Thousands of haunting portraits documenting the callous, systematic nature of life in Tuol Sleng prison were taken by a camera, the lens of which would later be turned back on the regime itself.
The relic – a German Rolleiflex model from the 1930s or 1940s – was handed in yesterday to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
Ing Veng Eang, whose father Ung Pech was one of the few prisoners to make it out of S-21 alive, gave it to the Khmer Rouge research centre after years in his family’s possession.
He told the Post that he approached DC-Cam after seeing former S-21 photographer Nhem En being interviewed on TV last week.
“I then wanted to find out the history of this camera,” he said.
Pech was an engineer whose life was spared at S-21 thanks to his skills as a mechanic.
His wife and five children, who were moved from Phnom Penh to Battambang, however, died from starvation under the regime, with Veng Eang the only child to survive.
Pech became the first director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in 1980, and subsequently used the camera to document Khmer Rouge crimes, including mass graves in the countryside, after reuniting with his son.
“This camera was kept by my father until 1996 when he had to travel to the US for heart surgery. I just kept it in a box and never used it because there was no longer any suitable film. I never thought of the camera’s importance [until now],” Veng Eang said.
He added that after recent alleged comments by acting opposition leader Kem Sokha saying that Tuol Sleng was fabricated, he wanted to add “more evidence” that the torture prison existed.
A trove of documents, photos and even video footage shot by the pair were also handed in yesterday.
After the war, it was “very rare” to get a camera, DC-Cam, Youk Chhang said, and, so, despite its dark provenance, the pair used the Rolleiflex extensively.
“This is called karma. Things come back to you. [The Khmer Rouge] used the camera to take away [their] life . . . and the camera was used to document the crimes committed against [them].”
The significance of the object, which likely bore witness to scenes of brutal torture and suffering, lies in its role as a link between prisoner and oppressor, Chhang said.
“I think of it as having been in between the mind of the photographer and the victim . . . I imagine the sound [the camera made] and i wonder how it would have felt.”
additional reporting by Cheang Sokha