Art and document: A review of the ROM’s “Observance and Memorial: Photographs from S-21, Cambodia”

Courtesy of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Photo Archive Group

In 1975, Cambodian dictator Pol Pot began purging the country of citizens accused of undermining his Khmer Rouge party. By 1979, over 2 million people had been arrested, tortured and killed. During that time, 14,000 men, women and children had been filtered through Security Prison-21 (S-21), an old high school-turned-prison used for interrogating detainees. Of those 14,000, only 23 survived.

These facts confront visitors at the entrance to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)’s new exhibit “Observance and Memorial: Photographs from S-21, Cambodia”. Though ROM patrons may expect written “facts” from special exhibits, the rest of the display, 103 identification photos, taken of individual detainees as they entered S-21, is largely devoid of signs or literature. Most of the prison’s files were destroyed by guards when the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror began dissolving, leaving these images as the only remaining record of S-21’s victims. Stripped of the context of name, age, or reason for arrest, the individuals in the images are represented solely by their faces, captured in simple black and white photos.

To the viewers of the exhibit, these people exist only within the 8×10 frame of their respective photos. Everything we know about them is confined to those few square inches, but it’s enough to impart a devastating understanding of the lives they had been living, and what they were about to experience at S-21. A shady glimpse of the prisoners behind them, a trickle of blood from a gash on the head, a blindfold roughly pulled down off their face.  Such small details leap to the fore in these striking images.

“Observance and Memorial” is a chilling documentation of Cambodia’s dark history. But the stark silver gelatin prints displayed around the room raise a rankling question of how and whether the photos in the exhibit constitute art. One of the more disturbing aspects of the exhibit is the realization that the images–brazen, purposefully brutal and oppressive evidence of genocide–are aesthetically pleasing. The prints are moving, stylized. Their use of shadow and light combinations on human faces resembles Richard Avedon’s portrait work far more than what we expect of bureaucratic prison intake photos.

Part historical record and part artistic display, “Observance and Memorial” provokes emotion and reflection in reminding visitors of the horrendous realities of human conflict, and the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.

Peter Goffin is Managing Editor of Chirograph.