This Stupa (Khmer: Chedi) for the exhibit Observance and Memorial at the the Royal Ontario Museum is dedicated to the survivors and spirits of those lost during Cambodia’s mass violence
This Stupa was developed in collaboration with Photo Archive Group (PAG) to create a space of meditation, memorial and prayer adjoining public exhibitions of 103 prisoner photographs from S21, a secret detention center in Cambodia.
In April, 1975, Cambodia fell under the control of a radical, nationalistic and highly centralized authoritarian government which ruled until 1979. The cities were entirely emptied: their populations, considered tainted by foreign influence, were forced, under constant surveillance, into a virtual slave state of labor “reform” camps in the tropical countryside. The borders were entirely closed. Virtually all elders, infants and the infirm perished in the first few weeks. Family and “mental private property” were forbidden by the government. “Year Zero” was declared.
We no longer use the terms “legal” and “illegal”, we use the terms “secret” and “open”,
said Nuon Chea, a top strategist. The leadership remained entirely unseen and unknown to the populace: Citizens within the surveillance state were forced to behave at all times with the “Visible Signal” of active conformity to the shifting Party Line which accorded perfectly, they were told, with the objective Wheel of History. Suspicious or “unclear” behavior which “contradicted” this “perfect” vision of History resulted in disappearance, usually followed by summary execution.
S21 was the secret Ministry of Security Office in the otherwise virtually empty capital city of Phnom Penh, (which had been home to two million people).
Detainees arrived inside, blindfolded, having no idea of their location or “crimes”. All of these 14,000 people were, as Party policy, executed (“smashed”, in the language of official orders), usually after repeated torture compelling them to declare confessional “autobiographies,” until these were deemed “correct” by Duch, S21’s leader – by which time they often bore little resemblance to the detainees life stories, but always included “strings” of associates, who, in turn, faced death.
Photographs were made, usually as detainees entered S21, intended to accompany the official histories. The photographs show a citizen looking into the camera of the Security Ministry photographer. Other detainees, staff and features of the former school ground appear within the frame. Even now, virtually none of those depicted within the photographs has been named: During the Pol Pot Time, as the period is known, one in four within the country were killed by execution or forced labor under starvation.
In 1993-94, Photo Archive Group (with the approval of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture, endorsements of the Asia Foundation, Cambodia Human Rights Foundation and Cambodian League for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, and allied with both Cornell University’s preservation project at S21 and Yale’s project which has grown into Documentation Center Cambodia (DCCam)) undertook to restore and archive the 6000 negatives remaining at S21 – now Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide – which were decaying in a rusty filing cabinet amidst shifting political conditions which placed them in danger of destruction.
During several months of work in Phnom Penh, all 6000 of the 6 cm frames were cleaned, given archival storage at the Museum and printed in two sets: for the S21 Museum and for use outside the country in identifying those in the photographs, whose individual fates remain largely unknown to surviving family.
An edition of 103 of these photographs was also enlarged to the highest optical standards with a set going to Tuol Sleng’s collection and another dedicated to exhibition outside of Cambodia. These photographs offer witness to the mass violence of 1975 – 1979.
While descriptive text is vital as introduction to the images, PAG recognized that, given the origin and intense emotional force of these photographs, a meditative, prayerful space preserving a voice of silence, separate from the imagery and histories, should be available in exhibits.
This Stupa creates a non-sectarian space embodying recognition that the continuing presence of those killed is incomprehensible by history and is witnessed in the present.
The exhibition of these S21 photographs from PAG’s archive – and the SIMPARCH Stupa of Observance and Memorial – is dedicated to all who endured the time of the Khmer Rouge – to the survivors in Cambodia, and in the Diaspora, and to the Souls of those whose lives were ended.