Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the death of approximately 2 million people. They died because of political executions, disease, starvation, and forced labour. The then notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) serves today as a museum, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Shaded Memories by photographer Ann-Christine Woehrl shows how she sees the museum and what she wants us to see, to look at, to think about and reflect upon. This is what I at least suppose ... for she does not comment on her photographs. There are however others who contributed texts to this tome; the most informative is by journalist Anne-Laure Porée.
Tuol Sleng Main Gate

Having read a number of books on the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, I do have a fairly good idea what that period in Cambodian history is about or, in other words, I sort of know what I'm looking at when going through the pages of Shaded Memories: Nevertheless, I'm stunned and irritated (to put it mildly), how such a tome can be presented with practically no background information. 

Well, one might argue, photographs are an invitation to ask questions. And, if you take this tome into you hands and start to wonder what these photographs are all about, then it will be inevitable for you to learn about the Cambodian genocide.
So what do we get to see? Photographs of prisoners (male and female, young and old), dead persons, skulls of executed prisoners, cell blocks, razor wire, cell keys numbering, an interrogation room, a stairwell, a food bowl, bones and clothes of victims, a scene from a propaganda video ... Needless to say, without the captions I would have often been at a complete loss.

Quite some of the pics are thoughtfully, and cleverly, taken. The hearing of case 002/02, for instance, is illustrated by earphones hanging in front of a wall. Or Human Rights Day that shows a faceless uniformed man holding a walkie-talkie while approaching an iron fence.
The idea to document what one was touched by in a museum, and especially in such an extraordinary museum such as Tuol Sleng, I regard as a laudable and most useful undertaking. What I do however miss in this tome is the voice of the photographer for pictures do not speak for themselves. They can't. They need a voice. And preferably the voice of their creator. Without being told about the feelings and thoughts of the photographer, I'm left to guessing. That is fine, of course, but I definitely expect more from a photo book.

Ann-Christine Woehrl
Shaded Memories
Edition Lammerhuber, Baden, Austria 2017

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