Facing Death | Portraits from Cambodia’s Killing Fields

PORTRAITS FROM CAMBODIA’S KILLING FIELDS
1 MAY – 26 JUNE 2009

Cambodia is a country in South East Asia neighbouring Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. It was once the centre of the ancient kingdom of the Khmers and its capital was Angkor. The present day capital is Phnom Penh. In 1953 Cambodia gained independence from almost 100 years of French colonial rule. In the 1960s the population of about 7 million, almost all Buddhists, was under the rule of a monarch, Prince Sihanouk.

The Khmer Rouge were a group of communist rebels that launched a civil war across Cambodia in the late 1960s. This coincided with the American air force’s carpet-bombing campaign on Cambodia during the American war in Vietnam (although Cambodia was a neutral country). The resulting civilian casualties were a catalyst for an enraged population to support the Khmer Rouge who until then had received little popular support.

On April 17th 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured Cambodia’s capital and what followed was a four-year reign of genocide on their own people as they returned the country to Year Zero. They abolished religion, schools and currency in a bid to create agrarian utopia. This reign of terror came to an end in 1979 when the Vietnamese Army invaded Phnom Penh. It is estimated that some 2 million Cambodians, a quarter of the population, died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge who were led by Brother Number 1, the infamous Pol Pot.

Facing Death

Facing Death

During this murderous period a secret torture and interrogation prison, codenamed S-21, was operating from a former school, Tuol Sleng, in the south of the capital. The focus of S-21 was on Khmer Rouge cadres thought not to be sufficiently dedicated to the cause. Prisoners were tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes their captors charged them with, photographed and then executed. The prisoners’ photographs and confessions formed dossiers that were submitted to Khmer Rouge authorities as ‘proof’ that the ‘traitors’ had been eliminated. Of the 14,200 known people who were imprisoned at S-21, less than 20 are believed to have survived.

The exhibition at Photofusion comprises one hundred ID portraits loaned from The Photo Archive Group, a Los Angeles based non-profit organisation founded by photojournalists Chris Riley and Doug Niven who discovered, cleaned, catalogued and saved the negatives found at S-21, now known as The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide.

Facing Death

Facing Death

These extraordinary and provocative images, seen for the first time in the UK, are currently being used as evidence in Cambodia’s UN backed genocide tribunal where five of the Khmer Rouge’s former high ranking leaders are being brought to justice. One of those in court about to face trial for crimes against humanity is Comrade ‘Duch’ (Kaing Gvek Eav), the 65-year-old former director of S-21. His trial comes 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, 13 years after the tribunal was first proposed and nearly three years after the court was inaugurated. This year the first school textbook on the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime was released to raise awareness among Cambodian children.

Facing Death

Facing Death