Just a photographer

When is it your duty to cross the boundry between recording an event and interfering in it. Does such a boundry exist? Is it not true that just by being there in a certain place at a certain time you become an active participant? Is a camera an objective recording device. Can a photographer avoid subjectivity? These can become tricky questions to answer.

I don't remember how exactly but the other day I came across these pictures. They were taken in the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia in the mid seventies. They depict prisoners from this place, which is now a musuem dedicated to the genocide that was perpetrated there.

They are quite startling.

In doing some research I came across an article in the New York Times written by Seth Mydans which includes an interview with Nhem En, one of the photographers employed at the prison.

“They came in blindfolded, and I had to untie the cloth,” he said. “I was alone in the room, so I am the one they saw. They would say, ‘Why was I brought here? What am I accused of? What did I do wrong?’”

“‘Look straight ahead. Don’t lean your head to the left or the right.’ That’s all I said,” he recalled. “I had to say that so the picture would turn out well. Then they were taken to the interrogation center. The duty of the photographer was just to take the picture.”

Considering the fact that out of the estimated 14,000 to 17,000 people who were imprisoned in Tuol Sleng there are only a dozen people known to have survived; this seems like a pretty grim duty. I can't help but wonder how the photographers themselves felt about their job. With the viciousness of Pol Pot's regime now well known I can only imagine what working in this slaughterhouse must have been like. I'm sure these photographers lived in fear of their lives every day, of ending up in front of the lens. How else could you make these photographs and not do anything about what was happening?

Unless it truly was the duty of the photographer "just to take the picture."

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1 comment:

olivier said...

I have always been mesmorized by these images, quite possibly the best photographs ever taken. In my opinion I know of no other images that are as powerful as these. BTW, Duch, the jailer at that prison is now on trial in Phnom pen.