The camera, like the unblinking eye of God, has been a mute witness to happiness and horror, and everything in between since the invention of photography in the early 19th century. The 103 black-and-white pictures in the exhibition Observance and Memorial: Photographs from S-21, Cambodia weave their spell on the horror end of the experiential spectrum, but ever so quietly and sombrely.
The melancholy comes from the realization that soon after these photographs were taken, every single one of the subjects were beaten, mutilated, interrogated, forced to make false confessions, then killed and their bodies dumped into mass graves. These are shots before the shooting, so to speak, taken between 1975 and 1979 in the notorious S-21 prison camp that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge established in a converted high school near Phnom Penh. By the time S-21 was liberated, in late January, 1979, more than 14,000 persons had been imprisoned there. Only 23, including five children, were alive to greet their Vietnamese and non-Khmer Rouge liberators. (The camp is now a museum of genocide.)
The negatives – there are more than 6,000 in total – for these images were discovered in the early 1990s by two U.S. photojournalists who subsequently set up a team, the Photo Archive Group, to clean, catalogue and print them. The original prints used by the Khmer Rouge were about the size of passport photographs and attached to each prisoner’s dossier. However, by the time S-21 was closed, images and dossiers had largely been separated, with the result that the inmates pictured in the exhibition, opening Saturday at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, are, with only a handful of poignant exceptions, anonymous.
While these photographs are not “new” – they have been in circulation for some years, including in a 1997 show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in a book published in 1996 – they’ve lost none of their power to provoke. Sometimes this is a function of their content. In one photo, a woman stares straight ahead at the camera while the tiny arm of her child stretches just above the picture’s edge to grasp the mother’s sleeve. In another, we see a man handcuffed to another, taller man in a blindfold, their hands held, it seems, in comradely affection.
Sometimes, though, the provocation comes from the formal properties and presentation of the images themselves: Each is a 10-by-10-centimetre silver gelatin print, positioned in a white matte, framed in black and hung against a rich grey background. In other words, the pictures have been recontextualized from their original function and made decidedly museum-worthy (particularly so with the mournful Buddhist chants piped through the museum’s sound system).
Indeed, while some have the offhandedness of a yearbook photo or a police mug shot, there are a few, shot against a white backdrop, that Richard Avedon might have judged worthy of his eye.
To make such distinctions, to privilege one image over another, may seem cruel, a callous imposition of artistic “standards” when the images in question are representations of a genocide. But make them you will in this powerful show.
Observance and Memorial: Photographs from S-21, Cambodia is presented by the ROM’s Institute for Contemporary Culture from Saturday through Mar. 10.