Wednesday, 16 April 2008

S-21

Unidentified Prisoner 1975-1979 : photograph © the Tuol Sleng Museum

The photograph above looks like a simple portrait but as the numbered tag so obviously indicates, this image was taken in a prison - Tuol Sleng, a secret prison in Phnom Penh used by the Khmer Rouge and codenamed S-21.

For four years from 1975 -1979, the prison acted as an interrogation area where prisoners would be questioned about the crimes they had committed. The age range of prisoners was broad; children feature in several the images as well as mothers with their babies. Virtually all were probably innocent of the crimes they were charged with carrying out. The prison did not just have Cambodian inmates; foreign prisoners were also taken there including four Americans, three French, a Briton and a New Zealander. In the later years, the prison would deal with Khmer Rouge officials who had fallen out with the regime as the Khmer Rouge started to turn on itself.

At S-21 meticulous records were kept on the prisoners and this included a photograph. This collection of images is estimated to have contained 30,000 images - one image for each prisoner. From this number around 6000 negatives have survived. Many of the images are just simple portraits like the one above. Others show the battered faces of those who have been interrogated before being photographed. All of the photographs show faces that contain a dark foreboding, a stunned, sad resignation visible in the eyes. The vast majority of the individuals photographed did not survive.

The collection of just some of the images, taken during the most dark, disturbing and bloody period of Cambodia's history, can be viewed at http://www.tuolsleng.com/

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