This is a photograph of a room. It was once a classroom in a primary school where children learnt to read and write. Then it became a room where thousands of people, including children, were tortured and beaten to death. Now it is a room tourists pass through and take snapshots.
It is a photograph of room in Tuol Sleng – camp S21 – part of a system that butchered over two million people in a surreal frenzy of bloodlust and paranoia.
Many photographs have been taken in this room. The Khmer Rouge took photographs of every one of the twenty thousand children, women and men that entered here. Then they killed them and took more photographs. 35 years later this is an empty room and the photographs are displayed in endless monochrome rows on large mahogany framed boards in an identical room next door. A sign on the wall politely asks visitors not to write on any of the images.
Being in a room with those photographed faces was one of those moments when time stops and the world spins dizzyingly around you. After three months of wandering and snapping away I suddenly never wanted to take a photograph ever again.
The scale and viscousness of the things people did during the time of the Khmer Rouge is beyond my comprehension – it’s like hearing about the near infinite size of the universe – you know it is a fact and the information fills you with awe but beyond that it’s just a blank darkness and the mind switches off.
The photographs of the people who were killed simultaneously put a very human face to the facts and, at the same time, makes it all even more remote and alien.
Like serried ranks of 70s photo booth selfies that look out knowingly into infinity and the edge of the universe. Mothers holding babies, teens in caps at rakish angles, frail old men with cloudy eyes, upright men and heart faced women – each the same but different.
There is something so perverse about taking photos of your victims that it really made me reel. In The sea of smartphone photos and the countless faces of strangers we see in our social media streams this was like a cold hard iceberg reminding me that photography is documentation and documentation dehumanises – and the greatest weapon evil has is to make us forget that people are real.
And then we moved on. The next day I was shooting photos of Buddhas and sunsets and the faces slowly fell away.
But something keeps coming back in fragments, something about the power of images and how an empty room can be many things depending on the lens you view it through.