The beauty of the photographs hanging on the otherwise bare walls of the school-turned-prison-turned-museum stands in stark contrast to the pain they depict. Each image presents a tiny piece of the museum’s historic ambience; a crack in the building’s wall, the view looking out from a prison cell, a rusted bed and barbed wire. German photographer Ann-Christine Woehrl’s new exhibition, called Shaded Memories, is currently on display in two rooms at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial Museum. It depicts both Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek killing fields, which lie 12 kilometres from the capital.
“The photographs connect the past with the present, which is important for coming to terms with the past,” Woehrl explains. “It’s abstract and associative.”
For Woehrl, the decision to capture Cambodia’s violent history was made after she travelled to the Kingdom for another project. In 2013, she came here to photograph women burned and disfigured by acid attacks. She visited the former prison during the trip, and the emotional impact was palpable, she explains.
“I had to leave … I had this feeling that the victims were here,” Woehrl says. “These places still speak.”
After returning to Germany to finish her project, Woehrl found Cambodia stuck in her mind. In 2015, she decided to return to the Kingdom and to begin the project now on display.
The artistry of the collection calls attention to Cambodia’s troubled past without overemphasising the gruesome nature of the photographs’ subjects. For Woehrl, it was a way to pay tribute to the genocide’s victims. Antipersonnel mines are captured covered in crunchy, fallen leaves. A misty image of a rope used to torture prisoners looks almost like a painting. There are images of the prostheses used by victims who lost their limbs to mines, and of the headphones used to convey translations at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the international court set up to bring justice for genocide survivors.
Pointing to a photograph of the trees at Choeung Ek, Woehrl recalls the moment she took the picture.
“The sun came out from behind the trees and shadows formed in the shape of a skull,” she says.
On numerous occasions, Germany has worked with Cambodian officials to promote genocide remembrance in the Kingdom, where between 1.5 and 3 million people died during the Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979.
Most recently, Tuol Sleng’s director, Chhay Visoth, helped curate the Shaded Memories exhibition in Munich’s Museum Fünf Kontinente, where it premiered last week. Visoth was also invited to tour Germany’s own genocide museums and memorials, said Dr Ingo Karsten, Germany’s ambassador to Cambodia, during the exhibition’s inaugural presentation at Tuol Sleng on Thursday, February 23.
Likewise, Woehrl’s exhibition will play a role in promoting remembrance and reconciliation with Cambodia’s past, said Secretary of State Chuch Pheurn during the presentation.
“The tragedy of the Khmer Rouge is not only for the Cambodian people, but for the world to remember,” Pheurn said. “It’s important for people around the world to understand genocide.”
Shaded Memories will be showing until September 23. The book is available at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.