By Belinda Hungerford
On this day in 1997, ACP was exhibiting Facing Death: Portraits from Cambodia’s Killing Fields. This highly significant and sensitive exhibition contained 100 photographic portraits of prisoners at Toul Sleng (also known as S-21) – a Khmer Rouge prison camp in Cambodia during the era of the Pol Pot regime 1975-79.
Despite abolishing most bureaucracy the Khmer Rouge regime kept extensive records of the many thousands of men, women and children who were tortured and executed at Toul Sleng (codenamed S-21). Most were photographed as well as forced to write confessions.
The exhibition at ACP came about through a letter to ACP Director Deborah Ely from Chris Riley, Director of the Photo Archive Group, in March 1996 proposing the exhibition. The Photo Archive Group was formed by Chris and another American photographer, Doug Niven, after they visited Toul Sleng and saw entire walls of the now museum covered in the unnamed portraits. They discovered a large number of negatives and prisoner documentation had been looted and destroyed shortly after the Khmer Rouge had fallen from power in 1979. Riley and Niven formed the group and over three years, with the support of the Cambodian government, cleaned, catalogued and archived the remaining 6000 negatives to create a permanent archive of the genocide. A portfolio of 100 photographic prints was created from the archive and toured as an exhibition throughout Europe and North America. ACP was the sole Australasian venue.
In presenting Facing Death at ACP, the staff, including Director Deborah Ely and Program Manager Blair French, desired to place the photographs as fully as possible within their social and historical contexts and that the exhibition be made use of as an educational tool. Thorough consultation and engagement occurred with the Khmer community, who fully supported the project and saw opportunities to develop understanding amongst the broader community as well as amongst their own younger generation. The Khmer Interagency supplied guides every Saturday of the exhibition (the busiest day), who answered the queries of the visitors and offered further understanding regarding the history of the images and the experiences they evolved from.
The 100 prints were presented in two rows around three walls of the main gallery. They sat directly against the wall, held in place by sheets of perspex. The intention behind this approach was to minimise the aesthetic sense of the photographs as ‘artworks’, to ‘frame’ the interaction between viewer and subjects with as little as clutter as possible, and to give a sense of the whole as an archive rather than a set of singular works. A screen was hung at the entrance of the gallery to ensure a degree of privacy (from view of people passing through the reception area) for audiences encountering the images. The walls were lit evenly, avoiding the highlighting of any specific image. Small text panels providing contextual information were provided in both English and Khmer.
The adjoining smaller gallery was set up as an education room, providing contextual information about the exhibition Khmer culture, and Cambodian history and politics. Included were traditional Khmer costumes, a BBC documentary on Toul Sleng and the Facing Death project, a computer with the Cambodian Genocide Program website database and information provided by Amnesty International.
Mr Por Heang Ya, the President of the Khmer Community of NSW, opened the exhibition and the function included Khmer food and a performance of traditional music and dance.
Image 1: Cover of Facing Death: Portraits from Cambodia’s Killing Fields exhibition brochure. Courtesy and © Australian Centre for Photography Archives.
Images 2-5: Untitled photographs of prison camp subjects. Images courtesy and © Photo Archive Group / Toul Sleng Museum of Genocide.
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