S-21 was a secret prison operated by the Pol Pot regime in Phnom Penh from mid-1975 until 1978. Cambodians accused of treason were brought to S-21 where they were photographed upon arrival. They were then tortured until they confessed to the crime their captors charged them with, and then executed.
Of the 14,200 people imprisoned at S-21, only 7 are know to have survived.
In 1997, a Cambodian named Nhem Ein revealed that he and five assistants were the photographers responsible for documenting the prisoners. The year before, Twin Palms published The Killing Fields which is a collection of the photos made at S-21.
The negatives were found on site by Doug Niven and Chris Riley in a filing cabinet. They cleaned, cataloged and printed the approximately 6,000 negatives. And in The Killing Fields we are privy to a selection of 78 of them.
The negatives show signs of wear. The emulsion has chipped and flaked off leaving voids of black in the print. Some of the deterioration looks oddly decorative. Other deterioration foreshadows the violence to come.
Some of the prisoners face the camera with the look of confusion. Some look with what we may translate as the knowing gaze of what is to come. A few even cannot resist that apparent universal instinct to smile before a camera. It is a direct gaze which we are confronted with time and time again in these photographs that is most disturbing. Almost all look straight into the lens and into our eyes. We look at them with a perverse curiosity since we know their fate and cannot do more. We may ask what it would be like to be in their shoes at that moment.
This is a brutal book. Partly because of the beauty found in these portraits and partly because of the way we read how each face is of an individual due to viewing them one after another in book form. Here we are looking at people who have been unknowingly given a death sentence and perhaps have as much as a few days or as little as a few hours left to live. We also know as viewers that most will suffer torture before dying. They are possibly being put to death simply because their captors see what we can see, that they are individuals. As we proceed through the book our thoughts of their innocence becomes more solid page by page.
We see them as innocent because we know how that regime worked but innocence or quilt cannot be seen in photographs. What is stupefying is that somehow, others saw these people as guilty and had no problem with torturing and executing them. Perhaps they were even happy to do so.
Is it the photograph that causes this disconnect? Would we feel differently if we were present looking through the viewfinder? Would we see something that the photograph changed or didn’t reveal? I would like to think not. I would like to think that the disconnect is a moral one. An ethical one. What I do know is that this book causes me to feel a lot for complete strangers. It is compassion that crosses half the distance of the world and 30 years of time. These photographs make me love and despise humanity in the same moment.
This book is an emotionally powerful yet impotent gravemarker.