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The power of photography goes beyond the visual

Initially a part of the Khmer Rouge regime identification system, S-21 photos are being circulated globally as ‘art’ – a fact that raises controversial questions

Opinion

By Maria Stott

Photo Supplied

Original photo of a teenager used by the KR regime as a messenger (left) and Ly Daravuth’s composite image of a present-day Cambodian teenager on an image of a teenager used by KR regime as a messenger (right).

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of photography 20 years ago, Andy Grundberg, critic for The New York Times, wrote that images are "no longer innocent.... They construct the world for us, helping to construct comforting illusion by which we live". 

Such observations of how photography represents the world and that with which we are least familiar, may be as old as the medium itself but are still as valid today in Cambodia as elsewhere. 

The internationally recognised black-and-white identification portraits of the prisoners from S-21 are a case in point.

The extraordinary power of photography lies in its capacity to be both straightforward - just a picture - and complex in its representation within a particular context, which often goes beyond the visual.

Initially a part of an identification system, today the S-21 ID photographs are being exhibited internationally and have become collector's items.

This now-infamous collection of 100 images was originally selected from 6,000 negatives by photojournalists Douglas Niven and Christopher Riley (of the Photo Archive Group), who helped to restore the archive in 1993. As co-copyright owners of the 100 selected photos, the Group controls the way the images are being circulated globally in the press, in galleries and in museums.

The fact that some of these images are now in the public domain, mainly as "art" and as visual references for Cambodia, has led to some controversial questions. 

Who are the people in the photographs?  Who and where are their families? Have the ways the images are presented around the world brought us any closer to understanding Cambodian history and the tragedy that occurred here? How appropriate is it to republish and re-exhibit them in different contexts?  Is their wide reproduction possible only because it is Cambodia - a so-called "developing" country? 

The use of the images in such contexts has left a bad taste for some. 

As one reviewer of the controversial exhibition of the "Photographs from S-21", which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997, stated "...As a child of Holocaust survivors, I feel that this kind of behaviour is at best indicative of smugness and intellectual laziness. At, worst, it is inhumane."

This is not to say that historical images should not be used in contemporary culture and society; it's however a matter of understanding their original context, respecting the subject as well recognising that a photograph is a two-dimensional object and does not include enough information to tell us who, what, where and why. 

Ly Daravuth's "The Messengers", a photographic installation that was exhibited at Reyum in 2000, emphasises this. He draws upon the imagery of the S-21 ID photographs by comparing original photos of children used by the Khmer Rouge regime to pass messages (DC-Cam collection) with present-day images of children.

While at first glance the photographs appear to be of young prisoners of S-21, they actually represent young teenagers who were used by angkar (the organisation) during the Pol Pot regime as messengers.

While Ly Daravuth's installation does not judge, it poses the question of whether the photograph can tell us anything else other than the fact that there was a child once standing in front of the camera. 

His work reminds us that every judgement the viewer makes about the place or person from a particular image is based on pre-existing stereotypes.

"The Messengers" is an excellent example of how the photograph is possibly not always worth a 1,000 words. In fact, without additional information, usually in the form of text, the photograph itself offers us very little.

Photography in the context of documentary usually functions as merely an introduction to the story.

Khvay Samnang's 800 high school ID portraits of young Cambodians, currently showcased at Phnom Penh's Sa-Sa gallery, also draws upon the imagery of the S-21 photos as the subjects are positioned in similar poses to the Tuol Sleng prisoners.

The collection allows us to see contemporary Cambodia through images of the past. The project on display reminds us that contemporary young Cambodia exists and wants to create, have a voice and to be part of its interpretation.

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Maria Stott is a Polish-born photographic artist and researcher with an MA in photographic studies. She has worked in the area of photography both in Europe and Asia since 1998. She is the founder of On Photography Cambodia and currently lectures at Limkokwing University.

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