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Getting the Picture

June 10, 2011
by David Holmberg
image of Cambodian mugshots

A Berkeley rhetorician investigates a group of infamous photographs from the Cambodian Genocide.

An estimated 1 to 2 million Cambodians perished under the rule of the Khmer Rouge Communist Party between 1975 and 1979, the victims of starvation, crude medicine, or political executions. Perhaps the best-known artifacts from the genocide are the mug shots of inmates at Pol Pot’s secret prison, the S-21 detention facility in Phnom Penh, where “retrograde thinkers” were taken to be tortured and executed.

For Berkeley professor of rhetoric Michael Mascuch, the 6,000 surviving photographs raised a vexing question: Why take a picture of someone you are about to kill? Mug shots are normally used to identify recidivists, but almost everyone brought to S-21 was killed there—of up to 30,000 inductees, fewer than 15 people are believed to have survived. So what purpose could the photos have served? These questions are at the core of Mascuch’s research on the genocide, which seeks to understand the role photography played during the regime and how particular images affect our understanding of the atrocity now.

At the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Cambodia, where the S-21 files are housed, Mascuch leafed through dossier after dossier replete with outrageous claims. It was the stuff of classic conspiracy theory—private cabals, assassination attempts, spying—except that the accused happened to be mostly farmers or living in rural areas under close surveillance.

Like other scholars of the genocide, Mascuch realized that the “interrogations” were an elaborate puppet show with the wardens pulling the strings. Which is where the photos come in. Mascuch thinks they lent what he calls a “reality effect” to the S-21 files: The pictures seem to say “this person actually existed, here’s a photograph of them,” Mascuch explained. “It helps to convey the sense that the story behind the picture might be real as well.”

But the “reality effect” of these images is very different today. At the ongoing trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders, an international effort sponsored by the Cambodian government and the UN, the S-21 photographs have the power to heal. On the days Mascuch attended, he saw Cambodians hold up mug shots of loved ones and proclaim that, now one with their photographic likeness, the deceased were bearing witness to justice being done at last.

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