Observance and Memorial: Photographs from S-21, Cambodia features 103 prisoner photographs from S-21, a secret detention centre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The individuals pictured in this exhibition represent 103 of the estimated 2 million victims of the Khmer Rouge, the ruling party in Cambodia from April 17, 1975 to January 7, 1979. This massive loss of life – one-quarter of Cambodia’s population – was the result of untold numbers of killings carried out in more than 19,000 execution sites, and the consequences of Khmer Rouge policy that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths from overwork, starvation, and disease.
The men, women and children whose portraits visitors will encounter share a horrific fate. Having all been accused of treason, they were incarcerated at the notorious S-21 security prison, tortured, and then brutally executed in an effort to cleanse the country of its political enemies. They also share a posthumous fate, as their portraits, together, bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.
These photographs are exhibited as documents of individuals who were condemned to death. However, they are also compelling and skillfully-created portraits. As documents and portraiture, these images profoundly express the traumatic loss caused by the event commonly referred to as the “Cambodian genocide.” This exhibition pays homage to all the victims of the Khmer Rouge – the vast majority of whom perished without a trace in the killing fields of Cambodia, and for whom there are no photographic portraits to mark their existence. The faces visitors will encounter foster the duty of memory and persist as silent but effectual pleas for justice. They remind us of humanity’s capacity for malevolence against which we must always remain vigilant.
This is an apt time to recall the Cambodian genocide, as the long-delayed trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders are finally underway. Observance and Memorial raises profound questions about the instability of civil society, mass killings, the destruction of heritage & culture, memory, migration, identity, and the responses of legal and spiritual institutions to genocide.
Viewers who are introduced to this nearly incomprehensible period of history may react with powerful emotions, so a space for contemplation and reflection is an important part of the exhibition. A wide range of public lectures, films and performances will also be presented.