The Camera as Judge and Executioner

mickyatesArchives, Books, Cambodia, CambodiaFMP, ContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Ethics, History, Ideas, Photography, PositionsPractice, PPWeek3, Project Development 10 Comments

Archiving the Unspeakable, by Michelle Caswell, is a fascinating read. It deals with 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.

Michelle Caswell 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 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 chief of 6 photographers at Tuol Sleng, Nhem En (born 1961), essentially also took away the rights and the humanity of the accused – leading to interrogation and execution. Nhem En later stepped forward as a witness in the Khmer rouge trails.

From a 2007 NYT interview

His career in the Khmer Rouge began in 1970 at age 9 when he was recruited as a village boy to be a drummer in a touring revolutionary band. When he was 16, he said, he was sent to China for a seven-month course in photography”

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).


There are no archives without politics; the process of transforming the Tuol Sleng mug shots into archives is inherently and inescapably political’ (pg 95)

Stephanie BenzaquenWhile one focuses on the 17,000 victims of Tuol Sleng one forgets about the other two million dead who left no trace’ (pg 134) … the vast majority of the dead remain silent …

As Trouillot writes

the production of traces is always the production of silences’ (pg 135)

On a 2011/12 visit to Tuol Sleng, Caswell saw Bou Meng and Chum Mey, Tuol Sleng survivors, selling books and posing for photographs. She at first struggled with this, but gradually realised what was happening.

Whilst she acknowledged that

The disproportionate rate with which certain Tuol Sleng mug shots – Chan Kim Srun’s is a prime example – gets reproduced on book covers, in publications, and on DVDs, misrepresents Khmer Rouge victims as women and children and as elites, silencing the other victims of Tuol Sleng and the Khmer Rouge’ (pg 134), she also noted that ‘Like almost everything else in Cambodia, the suffering of the Tuol Sleng survivors has a price’ (pg 136).


 ‘Although the [UN- Cambodian Government ECCC] Tribunal’s predominant narrative is that without justice for the past, Cambodia can’t move forward, it is the survivors who quite literally can’t move beyond Tuol Sleng without material reparations’ (pg 144)

There is [clearly] an enormous potential for re-traumatisation when these survivors return on a daily basis to the site of their own horrific torture and captivity – as well as the murder of their loved ones – to earn a living’ (pg 144).

But, as DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said

When BM and CM are together now, they are no longer survivors. They become authors, booksellers and competitors. They become free from traumatised. Like all of us [Cambodians] they compete for success. They are free people now’ (pg 145)

So these survivors

… become free agents whose ongoing survival is secured despite the failure of the state and the international community to provide financial reparations to the victims’ (pg 145).

Thus ‘Instead of bristling at the commercialisation of the Tuol Sleng experience, we should shift … towards the larger global and domestic climate in which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on on a tribunal …’ (pg 145) ‘The Tribunal offers a narrow legal justice, but the survivors demand a pervasive restorative justice‘ (pg 147)

Rachel Hughes ethnographically studied on tourists at Tuol Sleng, and found that they are not solely ‘dark tourists’ (as per J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley) but instead visit out of a sense of duty (pg 146). As Caswell comments, they bear witness to the genocide, as they pose for photographs with the survivors.

Caswell studied the blogs of tourists who had visited Tuol Sleng, and mentioned two in particular.

Nancy Kuy

Joel & Whitney LaBahn

She concludes that

Underlying the photographs with the survivors are two competing conceptions of human rights: that which is defined in opposition to genocide, and that which is defined in opposition to economic injustice’ (pg 152)


… the tourists in the pictures also perform injustice by recording how Bou Meng and Chum Mey must sell their publications to tourists to guarantee their financial well-being … The tourists in these photographs become witnesses to the commodification of the survivor’s memory’ (pg 152)

In the Tuol Sleng courtyard, the survivors themselves carefully construct the object of the tourist gaze, repeatedly staging near identical scenarios’ (pg 153).

So, the survivors are transformed from symbols of past injustice into symbols of contemporary injustice.

To see the Tuol Sleng survivors as victimised by tourist cameras oversimplifies the complexities of how these records are constructed and circulated, and denies the survivors agency in creating them’ (pg 155) Thus ‘... the records of Tuol Sleng are never finalised, their meaning never resolved; they are always in the process of becoming’ (pg 156)

The mug shot images were originally the instrument of depersonalisation of the victim, and effectively their death warrant within the closed-loop of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge bureaucracy. They became instruments of justification for the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, and the beginnings of an historical archive for scholars. Archivists and photographers attempted to repurpose them as Art, with insufficient context.

DC-Cam uses them effectively and politically to prosecute justice against the leaders of the KR, at the ECCC Tribunal.  The few remaining survivors of Tuol Sleng use them to create some financial security, despite their double traumas as torture victims and then victims of institutional failure to provide reparation. And tourists, in photographing these survivors and survivors the records themselves, bear witness to the genocide.

Yet, the mug shots still leave silent the millions of other victims of the Khmer Rouge.

I will leave the last words to Caswell:

As scholars, archivists and humans, it is our responsibility to respectfully activate these records in the present, acknowledge the silences encoded within them, and bring them forth from the past into the future, ensuring they will not be erased’ (pg 165).

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


CASWELLl, Michele. 2014. Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Madison: University Wisconsin.

EN, Nhem & DUONG, Dara. 2014. The Khmer Rouge’s Photographer at S21. Phnom Penh: Nhem En.

RILEY, Chris & NIVEN, Douglas. 1996. The Killing Fields. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers.

TAGG, John. 1988. The Burden of Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

TROUILLOT, Michel-Ralph. 1995. Silencing the Past. Boston: Beacon Press.