A boy, his hair cropped unevenly, stares sadly from the picture, a bloody handprint
smeared on the wall behind him.
A man has the blank expression of a commuter riding a bus, but his cheek is swollen
and he is handcuffed to another prisoner wearing a blindfold ...
The photos of S-21 prisoners taken by Khmer Rouge photographers are for many who
go to the Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh the most memorable part of a deeply disturbing
In a recent essay, anthropologist Lindsay French summed up the experience of viewing
"The photographs are riveting - one moves from one to the next, compelled to
look at each face individually - and, finally overwhelming. There are so many of
For some, encountering the pictures is a painful, personal ordeal.
"Sometimes people come here and cry, and I ask them what's the matter,"
says curator Chea Sopheara. "They say it's their mother and ask me to print
the photos on the wall for them."
But while the museum is happy to provide prints to relatives, the issues of ownership
and how the photos and other material are displayed has often been muddled.
Shortly after troops from Vietnam entered Phnom Penh in January 1979, the site was
turned into a museum. It was run by Vietnamese army colonel Mai Lam, who also organized
the Museum of American War Crimes in Ho Chi Minh City, now known as the War Remnants
Mai Lam has faced criticism in the past over his methods to illustrate the horrors
of the KR regime. He ordered the construction of the map of Cambodia made from skulls
and bones of victims dug up at Choeung Ek killing field. The map was finally dismantled
by Tuol Sleng staff in March 2002.
However his team did begin the process of collecting the photographs and examining
the archive left by the Khmer Rouge. Today 6,000 photographs are housed at the museum,
most of them head and shoulder shots of individual victims. Thousands more came through
the interrogation center, says Sopheara.
"Twenty thousand people came through S-21," he says, "but we don't
have 20,000 mug shots."
Historian Peter Maguire, who is writing a book about Tuol Sleng and the Khmer Rouge
says: "There are missing numbers and records from some of the months, so they
don't know how many people came in. They say 16-30,000. Nobody really knows for sure."
Maguire visited Mai Lam in Ho Chi Minh City in 1995 to ask about the roughly 12,000
"He wouldn't really tell me," says Maguire, "but then he tried to
tell me the East Germans had them."
Maguire later interviewed the East German film producer Gerhard Scheumann, who was
among the first Europeans to visit liberated Phnom Penh in 1979.
He says that when he asked Scheumann whether he had taken photos and negatives from
S-21, the producer snapped: "I have no celluloid!" He told Maguire they
had given all their material back to the Vietnamese authorities.
Maguire concludes that Vietnam is the most likely place they could be, but adds that
since negatives were found by the Vietnamese spread all around S-21 - often just
lying in the open air - he is convinced that "at least one third" have
In 1993 two American photographers, Doug Niven and Chris Riley, came across Tuol
Sleng's original negatives. The films were in a dismal condition, lying in an old
At that time Cornell University in the U. S. was microfilming S-21 documents for
preservation, but it did not have the facilities to restore the mildewed photographs.
Niven and Riley formed the Photo Archive Group (PAG) to clean, catalog, and make
contact prints of the 6,000 negatives.
"When we did the project in 1994-5 there was talk of closing Tuol Sleng, of
including the Khmer Rouge in the government, of burning all the various things at
Tuol Sleng, in the name of national reconciliation," says Niven. "This
was one of our main reasons in doing the project, to protect the memory of these
photos and of the people in them."
They gave one complete set of restored negatives to Cornell and another to Tuol Sleng.
But Niven and Riley also put the name of the PAG and a copyright mark on the back
of the early prints.
"[That was] so we could get some recognition for the hard work we did,"
says Niven. "We also were the ones who printed the images to international exhibition
standards, so that credit seems fair. You cannot imagine how hard it was for us to
make these prints secretly to archival standards in a back room ... without running
water and without stable electricity."
Niven and Riley also received permission from the Ministry of Culture (MoC) to make
100 prints for themselves. The images toured museums in North America, Europe and
Australia in an exhibition titled Facing Death.
They were also printed in a book edited by Niven called The Killing Fields, now a
collector's item because of its small run of 3,000 copies. The venture was intended
to educate people across the world about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The two men say the cost of the exhibition was deliberately kept low so that it could
travel more widely, and maintain they never profited from it.
"I think the world owns these photos, and they should be kept in the public
realm," says Niven.
But Sopheara alleges that Riley and Niven exploited the pictures, and for a while
claimed to own them.
"Also many [others] write about the crimes of Pol Pot, get money from the work
but give nothing back to the Cambodian people," he says. "The Killing Fields
movie made a lot of money."
But Sopheara admits that despite the restoration efforts of Niven and Riley, which
included cleaning the negatives and placing them in protective sleeves, they cannot
be properly cared for at the cash-strapped museum.
"Now all the negatives are in poor condition again. The room is too wet,"
he says. "In Cambodia the humidity makes them moldy. We must clean them with
alcohol every year or two."
Maguire says that when Facing Death was exhibited at New York City's Museum of Modern
Art (MoMA), the reviewer from the Village Voice, Guy Trebay, criticized Riley and
Niven for selling prints to museums. Maguire says Riley also briefly attempted to
secure copyright to the photos.
However Niven insists PAG's intentions were always altruistic.
"I am not sure why people think we own or control the copyright," he responds.
"This is ludicrous and I have never spent much time investigating this petty
To their credit the exhibition, which toured from 1997 to 2001, is thought to have
done much to educate Westerners about this most brutal period of Cambodia's history.
But since curators at individual museums were allowed to display Facing Death in
any way they thought suitable, the exhibition was criticized in some quarters for
failing to put the photos in proper context.
In her essay Exhibiting Terror, Lindsay French writes that when the photos were displayed
at MoMA, "their overall effect was diffuse, and a bit confusing".
She wasn't alone in her criticism. New York playwright Catherine Filloux wrote Photographs
From S-21, a play in which two victims, a young man and a young woman, come out of
their photographs and talk to each other about their terrible final moments. The
play, which was also performed in Khmer in Phnom Penh last year, was partly inspired
by Filloux's dismay at the MoMA exhibit.
"There was no context to the exhibition," she told the Post in March 2001.
"It was almost like a tribute to Khmer Rouge photography skills."
The general feeling is that this dark archive should be displayed as a public service,
not for commercial gain. Efforts have been made to make it widely available.
The Cambodian Genocide Project at Yale University distributed a CD-ROM of the S-21
pictures and now displays all the available photos on its website to help Cambodians
identify missing relatives and build up a database of information about the prison.
Niven says he would like to put the photographs he has online, and is in the process
of storing them on a set of CD-ROMs that will be distributed free around the world.
"All the images will be available at high resolution and can be printed on a
variety of outputs to make beautiful, authentic prints," he says. "This
will not be a commercial venture, and duplication of the CD will be encouraged."
John Vink of Magnum photo agency says he would like to use a high-quality scanner
to digitally capture the museum's complete set of photos. That way the negatives
need never again be touched, and could be preserved in a cold room. However his project,
which would cost $150,000 and need three people working for two years, has stalled
for lack of funding.
S-21's Sopheara likes the idea, but has more basic financial worries since the museum
is falling apart.
"I don't expect our building can conserve everything itself," he says.
The question of who actually owns the pictures is still not clear. The usual practice
is that the photographer or his employer owns the copyright on photographs. In this
case the chief photographer, who is still alive, is Nhem En, but observers say it
is exceptionally unlikely the government will permit that.
When the Post sought permission to use the prints in this article, a letter was sent
to the MoC which then instructed Tuol Sleng to provide them.
"They're the property of the state," says Michel Tranet, director of preservation
of cultural heritage for the MoC. He says the ministry has copyright on the photos
through a sub-decree to protect them against illegal exploitation.
Curator Sopheara thinks differently, and feels the museum owns the images.
"I know in foreign countries the laws are clear, but in Cambodia they aren't
complete," he says.
Despite this confusion, neither thinks there is any danger copyright to the photos
will be sold.
Maguire says whenever he uses the pictures for articles he gives money to the museum,
but ownership is "kind of a gray area. When I use them in articles a credit
goes to the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide."
Most agree the images are part of Cambodia's heritage and so belong to its citizens.
However, an MoC official once sold Khmer Rouge file footage to a French film crew,
says Maguire, so perhaps the future of the Tuol Sleng photos is less than perfectly
secure. Magnum's Vink agrees, noting that when it comes to Cambodian cultural artifacts,
legal rights are often less important than ownership.
But amid the dispute over who owns the copyright to the pictures, it is perhaps more
important to recall the personal significance of the photographs, and the loss that
the 12,000 missing negatives truly represents.
French recounts a poignant example in her essay when Khmer community groups in the
United States were invited to visit the exhibition. During one such visit, a woman
recognized her husband in one of the photographs. He had disappeared 20 years earlier
and until she saw the exhibition the woman had not known his fate. She had not remarried.