As I develop the Cambodia Project, the need to research is clear. This volume seems important – the role of photographic archives in the activities of the Khmer Rouge at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, now the Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh. Every visitor to the prison is immediately struck by the walls of mug shots, and the painstaking record keeping of torture.
is an assistant professor of archival studies in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also an affiliated faculty member with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
In the early pages, Caswell notes the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in his book ‘Silencing the Past’. Trouillot states that a record (a picture) moves through four silences – it is captured, it is organised and archived, it takes on a narrative, and it becomes history.
She then goes on to mention Eric Ketelaar, who said that ‘.. records are dynamic objects, continually shifting with each new use and contextualisation.’ (pg 50)
Not a bad way to think about pictures.
However, more seriously, John Tagg noted that ‘ Like the state, the camera is never neutral ‘ (pg 50). And Michelle Caswell wrote ‘The camera, as a truth apparatus of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge state, was invested with the power to produce the truth it recorded’ (pg 51)
Thus, in taking the mug shots, the photographer at Tuol Sleng, Nhem En, essentially also took away the rights and the humanity of the accused – leading to interrogation and execution.
Caswell again: ‘The taking of mug shots at Tuol Sleng and the photograph’s ability to transform suspects into criminal enemies of the state were part and parcel of this larger Khmer Rouge obsession with classifying the population in an effort to create a purely Cambodian agrarian society’ (pg 52).
Comments from the University of Wisconsin book page:
“An important book that will reward re-reading for years to come. Using an archival frame of reference, Caswell describes the reasons for the creation and subsequent uses of the familiar yet tragic mug shots of Tuol Sleng prison victims, demonstrating the many silences these records encode and illustrating how they can be employed to transform narratives of victimhood into narratives of agency and witness.”
Andrew Flinn, University College London
“Caswell pays homage to the subjects of the heart-breaking mug shots taken at a Khmer Rouge prison and examines the impact that the photographs have had over the years on different viewers. Her humane, sophisticated, and unblinking book sharpens and enhances our understanding of the so-called Pol Pot era.”
David Chandler, Monash University
Michelle Caswell, Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Univ Wisconsin, 2014.
Michel-Ralph Trouillot, Silencing the Past, Beacon Press 1995
John Tagg, The Burden of Representation Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts, 1988