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Shortlist | Cambodia

David Chandler n42 confirms that an unknown number of portrait photographs re- corded in an East German documentary made in the early days of the museum disappeared some time later. Aside from these disappearances, some negatives lay in the archive for some 13 years before they were viewed by Niven and Riley.

The former intention, to revive the negatives as nationally significant visual records within the museum, displays all the hallmarks of a contemporary humanitarian aid project: an effective re- sponse to an urgent situation which involves local skilling and empower- ment the training of Cambodians in safeguarding cultural artefacts for the future. The second intention — to go global with exhibitions and a publication which involved holding copyright on the photographs — necessarily involved the photographs in the circulations of international news and visual arts media.

Neither was any formal arrangement of rights reported in the local Phnom Penh press see Peters, The interest continued throughout the following year — the British Broadcasting Corporation shot a doc- umentary about the work of the Photo Archive Group which was shown on British television in May Photo Archive Group, no date.

Crucial questions regarding this exposure, however, remain under-explored. What representational politics are involved in the continued circulation of these images? Klein, —6 The veracity of this claim cannot be ignored; the pages of the monograph may equally be the walls of the museum, or the screen of the news report, or other media. The disintegrating archive and the S victim portrait are just such abject materials, as they are gazed upon by scholars, photogra- phers, readers, viewers and visitors.

The figure of the portrait photograph heralds the materialization of memory in representations of the Democratic Kampuchea period. Three specific occurrences of portrait photographs support this thesis. The film is a unique and detailed portrayal of Cambodia between and , and was responsible for alerting audiences worldwide to the Cambodian genocide. An early section of the film depicts the April fall of Phnom Penh to Khmer Rouge forces and the subsequent detention of foreigners in the French Embassy in Phnom Penh prior to their evacuation from Cambodia.

In the embassy, American journalist Sydney Schanberg and others attempt to have their Cambodian counterpart, Dith Pran, included in the evacuation from Cambodia. Their claims for asylum and hopes for diplomatic influence become impotent fictions. They attempt to forge a foreign passport for Dith Pran, for which a portrait photograph is taken. Standard chemicals for the development of the photographic negative are, however, unavailable.

One after another the photographs fade to overexposed pieces of photographic card. Ghostly shapes and presences appear in these plates, blotting out the side of a face, coiling around the edge of an image, or strewing a strange starry wash of lights across an otherwise underexposed image.

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Such images often receive specific attention from audiences, who welcome the atmospheric effects as relief from the intentional, technically perfect image. For explication of the portraits reproduced in The Killing Fields, the book relies on an essay by David Chandler and the recollections of S survivor Vann Nath as recorded by Sara Colm. But the feeling in my heart was that he was very savage and evil. I wondered how he could look so pleasant and yet treat people so cruelly.

Devastation and Denial: Cambodia and the Academic Left - Quillette

Vann Nath in Niven and Riley, , see also Vann Nath, 59 Furthermore, Vann Nath has written in his own autobiography that he considered this portrait photograph to reveal Pol Pot to be not-Khmer, that is, racially and culturally foreign. With such an appearance and complexion, he could be Chinese. The public knowledge of the S photographs is inextricably linked to the activities of the Photo Archive Group. Within the imagined geography of powerful nations and their citizens, genocide occurs on and against the territory of humanity, and indicates, when geopolitically convenient, new cultural and moral peripheries.

In Cambodia, the Tuol Sleng photo archive project is considered by some as having wrongly wrested control of the artefacts and their use from Cambodians. One prominent Cambodian researcher, Youk Chhang, has expressed his frustration about the generic nature of the work of the Photo Archive Group. He argues that the initial, specific focus of the project — to assist in the preservation of a national archive of Cambodia — has been overtaken by other priorities: This is the photograph of Tuol Sleng, it is the history of Cambodia, and everyone should have access equally.

The work comprised numerous photographic portraits of young Cambodians. The physical condition of the photographs, their colouring, composition and their subject matter — solemn, black-clothed girls and boys of various ages — are immediately recognized as S prisoner portraits.

Devastation and Denial: Cambodia and the Academic Left - Quillette

These are portraits of children who were used to run messages between various local cadres for the regime, known as angkar the organization. Inter- spersed with these photographs are photographs of children living in present-day Cambodia, whose portraits were taken by Ly. These photo- graphs were composed and doctored so as to mimic the appearance of the historical photographs.

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Messengers questions the truth-claims made about victim photographs and documents from the Democratic Kampuchea period in contemporary Cambodia. In a cultural context in which images of S victims are well known and charged with considerable emotion, Ly seeks to interrupt the immediate recognition of victimhood. Exhibiting the historical photographs of the child messengers, whose identities are suggested only in the title of the work and given in the exhibition catalogue , reminds viewers that the genocidal regime photographed its faithful cadres as well as its incarcerated enemies.

In addition to this work, Ly and Muan note work in which refusing to testify is offered up as a way of living with the past. Little such space is opened for any of these memorializing stratagems — the refusal of victimhood, the refusal to testify, or the active questioning of the truth- artefact — in the MoMA exhibition. It read: When the Communist party, the Khmer Rouge, seized power in April , Cambodia had just concluded five years of a disastrous civil war. Between and , more than 14, Cambodians were held captive in S, a former high school in the Phnom Penh district of Tuol Sleng.

Many visitors and reviewers were prompted to view the MoMA exhibition in light of events unfolding in Cambodia simultaneously, and reported worldwide. A few weeks later global news media screened extraordinary video footage of Pol Pot himself, alive in western Cambodia. The video showed the former leader being put on trial, denounced and sentenced to life imprisonment by his own remnant Khmer Rouge forces. Two portrait photographs of Pol Pot, one taken in and the other a still from the video, appeared on the front page of The New York Times on 29 July In the context of speculation about a trial of Pol Pot under international law, the S photographs at MoMA were seen less as tragic reminders of a peripheral past and instead as contempo- rary, crucial evidence.

Ironically, commentators in the West were now taking up a position on the photographs that had long been held by the Phnom Penh government and the Tuol Sleng Museum. These references, made in only in passing, belie an important consideration of earlier functions of the collections of cultural artefacts and museums. Later, European colonialism and the personal fortunes and ambitions of imperial and New World-settler collectors also generated museum-mausoleums of plants, animals, human remains and ritual objects see Elsner, ; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, ; Stewart, Their removal from Cambodia and appearance at MoMA was primarily due to the actions of two individual, expert collectors.

In addition to news of events in Cambodia in mid, the exhibition itself generated heated debate in New York liberal arts circles. Trebay openly criticized Niven and Riley for their decision to sell art-quality prints from the Tuol Sleng archive, and to hold copyright over the images. His review asks: Who are the people in the Tuol Sleng photos? Who are their families? What is the role of our own amnesiac culture in the atrocities that took place in a former public high school and beyond it in the killing fields? The curators wished to present the S photographs as a relatively unmediated exhibition of non-mainstream works and argued that there were clear precedents for such a curatorial approach.

She considered the controversy around Photographs from S to have arisen from a schism between vernacular photography and an aesthetic photographic-arts tradition Kismaric, personal communication, ; Kis- maric quoted in Trebay, Like the formal, published reviews of Photographs from S, visitors to the exhibition were moved to record impassioned, personal comments in the visitor books provided.

Visitors debated historical events, individual and state actions, and specific notions of justice, memory and moral responsibility. Some comments suggest a deliberate visit to the exhibition, while other visitors report coming upon the exhibition in the course of larger exploration of the photography galleries. Most visitors considered the photographs to be more than documentary evidence.

Like Trebay, however, other responses questioned the appropriateness of Photographs from S For some of this mind, the inappropriateness of the exhibition was due to insufficient contextualization of the images. As a result, the curators attracted accusations of a lapse in morality and a violation of the dead. Various consistencies and inconsistencies were discernible within the visitor comments.

It is clear from these multiple characterizations that the photographs produced an affective excess. This affective excess, experienced as the memorialization of the victims of S instead, as Klein identifies, risks edging into:. The horror of knowing that each photographed individual had been brutally executed is displaced on to minor, visible ruptures of bodily integrity seen in the photographs. Pol Pot returned to Cambodia in the early s. At that time, Cambodia—like its neighbor Vietnam—was a colony of France. In a group of Communist-led Vietnamese nationalists known as the Viet Minh defeated the French after nine years of war.

The agreement that ended this war divided Vietnam into two sections, Communist-led North Vietnam and U. At the same time, France granted independence to its other colonies in Indochina, including Cambodia.

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Prince Norodom Sihanouk see entry —who had been named king of Cambodia by the French in , but later had fought for Cambodian independence—gave up his throne in order to become president of Cambodia in During this time, Pol Pot remained active in the Cambodian Communist movement.

This movement had grown out of the resistance to French colonial rule and had links to the Vietnamese Communists. It was generally critical of Sihanouk's government. But Sihanouk did not permit opposition to his rule. He called the Communists the Khmer Rouge, or "Red Cambodians," and forced them into hiding in the countryside. Pol Pot rose through the Communist ranks over the next few years.

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In he became the party's leader after the former leader was assassinated. By the time Pol Pot took over leadership of the Cambodian Communist movement, his political views had become very radical. He and a few key supporters believed that the Cambodian people were superior to the rest of Indochina. They wanted to cleanse Cambodian society of what they considered impure elements, such as ethnic minorities and signs of other cultures.