A Portrait of S-21 Photographer Nhem Ein
Posted September 2, 2013
One of the most chilling visual records of contemporary genocide consists of photos taken of S-21, the infamous extermination camp in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They were first recovered by the invading Vietnamese army in 1978, and have been displayed since 1980 at the Tuol Sleng Museum, which is located on the grounds of this former camp. While the S-21 photos are now a familiar archive, as recently as the mid-1990s, they were almost forgotten.
Doug Niven, co-founder of the nonprofit Photo Archive Group, helped preserve and exhibit these photographs internationally. In 1997, he also tracked down one of S-21’s principal photographers, Nhem Ein. Niven’s interview, excerpted here, is the first official statement by Nhem Ein about his activities at Tuol Sleng, and took place in Phnom Penh on March 12, 1997. Below is a portrait of this notorious photographer, in his own words.
I was chosen to go to China because of my background. I am a hard working man, I joined the revolution when I was a boy a long time ago, and was also one on the team of "model children" (komar chhean mouk).
I didn't know anything at all when they sent me to China. I was the only Cambodian studying photography. I was also trained to make documentary films and draw maps. My teacher was Chinese and one of his assistants helped translate everything into Khmer. I still have the same Chinese photography book in Anlong Veng, with Khmer notes added.
I spent one month making films, one month drawing maps, one month processing film….
I travelled by boat to China with about 80 other Cambodians and took a special Communist Party plane back. Ta Nath (from General Staff) was on the plane with me, and was killed after he came back in Sihanoukville.
During the training I had no idea [what I’d be doing when I got back to Cambodia]. But when I arrived back in Phnom Penh I was assigned to take photographs at the Ministry of National Defense in Unit 870, and at Tuol Sleng. Unit 870 was a special unit in charge of Phnom Penh, under the charge of Pol Pot.
I started this job fifteen days after I arrived back from China.
When I first arrived at Tuol Sleng I was hesitant (kreak chet), so scared, but because this was an assignment I had to take it. Later on I got used to it, like feeling numb.
I can’t remember exactly how many [prisoners were there], but it was very crowded, very full. There were many things going on, different activities, many trucks loaded with people, coming from different regions. This was in December 1976.
What made me really scared was when I saw the trucks loaded with people and they shoved people off the trucks, and were pushed when they hit the ground. I was still young and this scared me. Those people were blindfolded and their hands were tied-up.
When I was first at Tuol Sleng I was scared, but after seeing the same thing every day I got used to it. It became normal.
The interrogation rooms were not inside Tuol Sleng itself, but in a building in front of the prison. The interrogations were conducted day and night, especially at night. The cries from the victims were especially loud at night, because at that time there was no noise in Phnom Penh. Their cries were so loud we could hear them from 500 meters away. There were no neighbors to complain about the noise, and sometimes we could hear the reactions of the victims saying "well if you want to kill me, go ahead you traitor!" (a kbot cheat).
We didn't want to keep dead bodies nearby Tuol Sleng because of the smell, and the majority were taken to Cheong Ek. In 1977 the place smelled like shit…
While I was working at Tuol Sleng I saw one of my cousin but I couldn't say anything or help. I had to pay attention to myself—rather than worry about another person (kbal neak na sok neak nung).
We had 35mm, 6x6cm and 16mm cameras, which were taken from Phnom Penh photo shops. The 6x6cm film—very popular at the time— was the easiest to find, and simple to process. We also found Japanese-manufactured chemicals: borax, kenon, bolsovik, and carbonate from the shops. I learned how to mix the chemicals from the book I was given in China, to which I added translated notes/instructions in Khmer.
I had a lot of cameras, but my favorite was [a] Yashica, made in Japan. I learned how to measure the light while I was in China, and to make the correct exposure.
I rarely made mistakes in mixing the processing chemicals, because all of these negatives were for record keeping. If I made a mistake, I would have a serious problem. If I made one or two mistakes that would be it.
Sometimes when we were bored and had nothing to do we tickled each other and played around. Sometimes we tickled the subject, and a few times by accident we made a photo of the tickling.
I never saw any Chinese advisors come visit Tuol Sleng, but oftentimes I would go visit them in Phnom Penh, but I never told them about Tuol Sleng. Aside from my work at the prison I sometimes went out and made photos of Chinese, North Korean delegations, and sometimes made trips into the provinces, but these trips away from Tuol Sleng were rare.
When I go back to Tuol Sleng now I feel very shocked and see it as dictatatorship (amnach bdachkar). Even now [in 1997] the Khmer Rouge are still using the same ways/methods (dictatorship). It's good to have this museum to show the world about the tragedies committed by Pol Pot, to show the world not to make the same mistakes.
Doug Niven is co-founder of Photo Archive Group, and has worked as a photojournalist and photo editor. In the 1990s, he was based for several years in Cambodia. Today, he works at the University of California at Santa Cruz.