the Past: Cambodia Then and Now
by William Dunlap and Linda Burgess
Looking for the Buckhead Boys, the late American poet James Dickey
describes the trauma of confronting his old high school annual as
tantamount to staring into the Book of the Dead.
are looking at just such a book. It is the right size, gray cloth
bound with an embossed gloss black square on the front and back cover.
Inside are 78 exquisite and haunting images made during a 3 year,
8 month, 20 day period inside a former high school in the suburbs
of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Each photograph is elegantly printed full
page on Japanese paper by sheet-fed gravure process. They are anonymous
portraits of young and old by an anonymous photographer. Dark eyes
stare back from these pages, either into or out of oblivion. It's
impossible to know which. On the spine of this handsome book is its
title, The Killing Fields.
instigator of these photographs was himself a former teacher turned
Maoist revolutionary and, in time, pathological murderer of some
2,000,000 of his fellow countrymen. Saloth Sar, aka Pol Pot, came
to power in April 1975. He had been the paranoid and demented
Secretary General of the Communist Party of Cambodia. As Brother
Number One he renamed his country Democratic Kampuchea and ruled
it without compassion. His Khmer Rouge forces systematically evacuated
the cities, abolished schools, markets and currency, outlawed
religion, collectivized agriculture and industry, turned the calendar
back to 0, and effectively ended 2000 years of history. He also
turned Tuol Sleng High School, code named S-21, into the most
notorious of Cambodia's numerous detention and low-tech extermination
camps. Enemies of Angkar were brought here, interviewed and photographed,
then tortured to extract meticulously hand-written confessions.
Afterwards, these betrayers of the revolution were trucked to
the Choeung Ek killing field where their final earthly act was
to dig their own shallow graves before being bludgeoned to death.
17,000 souls matriculated through these halls of de-education. This
is their annual, their yearbook, their Book of the Dead.
publication of The Killing Fields, (Twin Palms Publishers, $50. hard
bound) is the culmination of the tireless efforts and brilliant insight
of its two editors, American photographers Christopher Riley and Douglas
March of 1993, while freelancing for Agence France-Presse, the Phnom
Penh Post and others, these intrepid journalists stumbled across a
cache of some 6000 dusty and deteriorating negatives in a Tuol Sleng
Museum of Genocide file cabinet. Jarred by the visual impact of these
images and fascinated by their find, Chris and Doug established the
Photo Archive Group for the sole purpose of preserving this unique
photographic record of Cambodia's most recent political and cultural
nightmare. Their first order of business was to clean and catalogue
the negatives, and make contact prints to aid in the identification
of S-21 victims. Next, some 100 images were selected for archival
printing, publication and exhibition.
of the more difficult tasks lay in securing permission from the
Cambodian Ministry of Culture for all of the above, and raising
funds to support the project. All this was accomplished, as well
as setting up a sophisticated darkroom on site, getting loads
of world wide publicity, finding a first-rate publisher, producing
and editing the book while scheduling a slew of museum venues,
one of which is an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New
York City, May 15 through August 15.
the meantime, the Photo Archive Group has identified four more
bodies of photographic material at risk and in need of rescue.
They have also tracked down and interviewed Nhem Ein, one of Tuol
Sleng's here-to-fore anonymous Khmer Rouge photographers. Not
bad for a couple of young Californians who could have been surfing.
first met Doug Niven in the fall of 1994 at the Foreign Correspondents
Club of Thailand, high atop Bangkok's Dusit Thani Hotel. He was addressing
a crowd gathered under the auspices of the Indochina Media Memorial
Foundation for an exhibition of work by photographers who had, since
1945, covered the perpetual state of conflict in southeast Asia. The
IMMF, which British photojournalist Tim Page helped found in 1991
to pay homage to the 320 journalists who have died or disappeared
in Indochina, also supports and promotes projects by current members
of the profession working in the region.
exhibition, entitled "War, Peace and the Printed Image Revisited,"
was full of the kind of images that made one glad to have postponed
any visit to Indochina until after the smoke cleared, the dust settled,
and the blood dried. Most of the photographs in this annual exhibition
were familiar. Many were famous, like Nick Ut's indelible image of
9 year old Kim Phoc running naked from a napalm attack in Trang Bang,
Vietnam circa 1972. But there, among the works of Sean Flynn, Horst
Faas, Lance Woodruff, Tim Page and others, was something ever so different
by a photographer listed as "Unknown." A mesmerizing group
of full face mug shots in frighteningly fine focus, some of the negatives
distressed, each titled "Tuol Sleng Prisoner - Cambodia - 1975-79."
This was our initial exposure to the visual legacy of the Khmer Rouge.
Niven spoke with passion and eloquence about the Tuol Sleng Project
and the general conditions of life in Cambodia, while there on the
wall just behind him, over his shoulder were these faces, timeless
and mysterious, staring back and speaking volumes for themselves.
At that moment these photographs were doing something that is absolutely
crucial and necessary if an object is to transform itself into an
artifact. They were transcending their original time, place and function,
and becoming, to our western eyes and consciousness, significant works
following month we caught up with Doug in Phnom Penh while en
route to Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor Wat. Our decision
to travel to Cambodia had not been without trepidation. The week
before our scheduled departure there were reports that the executed
remains of three western backpackers, kidnapped and held for ransom
by Khmer Rouge forces, had been found. France, Great Britain and
Australia warned their citizens against traveling to Cambodia,
as did Cambodia's own King Sihanouk and every English language
paper one picked up. We called the American Embassy in Bangkok
and spoke to the Regional Security Officer. He assured us that
flying within Cambodia presented no problem though cautioned against
any over land travel. Still we were hesitant. Then one morning
on CNN we heard there had been a hung jury in the case of a British
tourist murdered near Tallahassee, Florida. The newscaster tagged
the report, saying, "So far this year, nine foreign tourists
have been murdered in Florida." Florida nine, Cambodia three.
Two days later we flew to Phnom Penh.
Doug's insistence we visited Tuol Sleng, now a Museum of Genocide
created by the Vietnamese before they pulled out of Cambodia in
1989. It was closed that day, but our ever resourceful guide,
Mr. Cheng, talked us in and we had the sad place to ourselves.
The U-shaped compound looked like so many institutional buildings
in tropical climes: louvered shutters on the windows, broad patterned
tile floors, thick white-washed walls marked with the kind of
grafitti you might find at any high school anywhere. Remnants
of math problems were still scribbled on blackboards. In contrast
to all this was evidence of the horror that had happened here:
classrooms rigged for torture and detention, metal beds equipped
with shackles, fetters, chains. Photographs of those tortured
papered the walls. Human skulls had been fashioned into a map
of Cambodia to chart the genocide. Discarded busts and portraits
of Pol Pot lay piled in a corner, and the 19th century photographer's
posing chair, itself looked for all the world like an instrument
was as chilling and sobering an experience as could be imagined. That
is, until we drove the 10 miles out of the city into the beautiful
pacific countryside, the same route taken by the condemned of Tuol
Sleng. The first notion you get that you are entering sacred ground
comes at the sight of a tall tower rising some three stories above
this ethereal landscape. It appears to be a typical Buddhist chedi
until you realize that it is literally filled with human skulls from
top to bottom. Brahma cattle grazed in the surrounding pasture and
drank from the many small pits which dot the landscape like so many
bomb craters. They were made by the excavation of mass graves. The
ground continues to cough up human remains: bone chards, scraps of
cloth, pieces of knotted rope...
the thousands of Cambodians "processed" through S-21 only
seven are known to have survived. Vann Nath was 31 years old with
a wife and two children when he was taken to Tuol Sleng Prison in
December of 1977. Before the revolution he'd worked as a commerical
artist, but more recently he'd been chopping wood and building dams
in a labor camp. After a month of torture, interrogation and starvation
at the hands of his captors, he was summoned before the chief of the
prison. Shown a large photograph of Pol Pot, he was asked if he could
paint an exact reproduction. By accident of his avocation, Vann Nath
was spared to serve the Khmer Rouge propaganda machine. He would spend
the duration of his incarceration, eleven more months, painting and
sculpting likenesses of Pol Pot. The whole of Vann Nath's moving story
is related by Sara Colm in The Killing Fields.
Everyone in Cambodia seems to have a story. As we wandered around
the network of open graves, our guide Cheng spoke impassively about
the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. He pried a human bone from the earth
as he told how 19 members of his family had perished. Only he and
his father lived through it. Then he smiled and picked up a ripe palm
fruit, opened it and offered us some. Its flesh was juicy, aromatic
and sweet, but with a bitter after taste that lingered.
annual Water Festival is a huge celebration which draws thousands
of people in from the provinces. It was in full swing when we returned
to Phnom Penh. The Mekong River teemed with colorful boats, its banks
were crowded with costumed revelers. The aroma from food stalls, and
sounds of vendors and loud music permeated this carnival atmosphere.
The Khmer Rouge had of course threatened to disrupt the festivities
so military patrols were in evidence everywhere. This general frivolity
played hard against the somber reality of our experiences earlier
that day. But there was such an over arching sense of joy in the air
that it was difficult not to be won over.
the National Museum where many priceless Khmer treasures reside,
statues of dieties were in worship. The crowds prayed to and stroked
the sculptures. They draped them with saffron fabric and brought
flowers, burning candles and incense as offerings. Some of these
same works of art are part of the "Sculpture of Angkor and
Ancient Cambodia: Millienium of Glory," at Washington's National
Gallery of Art, June 29 through September 28, 1997. Our western
notion of detached observation was entirely foreign to these gentle
people, whose ancestors carved the sculptures and built the temples.
left the next morning for Siem Reap, the colonial city at the edge
of the 100 square mile complex of temples and jungle generically called
Angkor Wat. Everyone on our Air Kampuchea flight was more deferential
than usual given that Prince Norodom Ranarridh and family were on
board. We all deplaned to the strains of a military band and armed
escort. One can get used to that sort of thing.
Niven had told us that David Chandler, the famous scholar of Cambodian
history, would by chance be in Siem Reap and staying at our same hotel.
Not so much by chance, given that the Grand Hotel was then one of
the few places one could stay. Professor Chandler had agreed to write
an essay for the book and was using his considerable influence to
push the Tuol Sleng Project along. We checked in and left Chandler
a note on a business card, and headed immediately for Angkor Wat and
environs, where we remained for the day -- stunned, stupefied, speechless
and generally overwhelmed by the architectural achievements of ancient
Chandler, an American teaching in Australia, is generally considered
to be the definitive authority on all things Cambodian, to which his
impressive body of published works will testify. We met him for a
drink that evening at the bar of the Grand Hotel. The sounds of the
ubiquitous water festivital were audible inside this once glorious
but now ruined mansion. It hadn't seen much paint since Jacqueline
Kennedy stayed there as King Norodom Sihanouk's guest in 1967.
introduced ourselves, exchanged pleasantries and then, holding
up the card we'd left with our McLean, Virginia address, he asked,
"Are you CIA?" Our laughter was interrupted by a series
of loud, sequential noises. A sharp pop, pop, followed by a burst
of them. The young lady who just delivered our drinks hit the
floor. The man and woman behind the desk ducked. We looked at
each other as the hotel staff, who'd been ducking and dodging
for decades, slowly emerged and peered cautiously out the front
door into the late afternoon light. David Chandler took a long
drink from his beer and said, "Fireworks. Now, what can I
do for you?"
David Chandler did for us, and what he does for this book in his essay
"The Pathology of Terror in Pol Pot's Cambodia," is supply
a historical narrative that gives context, since no rational explanation
is possible, to the events in Cambodia that led inevitably to the
killing fields. His spare and powerful language is authoritative but
never didactic, informative without being condescending. These pictures
need little text, and Chandler's essay and Vann Nath's survival memoirs
are just enough.
talked at length that evening in Siem Reap about the Photo Archive
Project, Pol Pot, Tuol Sleng, Angkor Wat and what it all meant. When
asked how a predominantly Buddhist, apparently passive population
could turn on itself in such a suicidal manner, he said with a historian's
sense of resignation that the recent grisly events were not an anomaly.
For precedent we'd but to look closely at the story told by the bas-relief
walls of Bayon when we returned to the temple complex on the morrow.
Later, reading his book The Tragedy of Cambodian History, we learned
that in Cambodian, the phrase "to rule" translates as "to
It is useful to remember that Pol Pot, despite recent high level defections,
survives, even thrives on the border between Cambodia and Thailand,
where he controls several provinces. The Khmer Rouge continue to engage
in politcal and criminal activites. Their main source of income is
the smuggling of contraband: teak, drugs and antiquities, with the
occasional kidnapping and assassination thrown in for good measure.
it is this looting of the treasures of Angkor that most threatens
its existence, for it has otherwise been remarkably untouched
by the decades of war. The obscure and difficult to reach sites
are especially imperiled but even the more visited temples are
not immune. The looters are organized, resourceful and bold. Huge
stones weighing tons have been known to disappear overnight and
armed raids on the conservation depot in Siem Reap are not unheard
of. All to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the international
market for Khmer objects, whose center is in Bangkok.
recent publication by the International Council of Museums, "100
Missing Objects: Looting in Angkor," has had encouraging
results. Several sculptures were returned to Cambodia this spring
from public and private collections in the west, including the
Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
appeal of these carved effigies is obvious, as anyone who has seen
the "Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia," in either
Paris or Washington can testify. But as marvelous as these works look
in their clean, well-lighted, climate controlled, contemporary museum
spaces, the effect on one strolling the cleared paths at the temple
Ta Prohm and witnessing the unintentional collaboration of man and
nature is one of the more incomparable experiences of a lifetime.
Giant ficus, banyan and kapok trees canopy this majestic site and
their exposed system of roots, which initially tore apart walls and
chambers, now hold individual figures, heads and the entire structure
together like so many living buttresses. Some conservationists wisely
want to preserve this delicate balance and are as protective of these
trees as they are of the stones.
of the pieces in the "Millennium of Glory" exhibit at the
National Gallery of Art were borrowed from either the Musée
national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet in Paris or the National Museum
of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Made between the 6th and 16th centuries,
the works reflect the cultural confluence of both Hindu and Buddhist
traditions. The gods, dancers, mythological creatures, and legendary
guardians gathered each have an eerie presence, made all the more
profound by the sheer force of their numbers. They possess a spiritual
dignity and deftness of execution despite their often fragmented and
damaged condition. Stone, bronze and wood seem to almost live and
breath, which can no longer be said for the poor souls who faced the
camera lens in The Killing Fields. They live only in the dimming memory
of family and friends, and in that fraction of a second of exposure
on celluloid which has thrust them into that nebulous timelessness
Copyright 2003 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.
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