Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields

For five seemingly endless years, a former school in Phnom Penh codenamed S-21 was death’s antechamber. During the worse excesses of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, people suspected of counter-revolutionary activity were imprisoned and tortured here before being carted off to their executions in the nearby killing fields. Of the 14,200 political prisoners taken to S-21, only seven survived.

And they passed through in front of an expressionless teenager’s camera on their way to death.

Nhem Ein was just ten when he left the family farm and joined the Khmer Rouge with his four brothers in 1970. In 1975, he was sent to Shanghai to study photography and filmmaking, and was subsequently made chief photographer at S-21. Using looted cameras, he meticulously chronicled life inside Pol Pot’s abattoir.

His original negatives were left behind inside S-21 after the fall of Khmer Rouge. The prison and its contents became a museum where, in March 1993, young American photographers Doug Niven and Chris Riley found Nhem Ein’s deteriorating negatives in a filing cabinet. They established the Photo Archive Group to clean, catalogue, print and present the approximately 7,000 photographs.

Niven and Riley published 78 of them in a book called ”The Killing Fields.” Identifying them is next to impossible. The photos were also published in Reportage magazine.

In February 1997, the Associated Press released an interview with Nhem Ein, which revealed that he and five apprentices were the photographers responsible for the S-21 images. If Brother Number One’s killing machines worked perfectly, it was due to men like Nhem Ein who worked to keep it going. As he removed their blindfolds and adjusted lights, Nhem Ein would say to the prisoners that “I’m just a photographer; I don’t know anything.”

He would photograph hundreds of people a day, processing his film overnight and attach to individual dossiers. He was careful not to let screams from torture chambers disturb his sleep for he had to get up early to photograph the next batch of prisoners, he later recalled. As Arendt wrote of Eichmann, it was banality of evil personified, and like Eichmann, Nhem Ein had since retreated into bureaucratic doublespeak that he merely did what was asked of him.

That said, life was definitely not easy working for mercurial Pol Pot. When Nhem Ein accidentally damaged during development a negative of Pol Pot’s visit to China — there were spots on the eyes of the leader — he was sent to a prison farm. Only by convincing his interrogators that the film had been damaged before it reached him, Nhem Ein was spared the fate of thousands whose portraits he had taken.


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10 thoughts on “Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields

  1. my parent and anty was in the khmer rouge..lucky they escape oneday….im so grateful to have them in my life!!!!!! even though my dad pass away in 2006… they been through soo much…loveu mom n dad…

  2. How can two Western journalists be credited with the ‘discovery’ when the photos were in fact already on the walls of the museum (& had been since 1979)?

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