Drawings in progress

Undertaking the drawing of these portraits has been heart breaking. While I draw I imagine their daily lives, their homes, relationships. These people are all young, they grew up in one regime or another so it’s not like life was ever unhindered by oppression. However I figure they were making the best of survival.

drawing in progress

I’m starting by making a digital drawing, as a means of connecting to the original image, and familiarizing myself with the environment of the image. I will then print them out and draw a grid over the image to function as a drawing guide. I have a couple prints already but I’m not yet getting what I want from the prints.

drawing in progress

“Nothing beautiful comes from war” — Sarah Sentilles Ph.D

I hear these words and take them as a challenge, I naively want to see beauty in everything, I look deeply into (nouns) hoping to see something exquisite. I look deeply into challenging and or traumatic images looking for a glimmer of humanity, looking for love, even if it’s ugly.

Since my first encounter with the images from S-21, I wondered about the intention of the photographer. Others have considered this same idea and come to no conclusion. The photographer was a cog in the machine of war torn Cambodia, that much we know, we also know that survivors often play along with their oppressors to just live to see another day. The photographer chose to make exquisite, large format photographs, beautiful portraits in which the subject seems to reverses the gaze – in and of itself an interesting way to consider any portrait. While the portraits seem to be looking at us, they are instead looking at the photographer Nhem En, astonished, confused, befuddled.  En states that he didn’t talk to the subjects beyond posing instructions. Upon learning of these portraits, I immediately felt that he was acting as a subversive agent of mnemonic labor, to preserve the memory of these people, his people, even if they were perceived to be the enemy, they were still human and Em shows us with exacting detail an excruciating look into S-21, one of the Khmer Rouge’s prison death camps. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous documents on each prisoner, however the dossiers and the photos were separated somehow. Thousands of images depict nameless people, caught in a moment of confusion.

I will draw and animate (a little bit) 5-10 of the S-21 portraits. I’m choosing animation as my medium so that I may spend considerable time with each portrait so that I may honor their lives as I embody contemplation through the performance of drawing, as an experiment in artistic process. I’m hoping that I may simulate a longer moment than what the camera captured, instead of 1/25th of a second, I will create a lingering moment for each portrait I choose to work with, composed together in a short video of 1-2 minutes.

I wonder about where this work would sit in context to the S-21 archive itself. Does it fit in among the many articles, few books, thousands of images and few documentaries? Does this work live outside of the discourse of S-21? Is this work simply for me to exercise thinking?

A museum in Phnom Pen, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is the home to the thousands of portraits, crudely locked behind plexiglass bolted to the walls. The museum was built by the Vietnamese government as a propaganda tool to paint themselves as the heros and saviors of Cambodia, not as a memorial but as a reminder of their power structure. Outside of the museum a book, The Killing Fields, of 73 S-21 images has been published as a limited run. The location of the museum and the limited availability of the book makes access to the images a privileged opportunity. By animating a handful of these portraits, I’m broadening the reach of the images.


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