For five seemingly endless years, a former school in Phnom Penh codenamed S-21 was death’s antechamber. During the worse excesses of the Khmer Rouge, over 16,000 people were tortured and imprisoned in the rooms of this prison before being carted off to their executions in the nearby killing fields. And most of them passed in front of an expressionless teenager’s camera.
Nhem Ein was just ten when he left the family farm and joined the Khmer Rouge with his four brothers in 1970. In 1975, he was sent to Shanghai to study photography and filmmaking, and was subsequently made chief photographer at S-21. Using looted cameras, he meticulously chronicled life inside Pol Pot’s abattoir (New York Times)
If Brother Number One’s killing machines worked perfectly, it was due to the help of thousands like Nhem Ein who worked tirelessly to keep cogs well-oiled. As he removed their blindfolds and adjusted lights, Nhem Ein would lie to the newly arrived prisoners that “I’m just a photographer; I don’t know anything.” He would photograph hundreds of people a day, processing his film overnight to be attached to individual dossiers, comfortably cocooned from terrible realities of the Killing Fields from inside his isolated darkroom. He was careful not to let screams from torture chambers disturb his sleep, for he had to get up early to photograph the next batch of prisoners, he later recalled. As Arendt said of Eichmann, it was banality of evil personified, and like Eichmann, Nhem Ein had since retreated into bureaucratic doublespeak that he merely did what was asked of him.
That said, life was definitely not easy working for mercurial Pol Pot. When Nhem Ein accidentally damaged during development a negative of Pol Pot’s visit to China — there were spots on the eyes of the leader — he was sent to a prison farm. Only by convincing his interrogators that the film had been damaged before it reached him, Nhem Ein was spared the fate of thousands whose portraits he had taken.
Nhem Ein’s original negatives were left behind inside S-21 after the fall of Khmer Rouge. In 1997, two photographers, Douglas Niven and Chris Riley, discovered some 7,000 of them in S-21 and published 78 of them in a book called ”The Killing Fields.” Identifying them is next to impossible.