a form of this documentation is interesting, especially in war circumstances, as it gives perspective to both the nature of the oppressors and oppressed (or, the subjects of the photographs)–subsequently exhibiting the power play between the two. But most significantly, unique to photography (and film) is the role of the viewer. Inarguably, these photographs were not taken with the intent of viewing outside of the oppressor’s community. Where, then, does the viewer’s role fit?

In spectator theory, the outside viewer–as in neither the camera nor the subject– is labeled as a voyeur, and with this, likely absorbs the role of the oppressor, due to an inherent ability to control the image’s subject with his gaze. To use Sontag’s words again, in this realm of photography, “the viewer is in the same position as the lackey behind the camera” (61). So most disconcerting is how this role of viewing translates into our role as users. As Terrence Duffy highlights in “Exhibiting Human Rights,” museums globally have used documents from tragic historical occurrences to induce a recognition of human suffering. He notes that in the case of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, such exhibits have been integral in allowing Cambodians to confront the events of this tragic history. He does not, however, note the irony in displaying a traumatic national heritage concurrent with a tourist destination, which was made possible through Vietnamese political efforts.

The collection appropriately conveys the inherent controversies of postcolonial documentation: the photographs, which may be viewed as record keeping of oppressors versus a subaltern group, later may be reclaimed as documents to project a culture’s missing heritage, and furthermore, then repurposed globally to communicate a collective memory of human rights and suffering. By exploring a brief history of the genocide and following the collection’s creation and movement, the archival problematics of access, context and authenticity will naturally surface.


Cambodia and Tuol Sleng: A Brief History

In the late 1960’s to mid 1970’s, Cambodia found itself in a state of massive political unrest. After the United State’s first bombings inside the borders of Cambodia intended to target Viet Cong, Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk–fearing escalation and negative responses from both the Viet Cong and the United States–was determined to maintain neutrality. While abroad, Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup, and General Lon Nol, a rightist, assumed temporary control, aligning Cambodia as a submissive ally of the United States, thus allowing massive bombing attacks to continue. Sihanouk’s followers, as well as the Prince’s own affiliation, created an insurgence of political appeal towards the left, and support for the Communist party, renamed the Khmer Rouge, mounted significantly. As the bombing attacks increased, alliance with the Khmer Rouge also increased as individuals experienced first hand death and destruction. Cambodian civil war commenced, and by 1975, the Communist party had overthrown the republic. The Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot as its leader, demanded an immediate radical restructure of society. Anybody suspected of being a traitor was targeted and brutally punished: torture was a common practice.

Tuol Sleng was a facility of such torture, coded as Security Prison 21 (S-21), converted into a detention and interrogation unit from a high school, and in operation from 1975 to 1979. Detainees (generally intellectuals, past government officials, doctors, teachers, or academics, for instance), labeled as traitors, were told upon arrest that they were “called to study” or for consulting, and aimed at forcibly obtaining confessions of guilt, anti-communist allegiance, and additional ‘deviants’ (Ledgerwood 86). Only employees at S-21 knew of the facility, besides the detainees, and industrial workers on the outer grounds knew the building as, noted by David Chandler, a place where “people went in but never came out” (Ledgerwood 83). Prisoners were shackled, held in cells, and subjected to inhumane acts of cruelty, suffering and execution: to this day, the walls and floors are still stained red from the streams of blood. As many as 20,000 prisoners were held during these years; only twelve survivors are known (Tuol Sleng Museum website).


The Original Documents

Before each individual was admitted to the prison, his or her photograph was taken for the prison’s records and accompanied any information that person provided on his or her history. According to writer Lindsey French in “Exhibiting Terror,” many were also photographed post-mortem (131), but as a record of death rather than a testament of tragedy.

S-21 was discovered in 1979, when the Communist regime was being overthrown. Vietnamese soldiers stumbled upon the buildings when surveying the city of Phnom Penh, and chose to investigate based upon the rancid smell surrounding them. Among the rotting bodies and abandoned scenes of violence remained the Khmer Rouge’s extensive documentation, including the collection of thousands of film negatives and many photographic prints of the oppressed inhabitants.

Prisoners were photographed in multiple locations of the prison and well-communicated the reality of the horror. No attempt was made to disguise the blood-stained floors or scratchings upon the walls made with fingernails when photographing the subjects (French 132). Poignantly described by French, “the photographs include old people, young people, children; women, men, mothers with babies. Some people are obviously starving; others look simply exhausted. Some people are handcuffed to other people; many have just had blindfolds removed from their eyes. Most look direct at the camera” (132). In these photographs, nearly all wear on their chest or clothes tags which mark their prisoner number.

To analyze the original collection techniques, perhaps most daunting is the portrait-like nature of the photographs, and their high quality and clarity (granted through medium format). While the photographers are to this day unknown for each individual photo, the identity of the “chief photographer” of S-21 surfaced in years following. A fifteen year old boy by the name of Nhem Ein, a member of the Khmer Rouge, was sent to learn photography for a year in Shanghai; upon his return, he was given the role as photographer-in-chief, along with a team of five, to photograph up to 600 individuals each day, “of people who he knew were innocent and sentenced to death, working like an automat and blinding himself to their suffering to the point of pretending not to recognise a cousin who came to appear before his camera” (de Duve 3). In an interview with Le Monde, he admits that it was either that, or be killed himself.

This information given, where does this original source of material fit in the realm of collecting? The photographs discussed were not collected to communicate the inhumane nature of S-21 (though, of course, this is observed in each frame), but clearly were collected for political purposes intended to serve the Khmer Rouge regime. Moreover, the original documents–specifically the negatives–serve as the authentic records in a bureaucratic context, or visual record keeping.


The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Following the horrific discovery of S-21, a memorial museum was almost immediately in the works: a Vietnamese museologist was recruited to properly archive the documents, and a year later (1980), the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide opened its doors with minimal renovations, in order to conserve the horror of the site (Williams 237). The museum now contains hundreds of large photographs, reproduced from the authentic negatives, now mounting the walls of the rooms in which the prisoners were routinely abused. “From a distance, across the room the images are squares of black on white, six squares by six squares, thirty-six people per block, ten blocks per section, three hundred and sixty squares,” describes Judy Ledgerwood, a professor at Norther Illinois University, who worked for several months in conjunction with the Tuol Sleng museum archives. “As you walk closer, they become distinguishable as individual people, with expressions: a frown, a smirk, bewilderment, anger, shock, withdrawal, fear, most often fear” (84). Accompanying the photographs in these rooms are shackles, paintings of common torture techniques, and even the original metal bed frames upon which prisoners were tied, shocked with electric currents traveling through wires, and often times died upon. Visitors are free to walk the cells of the facility; the haunting juxtaposition of a decrepit school yard and converted torture chamber is escalated by the horrific interpretive artwork of one of the known survivors (French 132). The final room contains a map of Cambodia, constructed from human skulls; the large red lake in the middle of the map undoubtedly representing the bloodshed surmounting the country-wide genocide led by the Khmer Rouge.

The controversy in representation stems from Vietnam’s involvement in the museum’s establishment. The important question is this: are the museum collections authentic? The very fact that “Vietnamese advisors working with Khmer staff designed and set up the museum raises questions of authenticity for many Khmer” (Ledgerwood 89). Actually, in its beginning, Vietnam’s foundation of a memorial in Cambodia was not intended primarily for Cambodians: rather, the museum was easier to access by researchers or international guests. Ledgerwood confirms this such thought, drawing from a 1980 report which “notes the need for bright lights in the rooms so that the foreigners can take pictures easily,” and additionally, that “requests are made for more workers who speak French and English in order to help with research and preparation of documents for publication” (89).

Even so, within the year of its opening, the museum drew thousands of local citizens, searching for answers about estranged family members who had disappeared in years previous. In the years following, the museum became not only a destination for individuals who sought such answers, but for all Cambodians looking to examine their country’s distressed past. May 20, 1983 became known as Cambodia’s first recognized observance of “Days of Hate,” in which citizens publicly shared their recollections and experiences of the traumatic Pol Pot years. School field trips to the Tuol Sleng musuem (and other discovered “killing fields”) was common practice in observance of these days, which continued annually into the 1990’s. While the country-wide observance has subsided in years past, a ‘Day of Remembrance’ is still celebrated specifically in Phnom Penh (Chandler 362). It is important to note that though the museum was constructed by Vietnam, and while the museum contains favorable tones of support–labeled by some as propaganda– for the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (the government placed in power after 1979 and initiated by Vietnam), the collection of photographs remains an earnest source of national memory for citizens of Cambodia. The museum assisted in presenting the country’s own visitors an experience that exemplified the tragedy of years previous: “the brutality and violence portrayed so vividly, the faces of all the dead staring at them from the four walls of the rooms, did evoke and reinforce their memories — if not their memories of the entire period in every place, then certainly the crucial, central memories of the worst individual moments of that era” (Ledgerwood 93).

After the nation’s 1993 elections (which drafted a new constitution in recognition of a monarchy, and granting specific attention to human rights), attendance rates from non-communist countries increased significantly (Williams 237), thus aiding the museum’s development as a tourist site (Chandler 356). With that, the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide began down a path of global recognition, hence drawing more attention to the effective yet devastating nature of its approach. Astutely discussed by Ledgerwood, the conflict of the museum is not whether Tuol Sleng is the site of S-21, or in question of the atrocious acts committed at the site, but rather if “crafting Tuol Sleng as a “genocide” museum superseded and distorted preserving S-21 as it existed in DK (Kamir Rouge) times” (89). That is to say: did the museum intend on equipping visitors with shock value to serve as its main attraction?

Comparisons with Aushwitz have surfaced over the years, in the same vein calling to mind the “cruel destiny of the prisoner” (Williams 242). Explained in “Witnessing Genocide” by Paul Williams, researchers of cultural studies have explained this as ‘dark tourism,’ as “tourism has boomed at sites associated with death, disaster, and depravity” and the international tourist is able to witness the horror at a removed distance (243). This may in fact be the case, given that the museum is centered around the remembrance of gruesome details and imagery, rather than aimed at representing the events from a human rights perspective.

Regardless of this standpoint of ‘dutiful tourism,’ the main goal of the museum seems to be this: to humanize, to distinctly represent that each individual in each portrait, is human. As per Ledgerwood’s quote used on page 6 of this essay, contained within each frame is an individual who is given an equal representation on the wall. Up close, each face is discernible. The visitor experience at the Tuol Sleng Museum, then is aimed for awareness, rather than observation. This context stands in blatant opposition to the experience that viewers may experience otherwise, a la Sontag, where anonymous victims are unlikely to be known to “us,” or in which “the scale of war’s murderousness destroys what identifies people as individuals, even as human beings. This, of course, is how war looks when it is seen from afar, as an image” (61). Through the museum’s context, the image represents more than a photograph: significantly, “the photos are definitely shown neither as art nor in the name of art” (de Duve 12), and complex historical explanations are traded for the photographs, which serve as the museum’s most apparent facts.

But it should be recognized that Cambodian experience is distinctly different from the foreigner’s experience. On one hand, Cambodian memory is on display: the torture was both committed and received by their fellow citizens. As viewers, Cambodians inherit all roles: those of the oppressed and the oppressors, as well as the role of the visitor, the voyeur. The identification becomes a personal relation with a national heritage. However, a foreigner cannot have the same relation. The outside viewer experiences a sense of tragedy, but abjectly (yes, in Kristevan sense), in that the subjects of the photographs are recognizably human, though the tragedy is interpreted not as a personal experience but as an experience of a separated Cambodian history, thus creating a boundary due to the reaction of horror. Even so, both varying experiences are based in an emotional response to the records, not as documentation in a bureaucratic context, but rather in the context of recognizing Cambodian suffering, and tragedy, and experience, hence providing visitors with an alternate experience (and context) than the primary documents intended. Instead, heritage is established through the collection’s inclusion as national history, as if symbolizing a cultural replevin, enacted by Cambodians.

Within a year, what was once a mere form of record keeping transformed, through the museum’s context, into portraits of Cambodian men, women and children silenced under their own country’s political oppression. While the authenticity of the museum’s function may be held in question, the authenticity of the photographs is not.


Photographs from S-21: The Musuem of Modern Art Exhibition

From May 15 to September 30, 1997, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) ran an exhibition showcasing 22 photographs from the Tuol Sleng collection. The exhibition was spearheaded by two American photographers– Chris Riley and Doug Niven– who had traveled to Cambodia in 1993 to experience the fervor of the elections. After familiarizing themselves with a curator at the Tuol Sleng archives, the two were allowed to peruse the documents that had been sequestered for processing, cataloguing and eventual transfer to microfilm, when they stumbled upon a file cabinet containing the authentic negatives. After obtaining permission from the Cambodian government to create copies from the negatives, the men formed the Photo Archive Group, a non-profit intended to “raise money to clean, catalogue, and make contact prints of the existing negatives, close to six thousand in all. One set of these prints went to the Tuol Sleng Museum, to be used by visitors trying to identify missing relatives, and one went into an archive at Cornell” (French 133). Significantly, for their efforts, the two were granted rights to one hundred images with permission to reprint a limited number of times–which is where the MoMA exhibition comes into play.

The act of placing documents of genocide in a museum intended for art observation is, as an understatement, loaded with controversy, along with an ideology of first-world possession. The exhibition was not equipped with an explanation concerning the background of Cambodia’s political struggles, nor the context of S-21, or even the photographs’ display in Museum of Genocide. Instead, the only preface given for the MoMA observer was that “the negatives were discovered by two Americans “who recognized the images warranted viewing by a larger audience” ” (French 134). Confined to a gallery space, with the eye-level portraits as large 14 x 11 inch prints, the photographs were accompanied by placards with a description, generally stating the following: Photographer unknown. Untitled. 1975-79 (Williams 244), indicating that focus is removed from the subject and placed on the cameraman. In doing so, the oppressor–the cameraman– becomes an artist. French comments: “the fact that this collection deliberately included both “high art” and “vernacular” photography is indicative of the Photography Department’s focus on the formal properties of the image itself, and the unique characteristics of the photographic medium, rather than the photographs’ significance in a social context” (135). And in reality, even the photographers were not devoid of blame for this. When asked if their intents were for artistic or social awareness, the two agreed that it was first intended in art: “even though they were of horrible subject matter, with horrible histories, we saw the possibility of making beautiful photographs” (Niven, qtd. in de Duve 8). Thinking about how the department painstakingly selected 22 photographs from the collection of thousands for curation is troublesome: how did they judge which were most artistic, and more disconcerting…how could they evaluate in terms of art?

But more distasteful and disrespectful than exhibiting this tragedy as modern art is the implication of power or control that inherently follows in this nature of spectatorship. Consider the following: “The image of spectators at a zoo looking on in disengaged interest at the strange animals held captive to their gaze resonates with many of the criticisms voiced today in relation to the visual representation of atrocity. As images of atrocity and traumatized bodies proliferate, it is argued, we, the receivers of these visual representations, become somehow ‘immune’ to their effect, seeing them simply as spectacle, a form of ‘infotainment’ – the enjoyment of which marks our complicity in the commodification of experience, by which we become merely consumers or voyeurs of suffering” (Oliver 121). By establishing an immunity to the trauma of Tuol Sleng, viewers in this context create a defined boundary, and one that does not achieve subject identification. Instead, subject “othering” is enacted, and returns this war photography to Sontag’s exploration of ‘observing from afar.’ The relation between observation in this context, and the enjoyment that can result from the presentation of art, absolutely needs to be made. Notes from the MoMA’s comment book highlight this: “You have done an absolutely extraordinary, wonderful job of showing the face of cruelty, and what people can do to other people,” or “These photographs are visions of the soul” (collected in French 139). The viewer becomes an invader of the personal, candid nature of the photographs–a true voyeur–indicated by another note from the MoMA comment book: “I keep thinking I should not be looking at these faces. Who has the right to ‘display’ this here?…How does the privilege of my seeing their fear and torture make the world a better place?” Whether all were aware of it, viewers obtained a higher status through exposure to these portraits, excelling the collection into a political and power-laden lens of first world observation of third world tragedy. Exchanged for artistic enlightenment, the photographs were no longer authentic documents of Cambodia’s (very recent) heritage.

Susan Stewart explores the act of collecting in her book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. In it, she maintains that that in “finding, selecting, ordering, (and) displaying,” a collector may “establish control over environment, objects, and history” (Hinsley 48). With reference to this reading, the Tuol Sleng photograph collection is recontextualized for the audience of MoMA and subsequently aids in rewriting a collective history of the genocide. The images do not represent a Cambodian genocide; they represent a crime against humanity, and become nostalgic and interpretive souvenirs of an extensive and troubled global past. A souvenir, says Stewart, “lacks authenticity, for its experience is other” (22). Decidedly, souvenirs also represent closure, or departure from that memory. Eight of the prints displayed in this exhibition were purchased by the MoMA, thus committing these portraits as a permanent contribution to an art collection–or as souvenirs. One has to wonder if the MoMA sold postcards of the portraits in their gift store.


Cambodia and a Modern Memory

In the years following the MoMA exhibition (which traveled across the U.S. and was displayed in multiple other art museums), exposure to the photograph collection of Tuol Sleng has naturally widened. As the world learns about the atrocities of S-21 and processes them as part of a global history, the collective memory of the tragedy grows, and likely files the events in the same category as the Holocaust.

But how does Cambodia choose to remember? Interestingly, “since 1993 government interest in the recent past has faded and, except for Days of Hate, amnesia has become the order of the day. Cambodia seems to have entered a phase of its history where officially sponsored historiography of the recent past has become intrinsically unimportant and irrelevant to those in power, some of whom could be tarred with the Khmer Rouge brush. Whether this means that history has been returned to people without power is an unanswerable question” (Chandler 363). Not surprisingly, Cambodian artists have used the S-21 photographs to facilitate their own interpretations of the Khmer Rouge regime to explore a repressed heritage. Installations, such as Messengers by Phnom Penh native Ly Daravuth, indicate the resonate the cultural significance of the collection, in many cases intended to underscore the observed aftermath on a younger generation. Attendance at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide is still high, but is frequented more readily by tourists than locals. Williams writes that “whether Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek can play an important role in helping Cambodians answer their questions ultimately will depend on wider political circumstances… at this juncture, the memorials remain tenuously connected to Cambodia’s hesitant process of reconciliation” (251).

A recent article published in The Mainichi Daily (Japan) announces a Cambodian and Japanese joint exhibition at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, entitled “Two Peace Exhibition by Two Peace Museums.” The effort seeks to highlight the tragedy of loss from both the Khmer Rouge and the Battle of Okinawa, as well as to properly convey the message of peace. At the exhibition’s opening, president of the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memory Museum, Reiko Goya, said this: “I want to convey the tragedies of the war to the coming generations through materials and words of those who have experienced it in order to nurture the frame of mind to understand, talk and forgive.” The last concept–forgiveness as an element of peace–is striking. In this context, Tuol Sleng returns to the task of establishing or restoring a distinctly Cambodian heritage, as only those involved or affected by the tragedy can grant forgiveness.

As observed, the meaning of a photograph decidedly changes in relation to its context. All documents may be subject to a variance in interpretation, but unique to the image, as Allen Sekula points out, “any photograph’s meaning oscillates between the referential (a record of actual, complex, material conditions) and the contextual (a discursively and institutionally determined fiction)” (qtd. from French 151). Documents, then, necessarily require a proper context in order to establish authenticity. When lacking in authenticity, the Tuol Sleng photographs become souvenirs to accompany voyeuristic users, and thus sacrifice the complicated Cambodian heritage, to which the thousands of faces belong .


Works Cited

Chandler, David. “Cambodia Deals with its Past: Collective Memory, Demonisation and Induced Amnesia.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, (2008) 9:2-3, 355-369.

de Duve, Thierry. “Art in the Face of Radical Evil.” Aesthetics Bridging Cultures (2007).

Duffy, Terence. “Exhibiting Human Rights.” Peace Review 12.2 (2000): 303-09. Print.

French, Lindsay. “Exhibiting Terror.” Truth Claims: Representation and Human Rights. Rutgers State University, 2002. 131-55. Print.

Hinsley, Curtis M. “Digging for Identity: Reflections on the Cultural Background of Collecting.” Repatriation Reader: 37-55. Print.

Hughes, R. “The Abject Artefacts of Memory: Photographs from Cambodia’s Genocide.” Media, Culture & Society 25.1 (2003): 23-44. Print.

“Joint Cambodian–Japanese Peace Exhibition Opens in Cambodia.” Mainichi Daily News. 8 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. .

Ledgerwood, Judy. “The Cambodian Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes: National Narrative.” Museum Anthropology 21.1 (1997): 82-98. Print.

Oliver, Sophie Anne. “Trauma, Bodies, and Performance Art: Towards an Embodied Ethics of Seeing.” Continuum 24.1 (2010): 119-29. Print.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. Print.

“Tuol Sleng: Photographs from Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (1975-79).” Tuol Sleng. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. .

Williams, P. “Witnessing Genocide: Vigilance and Remembrance at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 18.2 (2004): 234-54. Print.