Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article by Seth Mydans about the man who photographed thousands of Cambodians brought to the infamous Khmer Rouge prison called Tuol Sleng. Nhem En would take their portraits before the captives were taken away to be executed.
Mydans writes, “This week, En was called to be a witness at a coming trial of Khmer Rouge leaders, including his commandant at the prison, Kaing Geuk Eav, known as Duch, who has been arrested and charged with crimes against humanity.”
En’s work is distinctive and macabre. Caught in black and white are the faces of men and women, young and old, even children, in the moments before their deaths. For many, the reason for their imprisonment was a mystery. As the article notes, some were brought before En blindfolded, and in desperation asked him what was happening and what would happen to them. Some are resigned, others clearly terrified, others oblivious.
Between and 1979, approximately 1.7 million people, died, executed or, in some cases, starved to death.
As En told Mydans:
The job was a daily grind, he said: up at 6:30 a.m., a quick communal meal of bread or rice and something sweet, and at his post by 7 a.m. to wait for prisoners to arrive. His telephone would ring to announce them: sometimes one, sometimes a group, sometimes truckloads of them, he said.
“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?’”
But Mr. Nhem En ignored them.
“‘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.”