Whether it’s the stills of Khmer Rouge victims or the portraits of dead American soldiers, we need to witness both sides of death to understand what war has wrought.
Thousands of stills taken of Khmer Rouge victims at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison collectively document the systematic torture and killing of an estimated 1.7 million men, women and children. Looking into these victims’ eyes by examining the morbid, meticulous portraits taken before each and every one was murdered, is probably the most direct connection we will ever have to Cambodia’s mass killings between 1975 and 1979.
The head photographer behind these portraits, Nhem Ein, says he shot each individual within hearing range of the prison’s torture chambers. The victims were sometimes delivered by the truckload. One by one, he removed their blindfolds and posed them for the camera, forbidden to speak with them or answer their questions about why they had been rounded up or what was about to happen to them.
Today, hundreds of Nhem Ein’s photographs line the walls of the former torture house, which is now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. The majority of these portraits have since been lost or destroyed, as have the identities of many who were photographed, but about 6,000 of the remaining negatives are held in the museum.
And although the collection is incomplete, the photos captured details of Pol Pot’s victims – the full lips of a young girl, the sloping shoulders of a thin boy, the fearful, wide-eyed stare of an old man – that add up to some of the most terrifying evidence this world has ever seen.
At the close of many American news programs, we regularly witness some of the most poignant moments provided by television today: the ongoing Honor Roll, which flashes slowly through an unornamented display of portraits showing US soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“And here, in silence, are 18 more,” we hear the news anchor solemnly announce.
The fresh, mostly young, mostly proud faces of men and women who’ve lost their lives march silently into our homes. Some appear upright and in uniform while others are shown in smiling snapshots. Names, ages and hometowns are consistently noted.
And yet these portraits only document one side of the story. The other side – the faces of Iraq’s dead – remains invisible. We see images of chaos and bloodshed but very few portraits of fallen Iraqis. We see grainy mug shots of terrorists on the news but no posed stills of the shopkeeper killed by a car bomb or the mother who fell under an errant American missile.
Imagine if every week a televised roll call memorialized Iraq’s civilian casualties with individual portraits. If this were possible, we would witness, in full, the staggering human costs of Iraq’s occupation on a personal level. The politics of history dictate who is remembered and who is not, and most countries prefer to honor only their own dead. Perhaps, if we were confronted with those we’ve killed, face-by-face, we could better question the notion of “us and them” and address the abstraction of death that skews our understanding of war.