Observance and Memorial:Photographs from S-21, Cambodia

“To keep you is no gain; to destroy you is no
– Alexander Hinton, Why Did They Kill?

The Institute for Contemporary Culture (ICC) at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) presents Observance and  Memorial: Photographs from S-21,Cambodia, featuring over 100 photographic prints developed from original negatives abandoned by the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, at the S-21 secret prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This important exhibition will be on view from September 22,2012 for a limited time in the Roloff Beny Gallery, Level 4 of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, informing Canadians about the tragic mass killings that occurred under the Khmer Rouge regime and how modern Cambodia is recovering from the trauma of these events more than thirty years ago.

Curated by Photo Archive Group, and Dr. Carla
Shapiro from the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto,
Observance and Memorial calls attention to
the atrocities in Cambodia in the 1970s, and human rights issues
overall. Raising awareness of the existence of totalitarian and
genocidal regimes, the exhibition underscores the need for political
awareness, advocacy, and activism.

“These events in Cambodia’s history are not well
understood to the Canadian public, as they followed so closely on the
heels of the Vietnam War, which at the time dominated the North
American media,” says Francisco Alvarez, Managing Director of the ICC
at the ROM. “A significant part of the ICC’s mandate is to bring
international political and social issues to the public’s attention,
and as such we present these photos not as examples of photographic
art, but as documentary evidence of war crimes.”

"S-21 was the secret office of the Ministry of
Security. Of the 12-14,000 people brought there for interrogation,
every one was tortured and killed, except for 14 known so far, who
survived until the regime collapsed,” recalls Curator Michael Perkins.
“This show 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.”

"The mass killings at S-21 have had a deep
emotional impact on the Cambodian Diaspora, and presenting this
exhibition here in Toronto comes with the challenge of interpreting
these rarely seen artifacts carefully, bearing in mind the long road
to recovery they have undergone since 1979”, says Dr. Shapiro. “We
are working closely with a community consultation group to address
these sensitivities.”

Exhibition Overview

Observance and Memorial

raises profound questions about the instability of civil society, mass
killings, the destruction of heritage and culture, memory, migration,
identity, and the responses of legal and spiritual institutions. One
generation later, and with the trials of the surviving Khmer Rouge
leaders currently underway in Cambodia, it is timely to reflect on
this period of history, described by some as a mass genocide, when
between 1.2 and 2 million Cambodians lost their lives. In the past,
these photographs have been displayed in the West in the context of
fine art photography, generating some criticism. At the ICC they will
be properly contextualized as documentary artifacts of crimes against

The exhibition will be presented in four sections:

The exhibition will be introduced by a thorough
historical explanation of the rise to power of the Cambodian Communist
Party – the Khmer Rouge – their beliefs in a utopian agrarian society,
and the atrocities they committed between 1975 and 1979, particularly
at S-21. S-21 was a secret, elite prison for persons who were
affiliated with the ruling party and accused (usually falsely) of
being enemies of the state. Because of media fatigue that followed the
end of the Vietnam War and the extreme secrecy of the Khmer Rouge
under Pol Pot, many of these events will be understood by local
audiences for the first time. The creation and purpose of the S-21
prisoner photographs, which were originally attached to confession
documents, is also explained.

The second section of the exhibition presents 105
prisoner photographs, each person serving as silent witness to the
injustice, horror and death that was experienced by some 14,000
prisoners who were detained at S-21 over its four-year existence.
Representing the diversity of the Cambodian people, victims range from
infant to grandparent, male to female, soldier to housewife. Near the
end of this section, visitors will encounter biographies of a few of
the recently identified prisoners, while the anonymity of the majority
of the portraits remains.

Visitors to the exhibition may react with powerful
emotions. To help resolve the intense content of the show, the third
section of the exhibition will be a quiet space for personal
reflection, as suggested in the title of the exhibition,
Observance and Memorial. In the centre of this
space, an architectural sculpture suggesting a Cambodian stupa, or
reliquary, will allow visitors to honour the spirits of the deceased
and consider their own relationship to the photographs.

Finally, visitors will enter a resource centre,
where they will find more information about contemporary Cambodian
culture. Today, the former S-21 prison serves as the Tuol Sleng
Genocide Museum, and is one of the most visited sites in Cambodia. A
historical timeline will explain what happened in Cambodia since the
fall of the Khmer Rouge. Other elements will cover the ongoing trials
of Khmer Rouge leaders in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of
Cambodia, the reconstruction and recovery of Cambodian society,
information about Cambodians living in Canada today, and links to
human rights organizations.

To augment the exhibition, the ICC will present a
wide range of public lectures, films, and performances. More details
to come.

For more on the history of the Khmer Rouge and the
S-21 Prison, visit http://www.cambodiatribunal.org/history/khmer-

The Institute for Contemporary Culture

The mission of the Institute for Contemporary
Culture (ICC) at the Royal Ontario Museum is to stimulate diverse
audiences to think creatively, understand and change the world.
Inspired by the mandate and collections of the ROM, the ICC examines
living societies and the natural world, linking the present to the
past through innovative exhibitions, special events and the creation
of dynamic original content using new technologies. For more
information: www.rom.on.ca/icc