Photography in the Killing Fields

Photojournalist Nic Dunlop tracked down a notorious Khmer Rouge prison warden, now on trial for crimes against humanity. Dunlop speaks to the Dart Center about the limits of journalism and justice.

Photography brought Nic Dunlop to Cambodia.

In 1980, as a child in the United Kingdom, he was struck by photographs of mass graves that alerted the world to the four years of torture, starvation and execution the Cambodian people had just endured at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Dunlop traveled to Cambodia in 1989, at the age of 19, and would go back as a photojournalist throughout the 1990s. On nearly every trip, he would return to the former Khmer Rouge prison of Tuol Sleng, commonly known as the "genocide museum." There, stark portraits of thousands of men, women and children put a human face on the accompanying records of torture and execution. As he wrote in his memoir, "The Lost Executioner: A Journey to the Heart of the Killing Fields," "For me, they had become a permanent reminder of the world's impotence, of our collective guilt in failing to prevent the crime of genocide." But one photograph proved to be more than a reminder: It would become the key to catching and bringing Khmer Rouge officials to trial.

As the commandant of Tuol Sleng prison, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, was a key link between the top Khmer Rouge officials like Pol Pot and the more than one million Cambodians who died as a result of the regime's decisions. As many as 20,000 died under Duch's supervision at Tuol Sleng. In 1979, when the Vietnamese army came, Duch was one of the last to flee the prison. All that remained of him were photographs. 

He is sitting behind a table and speaking into a microphone in one — the one that Nic Dunlop would keep in his back pocket as he traveled around Cambodia, hoping to find the man himself.

In 1999, traveling with a mine-clearance team, Dunlop met a wiry old man working for the American Refugee Committee who introduced himself as Hang Pin. As Dunlop would confirm with the photo in his back pocket, Hang Pin was Comrade Duch.

When Dunlop returned to confront Duch with journalist Nate Thayer, Duch admitted who he was, and soon turned himself in to the authorities. But instead of being brought quickly to justice, he languished in prison. Writing in 2005, Dunlop asked what this meant for his work:

None of those who instigated this horror have ever been held accountable. If we can't respond to the overwhelming evidence in the form of photographs of the condemned, what does that say about us? What does it say about photography?

Last year, with Duch facing the preparations that would set the stage for the trial that is occurring now, the Dart Center asked Nic Dunlop to return to these questions.

Dart Center: Now that Duch is being brought to trial, does that change any of your evaluation [at the end of your book]? And what are journalists' responsibilities in covering the trial?

Nic Dunlop: I still think the court of public opinion on this whole tribunal is still out. I had a conversation with a journalist who’s covered it for many years. And he said if this doesn't mean anything beyond the tribunal’s walls, then, yes, it doesn't mean anything.

Usually the last people who are actually consulted at any level at all are the ordinary Cambodians. In terms of responsibility for the outreach programs, I would say it’s kind of a group effort, I suppose … but I think it’s a complicated issue. Education plays such a critical role in our understanding of the world around us. [Ordinary Cambodians'] experience of the Khmer Rouge times was very localized, really restricted to their own personal experience: the power structure of the village, the people they knew were killing their relatives.  When we talk about any of these leaders [who are being put on trial], some of these people don't even know who they were. For many people, putting someone like Khieu Samphan [head of state from 1976 to 1979, scheduled to be tried after Comrade Duch] on trial when the guy they saw murdering their mother, sister, brother is living? That’s ... very difficult ...

We have a great framework, we have television, access to the Internet. Most people in Cambodia don't even have electricity. They’re seeing things in a very different way. When I talk of justice and you talk of justice, we both know what we’re talking about. We've seen it operate and work. Most Cambodians have no experience of justice. When we talk about the trial, it’s just not reaching ordinary Cambodians. You have a younger generation who will say, “So what? This is more than thirty years ago." Some Cambodian kids deny that it even occurred. It’s something that people conceal. It isn't a very central part of people’s discussion in ordinary people’s lives.

I don't believe that My Lai is beyond understanding, that Comrade Duch is beyond understanding. Photography can help furnish this understanding, but it isn't understanding in itself.

The shortcoming of journalism is that somebody goes to Phnom Penh, meets all the lawyers, all of the judges, goes to the Documentation Center [of Cambodia], and talks to somebody who survived … and then they leave. The more intrepid journalists — [who] have more time, papers more interested in finding out the truth — go out to the villages and talk to people. That’s the standard route. It’s understandable. 

DC: What do you hope to see from the trial and coverage of the trial?

ND: I do think that ordinary Cambodians do really want to understand this. They want to understand why it happened, who’s responsible. I won’t use that word closure, but certainly a greater understanding. But you also have to explain to them that justice won’t be done.

A lot of this stuff is done behind closed doors, but I think it will clarify a lot of things. This has been an area of great debate: superpower intervention, destruction of a neutral country ... A lot of people follow this story very, very closely. It’s a debate; it’s an impassioned debate. What I think this will do, hopefully, is separate that emotional side and clearly establish certain facts beyond a reasonable doubt, free of any emotional arguing or whatever debate. So that will be important.

DC: Photography is such a big part of this story, and of all stories of torture: It was the photos of skulls that set off the international press, just as for My Lai or for Abu Ghraib. How do you see photography playing a role in helping people understand a story, given the frustration you expressed in your book?

ND: I still think that photography is a very important and a very useful medium. And this is where I think a lot of my colleagues get things mixed up. Photographs do not help us understand the world. OK? No. Susan Sontag famously said you don't understand anything by a photograph. They don't explain. It just doesn't do that.

Photograph and text can not only ram home the immediacy of the importance of whatever it is you’re talking about, they should ideally give you the contextual information that cannot be provided by the photographer. You can provoke outrage, but outrage isn't particularly useful except in making people follow through.

My Lai: The outrage didn't really go anywhere. No one was ultimately really held accountable. Nobody up the chain of command. Or even the wider nature of the way the war in Vietnam was waged. So, you know, it has its obvious limitations. What it does is establish something beyond a reasonable doubt, that it occurred. For me what’s really important about journalism in general is that it’s about imparting ... an understanding of why these things occur, rather than providing imagery that gets people to turn away. I don't believe that My Lai is beyond understanding, that Comrade Duch is beyond understanding. Photography can help furnish this understanding, but it isn't understanding in itself. It isn't enough to present images, you have to explain why they’re being shown.

DC: Do you have an example of that from your own work? Of text establishing context?

ND: Obviously you don't state the obvious: "Photograph of a man with a yellow hat." I’ve often likened a caption to a rudder on a boat, it gives [the image] direction and purpose. At the moment I’m working on a book on Burma; it’s hard to contextualize a lot of the images. You wouldn't necessarily know that the people on the side of the road have been forced to dig a canal. But when you talk to people you find that is the case.

This is why I had a problem with the [uncaptioned] photographs [of prisoners from Tuol Sleng] being shown in the Museum of [Modern] Art as art projects, when they are evidence of a crime that has gone unpunished. It’s lazy. And repugnant. It’s like they became the stuff of dinner party conversation. I’ve been to plenty of shows like this, where the moral importance and the urgency is being robbed from these images. And they’re killed for political reasons. To say look there’s a nice light on this one, or there’s a tremendous rapport … You can’t use that kind of language.

DC: Have you ever been upset at how an image of yours was used or captioned?

ND: No, I don’t think I have. I think I’ve been quite lucky.

DC: You've covered a lot of difficult subject matter. From writing about the Khmer Rouge to your photography of victims of land mines. A lot of journalists who deal with traumatic stories end up feeling the effects of secondary traumatization. How have you kept resilient?

ND: I’ve gotten burnt out, but burnt out is different than being traumatized. I think a lot of journalists think part of being a good journalist [is] being shot at and seeing horrific things, being generally dangerous. I’ve never had that view. I think you can do it quite comfortably. Sometimes, yes, you do feel like a real shit really for what feels like a terrible intrusion, but … I’ve always felt very strongly about what I’m doing. It’s not just a job for me ... Being able to put it into a book like "The Lost Executioner," or the land mine campaign … it’s a way of poking my nose in business that ordinarily I wouldn't have a right to and of understanding the world around me. Of course it’s been upsetting and of course it’s been depressing.

Doing "The Lost Executioner" as a book provides a lot of justification, if you need it. Maybe I do. Doing the land mine campaign, I never really questioned whether I should be involved. I just felt mines were awful…and photography was very useful. Many photographers have taken part in that.

You know I’ve felt bad about [how] the discovery of Duch was handled very badly, largely through my own inexperience. That provided the rationale for writing the book in the first place. To reclaim some territory that I thought had been lost. He was a man who had been at the center of this horrific regime, not only participated, but witnessed; he also believed in it at the time. And then he confessed ... and then he was banged up. Really, his story hadn't been told. I think I was the only one who thought that. Most of the newspapers were not interested. I thought a book is a very useful thing: You can provide all the information, all the context, and hopefully you’ve got a decent editor [or] you have someone who will support you. It worked on all sorts of levels. It has been translated to Cambodians.

DC: What's the reaction from Cambodians?

ND: After Cambodia, I moved to an area of Burma, so I can’t answer that, but the Cambodians and former Khmer Rouge who I know seem to like it.. 

DC: You mention in your book that Sokheang [the human rights investigator who was your guide and a major character] traveled with you and aided in your interviewing technique. Can you tell me about the process of interviewing?

ND: [Sokheang] has lots of experience. He’s from a rural area; he’s former Khmer Rouge; he’s educated. He’s a smart guy; he’s very funny; he’s got a great sense of humor, but he also knows how Cambodian society operates.

Understand that people are uncomfortable when they’re talking, and [you have to] reassure them that they would be okay. In Asia, asking a direct question can be offensive. For example you never use the word “why.” You skirt around by asking “what?” and “how?”

I ask the direct question, and [Sokheang] would couch the question in a little more gentler terms and make people understood that we were on their side.

DC: Can you give an example of how this would work? A question you asked?

ND: So you’re interviewing somebody that you know participated in atrocities. You didn't ask, “What did you do?” You would ask, “What did you see?” And then he’d describe what he saw. And then discussing it after with Sokheang — almost more important than the interview itself — you’d get so much detail it was clear that they were actually doing it. So you ask, “What did you see on the day the Vietnamese arrived?” He’d say well I saw a group of Khmer Rouge take prisoners out and shoot them in the back of the head, one bullet each. They did it just over there by the fruit tree. Very often they’d make professional admissions without realizing they were admitting it.

DC: How is your approach different when you're interviewing survivors instead of perpetrators?

ND: With survivors, it’s different. Obviously you know these people have suffered. Chum Mey [one of seven survivors of Tuol Sleng]: Every time he talks he bursts into tears. He’s a real victim in that sense. But he continues to do this. He insists on being interviewed. Which is extraordinary, really. On several occasions (I would never do this), but he’s posed in his former cell for photographers, which I think is an extraordinary thing to do.

A lot of people, perpetrators are often victims too. There’s very much a hierarchy. If you’re white, you’re an important person, and you’re privileged so people are on behavior around you. The thing is to try to get people to relax. 

I was interviewing a teacher who had known Duch. He didn't know he was being interviewed. I started asking questions, and I thought the interview was going ahead, but he turned around. My interpreter hadn't done the introduction, and he was clearly scared. And it had taken four hours to get there. And I said, “Fine, if you don't feel comfortable, don't worry about this” and so we left. And I came back a few months later and delivered a photograph, I think. And eventually came back with Sokheang, and after a few times he realized he could trust me. Sokheang said, "Look, I work for a human rights group. Nic doesn't want to use your name, he won’t even use the name of the village. You have to trust us. You have my contact information." He realized I wasn't just fly-by-night, whether he was under threat or not. Always, as much as possible, you give people the opportunity to say no, make sure what you’re doing is clearly understood. That obviously lets them make a considered decision. If it’s “no” you’ll just have to say, "fine."

DC: Is it different when you're not interviewing people, but taking photographs? 

ND: It's impossible to generalize. You judge the situation as you come across it. For example, there are times when you’ll have to steal a photograph. There are other times that you will consult with people.

[I did a story on people dying] of AIDS on the Burmese border. Living with a group of migrant workers, all of them HIV positive. I went in their with an interpreter, said, "I’m working on a book. If you allow me to live with you for a few days, you’ll be in this book, with this kind of context," and every single one of them said yes. And I said, "Well hang on. Why don't you think about it, and I’ll come back tomorrow? And it’s very important that you know you can say no." And I came back the next day and they all say “no.”

I’m not in the business of persuading them. I’m not of the point of view that photographs are useful immediately. I’m not in the business of persuading people against their better judgment. [But I did steal] photographs of Duch. The pictures you may have seen online: he’s talking about committing mass murder. At that moment. He really is. I didn't ask for permission. I’m not going to give him the opportunity. Other times you can ruin the spontaneity of a given situation. But other times you stop people and say, "I’d like to take your photograph," but you don't tell them you're a journalist. It’s all about context, and whether it could be a problem.

DC: Are there any pictures that you wish you'd never taken?

ND: Those are the ones that never get printed up and never get used.

I’ve been in situations where something bad is happening and you photograph it, and I’ve had people criticize me. And I have no idea if they’re wrong. It’s later on that I make judgments ... If there’s nothing else you can do, you get on with the business you do. Yes. it’s exploitative, of course, but if there’s any use beyond that, that’s a decision you make later. So there are several levels or several stages, you know.  You’re in the situation, you’re making a decision — depth of field, speed — you’re making those judgments, and then you’re also deciding what you won’t photograph. And, later on, you get your film processed, and you make the decisions to print up whichever. And you print up those ones just to see what you have. It’s a whole series of changes.

One of the [reasons] I think the book is being relatively well-received is certainly the fact that I think it’s very important to look critically at your own role. Particularly as a journalist. There’s not enough soul searching among journalists about what we do — whether it serves a purpose, has a use. I’m sped along largely by my own curiosity — a wish or desire to understand the world around me. But I do get constantly frustrated by the news.

It's easy to recoil from horrible events if you don't understand what led up to that moment. So much of journalism doesn't do that. From Al Qaeda ... to Abu Ghraib. We’re actually not that far removed from people, but I find that a lot of journalism often serves to make it appear that, or maybe even takes a sort of unconsciously righteous position where, these people are beyond understanding: they’re just evil, and that’s enough. And for me it isn't enough. I just feel that that’s where journalism should be: To some extent on the periphery, not the corridors of power. Helping people to read and understand the news we read about every day. I think that’s where journalism is at its best. 

This interview was conducted in March, 2008 and has been edited for length.