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Nic's A Bastard

Book jacket, with a photo of Duch The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop
Walker and Company, New York, 2005


I can't stand Nic Dunlop.

That reflects poorly on me, of course, and not on Dunlop. Nic Dunlop has done all the things I dreamed of doing, and he did them far better than I could have done them. My dislike of Dunlop is rooted entirely in petty jealousy.

Even his Pringles anecdote is better than mine.

If The Lost Executioner is any indication, Dunlop is smarter, more courageous, and more talented than I am in every way.

Every way, except one. There's one small thing that I understood before Dunlop did... one small, single, solitary thing.

By the end of this book, however, Dunlop has learned this lesson as well.

Once upon a time, I toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in photojournalism. I wanted to write about human rights and history, and things that mattered. I wanted to take photos that would make a difference. I wrote a few articles, sold a few photos, donated pictures to a few NGOs. Lack of talent and lack of dedication held me back.

Nic Dunlop lacked neither talent nor dedication. An article in National Geographic in the early Eighties triggered a fascination with Cambodia. "When the film The Killing Fields appeared I must have watched it at least fifteen times at various London cinemas. I would sometimes sneak off to see it on my own for fear of ridicule by my peers, as though I was sliding off to watch porn in Soho. At the same time, I began to take an interest in photography and documentary films about the conflict... For me, Cambodia had become shorthand for all that was wrong with the world."

We would expect that a photographer who was obsessed with Cambodia would give us a book full of photos. Dunlop, however, is not about to give us what we expect. The result of this obsession is a book, yes, but it's a book with hardly any photos. That is why this book succeeds so well: Dunlop's narrative stays on point.

Dunlop's book gives us an overview of the Khmer Rouge regime, with rare insight into one of the regime's most brutal killers. Kaing Geuk Eav, the "executioner" of the title, was born in 1942. An outstanding student, he had a particular affinity for mathematics. Politics, however, soon became his primary concern. The inequalities in Cambodian society were a source of frustration to poor students like Eav. He soon became interested in communism, likely as a result of the influence of one of his teachers, Ke Kim Huot. The scientific pretensions of Marxism would have seemed highly appealing to a bright, impressionable student.

In 1964, another educator -- a professor named Chhay Kim Hour -- introduced Eav to Cambodia's fledgling Communist party. Eav soon began rising through the organization's hierarchy. In the early 1970s, he became the commandant of M-13, the first of many of the Khmer Rouge's secret prisons. (A French ethnologist, Francois Bizot, would be one of the few survivors of that prison. See A Passage to Old Sorrows for a review of his memoir.)

After the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country in 1975, Eav -- now known by his revolutionary alias, Duch -- was given responsibility for the regime's most important prison: S-21.

Housed in the former Tuol Sleng school in Phnom Penh, under Duch's direction, S-21 would better be described as a torture and execution facility. Innocence was unheard of at Tuol Sleng: to be at Tuol Sleng was, by definition, to be guilty. Mercy was unheard of, as well. Among the thousands of party members who were eventually incarcerated at S-21 were Duch's mentors, Ke Kim Huot and Chhay Kim Hour. Both men were executed.

Tuol Sleng was a place of morbid routine. Prisoners were photographed on arrival at the prison. They were crammed en masse in open rooms, their legs shackled to iron bars. They were periodically taken away for interrogation and torture, then "crushed to bits." In many cases, they were photographed after their execution.

The brutality of the Khmer Rouge extended beyond their borders, as well. A series of massacres inside Vietnam led to repeated skirmishes with their more powerful neighbor. The Vietnamese eventually decided to eliminate the threat once and for all, and in December 1978, they launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge were quickly routed, and in the prison at Tuol Sleng the last remaining staff members -- including Duch -- were forced to flee with virtually no notice. Thousands of pages of documents and thousands of photos were left behind.

How had a struggle for a better world become a mandate for murder? And what became of the men and women who had committed these murders? Months dragged into years, and as the Vietnamese consolidated their hold on the country, a mystery remained: who were the individuals responsible for the atrocities at Tuol Sleng?

Determination and luck would lead Nic Dunlop to the answer.

Duch's fate is only one of the questions Dunlop answers. What went through the minds of the people who those who perpetrated this genocide? The roles of villain and victim were not always mutually exclusive. Those who died at Tuol Sleng were almost exclusively Khmer Rouge. Even high-ranking officials were touched by the inferno they had ignited. Interviewing In Sopheap, who had at one point been Ieng Sary's personal secretary, Dunlop notes that several of In Sopheap's own siblings had died during the regime. Yet Sopheap still did not change his view that Pol Pot should not be held responsible:

"'I cannot accuse Pol Pot of bringing my brother to prison. I cannot even accuse Mr. Duch of taking my brother to the prison.' He refused to accuse the leadership of any wrongdoing, 'because it was very anonymous.'"

Dunlop summarizes Sopheap's ability to willfully obscure what the Khmer Rouge had done, and his own role:

"It was a game in which he would not or could not see beyond. Instead he chose to see the excesses of the Khmer Rouge period in abstract, as though what happened had nothing to do with him. And this is what enabled the Khmer Rouge to murder and kill without conscience. They could hide behind a piece of machinery, deaf to the screams of the people caught up in its grinding cogs."

Arguably the book's greatest strength lies in the fact that Dunlop answers questions most of us wouldn't even think to ask. These issues are more abstract, and more universal.

What do we learn from the photographs from Tuol Sleng? What do we learn from images of war and suffering? Dunlop describes a photo taken by Don McCullin, shortly before the fall of Phnom Penh:

"It shows a young double amputee and a woman, presumably his wife, by his side fanning him from the flies and the heat. What struck me about this photograph was that it could have been taken yesterday. There was nothing in the image to date it or place it. I had seen and photographed the same scene all over the country on numerous occasions. Like the thousands of pictures of prisoners in Tuol Sleng, there was a terrible repetition in Cambodia that spanned not just months, but decades.

Like the photographs of prisoners at Tuol Sleng, we cling on to the hope that the people are somehow still alive. Photographs do that; they stave off the inevitable. Until we see a picture of the same person dead, then we keep wondering, hoping against hope against what we know must have happened. Perhaps that is why some of the prisoners were photographed after their executions for the Organisation; to cancel out the image of them alive on arrival at the prison.

In reality, at least intellectually, one knows that the young man in McCullin's picture is dead. He was likely to have been a soldier fighting the Khmer Rouge. Most of them were massacred in the first few months. But when I look at McCullin's photograph, they are still there, sitting, waiting, just as they were thirty years ago."

In 1993, two photographers -- Douglas Niven and Christopher Riley -- came across the original negatives for the S-21 photos in file cabinet in Tuol Sleng. They began cleaning and printing the images, and several of the photos were published in a book called The Killing Fields. Later, a number of the images were displayed in an exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Dunlop questioned whether or not the exhibit contributed anything meaningful to our understanding of the atrocities:

"... I began to wonder whether their meaning had been completely lost, whether what had happened under the Khmer Rouge had been fully understood.

Many of the images from Tuol Sleng were taken in isolation, with a white backdrop, without a context, as though in a void between life and death. More than twenty years after this horror this allowed people to view Ein's pictures simply as portraiture. Viewed in this way the photographs make subjects real to us but at the same time deplete any sense of urgency. In a gallery, they become studies in photography's aesthetic possibilities first, and evidence of mass murder second.

The more explicit images were not among those exhibited in New York such as the photograph of a man whose head had exploded from the impact of a shovel, his blood splattered across the tiled floor. Or a series of pictures of a dying man who tries desperately to escape from the camera, sliding through a pool of his own blood.

At the show at MOMA, the photographer was credited as 'unknown', further adding to the mystique surrounding the Khmer Rouge, even though Niven had met Nhem Ein several months before.

It seems disingenuous to me to display these photographs without making clear why it is considered important to show them. There is a danger of it becoming a self-defeating exercise in highbrow voyeurism. One of the reasons there are so few photographs in this book is because of my increasing frustration with photography's limitations. The display of the images becomes a passive act of remembrance, rather than a call for justice."

The presence of a camera changes us: it affects the artist, the subject, and the viewer, all in different ways. Dunlop demonstrates a keen awareness of the artist's troubling role, describing George Rodger's experience as the first photographer to arrive at the Belsen concentration camp in 1944:

"After several hours of walking amongst the dead and dying, he stopped in his tracks, disgusted. 'My God,' he said, 'what has happened to me?' He had been wandering around arranging piles of corpses into aesthetic compositions in his viewfinder. Shocked by his own behavior, he resolved never to photograph another war again.

I remember returning from Cambodia in the early nineties after a trip where I had photographed two soldiers who had suffered a particularly gruesome mine accident. One of them, Hearn Boung, was severely wounded and slipped in and out of consciousness. His body was caked in blood and his left calf had been ripped to shreds by the blast...

Back in Bangkok, I began the process of editing the images I had taken in Cambodia and placing them in slide mounts. It was only when I looked through my loop at Hearn Boung that I began to feel nauseous. It was as if I was observing the scene for the first time. For days I found it difficult to look at the pictures. I realised that I had viewed him at the time as a series of aesthetic and technical calculations and judgments: the correct exposure that I wanted, the correct angle, the depth of field.

Later, having photographed countless hospital scenes and operations I realised that the camera acted as a kind of shield allowing me to watch the world through the frame of a television set. Very often, if I found something distressing, my reaction was to photograph it, distance it and then I could move on, unless there was something more practical I could do. Photography became a safety net. The camera had acted as a kind of filter for what I was seeing. Like the prisoners of S-21, people had become mere object in my viewfinder."

With this sentiment, Dunlop is being unfair to himself. (Being unfair to Dunlop, is my job, dammit!) We -- the photographers -- may see only objects in our viewfinder, but the resulting art has its own value.

Our technical skills may impart an unexpected power to the most mundane subjects; but in the end, the subjects themselves exert their own gravity: they draw us in to another world, where time has stopped. Near the end of the book, Dunlop describes a friend as he looks at photos from long ago:

"Like a pack of cards Sokheang doled them out: photographs of a wedding, a funeral, babies, a school outing, pictures of friends and relatives. 'Survived, dead, dead survived, disappeared, dead, disappeared, survived, dead, he said as he placed them in quick succession on the table."

"The photographs, taken in Kompong Thom, depicted a vanished world - a world before Pol Pot. They were the only undisrupted continuum with the past. Like the photographs of Tuol Sleng these pictures were reminders of something that had been irrevocably lost. Sokheang's mother had risked her life by clutching on to them during the Khmer Rouge - they would have betrayed the family's 'bourgeois' background. While they represented what had been lost, they were a reminder of what might have been. Looking at the photographs it is almost as though Sokheang and the surviving members of his family are exiles in their own country; home has become a memory, a place in the mind."

Photography has the power to transport us to other worlds. That, however, is where their power ends. This is what Dunlop did not seem to understand when he began his quest; it's the one thing that I understood before he did. In a complex world of ambiguity and nuance, the camera is a blunt instrument.

Photography is a warning siren: it can wake us up and alert us to a crisis. It cannot tell us what caused the crisis. It cannot tell us what to do about that crisis. Don't look for answers in the photographs at Tuol Sleng. They aren't there.

By the end of the book, Dunlop understands this, and more. His final, chilling insight comes not from the photos at Tuol Sleng, but from a can of Pringles.

I, too, have experienced the slightly surreal fracture of reality, brought about by a can of Pringles. Yet mine was a small fracture, a tiny crack that hinted that the world was not what I thought it would be. Dunlop's insight is far more compelling, and far more thought-provoking. I won't tell you what it is.

Just read this bastard's book for yourself.

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Related Site:
Nic Dunlop's Official Website

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