University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Prisoners at S-21

Facing Death: Portraits from Cambodia's Killing Fields

The one hundred gelatin silver prints in this exhibition were made from negatives in the archive of what was once the secret prison S-21, and is now The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The prison was turned into a museum shortly after Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese Army in 1979. A museum archive was established to preserve the approximately 6,000 black and white negatives and 20,000 pages of written documentary materials found at the prison. The photographic negatives were cleaned, catalogued and printed in 1994 by the Photo Archive Group, a non-profit organization founded by photojournalists Chris Riley and Doug Niven. Damage to negatives accounts for the black markings that appear on some of the prints. In an effort to make the images more accessible to the general public, the Photo Archive Group created two complete albums of proofs of all 6,000 images.

From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in a reign of violence, fear, and brutality over Cambodia. The human costs of the revolution were horrific. According to conservative estimates a million people - or roughly one seventh of the country's population - died from starvation, malnutrition and misdiagnosed or mistreated illness during this period. Another 200,000 were executed as enemies of the state.

S-21 was an important secret prison operated by the Pol Pot regime in the capital city of Phnom Penh from mid-1975 through the end of 1978. The focus of S-21 was on those who were inside the Khmer Rouge, and thought to have betrayed the movement. The families of offenders were often brought to the prison as well in order to keep the deaths of their loved one from being avenged. Almost all of the prisoners had worked in the armed forces, factories, or administration. Upon arrival at S-21, the prisoners were photographed, tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes their captors charged them with, and then executed. The prisoners' photographs and completed confessions formed dossiers that were submitted to Khmer Rouge authorities as proof that the "traitors" had been eliminated. Of the 14,200 people who were imprisoned at S-21, there are only seven known survivors.

By the time S-21 was discovered, most of the inmates' photographs had been separated from their dossiers, rendering them anonymous. The majority of the people pictured in the exhibition are therefore unidentified by name. Those who have been identified are noted in the captions beneath their pictures.

Recently, the chief photographer of S-21, Nhem Ein, stepped forward and revealed some details about the procedures at the prison. Nhem Ein was in charge of five apprentices, and it is not known exactly which of the photographs were taken by him. The numbers that the prisoners wear correspond to their place in line on the day they were photographed. The numbering system would start anew every twelve hours. This accounts for why some prisoners are wearing the same number. The randomness of this numbering now adds to the haunting anonymity of the victims.

Click on image to enlarge.

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Photo Archive Group

Caption Information Agreement for Photograph Usage

The 20 photographs (above) were printed by the Photo Archive Group in 1992. The negatives that yielded these photographs were made by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979 at S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The negatives are currently housed at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, which is on the sight of the former prison.

The chief photographer at S-21 was Nhem Ein, a teenager at the time the pictures were made, now a Khmer Rouge defector. Though it is know Nhem Ein ran the prison photo studio, it is not clear which photographs lie took and which photographs his assistants took.

Because the original negatives and photographs made by the Khmer Rouge were separated from S-21 inmate's dossiers in 1979-80, identifying the individuals in the photos is difficult. Most remain anonymous.

During S-21's years of operation it is estimated the prison held as many as twenty thousand people, all but seven of which were killed. All those pictured were killed.

For further information please contact Chris Riley, director of the Photo Archive Group.

Credit line: Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide/Photo Archive Group

Below. Addition photo copies  from the S-21 Archive obtained in Cambodia by Ms. Erin Gleeson, University of Minnesota student. These photos depict the aftermath of the photos shown in the original exhibition.

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Selected Bibliography

Readings on S-21:

Badgeley, Lya. "Archives at Toul Sleng Imperiled," Phnom Penh Post, June 18 July 1, 1993.

Barnett, Anthony, Chanthou Boua, and Ben Kiernan. "Bureaucracy of Death," New Statesman, May 2, 1980, pp. 668-76.

Becker, Elizabeth. When the War War Over. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Boua, Chanthou (trans.). "Planning the Past: The Forced Confessions of Nim," Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1976-1977.

Chandler, David; Ben Kiernan, and Chantou Boua, . New Haven:Yale University Southeast Asian Program Monograph Series, 1988. pp. 227-318.

Branigan, William, "Khmer Prison Still Haunts Nation," Washington Post, August 12, 1981.

Canvey, Timothy (trans.). "The Last Joint Plan," Cambodia 1975-78: Rendez-vous with Death. Karl jacksoned. ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. pp.299-314.

Chandler, David. "Facing Death: Photographs from S-21," Photographers International April 1995, pp. 14-22.

__. "The Photographic Record," Cambodia 1975-78: Rendez-vous with Death, Karl Jackson. ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 209-214.

__. "An Essay: S-21: Portraits From the Killing Fields, "A Journal of Visual Culture, No. 2:1, Deborah Klochko. ed. 1996.

Hawk, David. "Tuol Sleng Extermination Center (Cambodia)," Index on Censorship 15, no. 1, January 1986, pp. 25-31.

I-Jong, Juan. ed. "Facing Death, S-21, Photographs From S-21," Photographers International, No. 19, April 1995.

I-Jong, Juan, "An Interview with Christopher Riley and Douglas Niven," Photographers International, No. 19, April 1995.

__ "The Photographic Record," Cambodia 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death, Karl Jackson. ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 209-214.

Riley, Chris and Douglas Niven. eds.The Killing Fields, Santa Fe:Twin Palms Publishers, 1996.

Terziani, Tiziano. "I Still Heard Screams in the Night." Der Speigel, April 18, 1980.

Welaratua, Usha. Beyond the Killing Fields.. Voices of Cambodia Survivors in America, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Yale University Southeast Asian Program, The Cambodian Genocide Project,

Further Readings:

Chandler, David: and Ben Kiernan. eds. Revolution and Its Aftermath in Kampuchea Eighty Essays , New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Monograph Series, 1983.

Chandler, David P, The Tragedy of Cambodian History, Politics, War, and Revolution Since 1945 , New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

__. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.

Etcheson, Craig. The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea . Boulder: Westiew Press, 1986.

Kiernan, Ben. Pol Pot in Power. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

__. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Martin, Marie Alexandrine. Cambodia.: A Shattered Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Picq, Laurence, Beyond the Horizon. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

Ponchaud, Francois. Cambodia Year Zero New York: Henry Holt, 1978.

Ross, Russel R., ed. Cambodia: A Country Study. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1990.

Vickery, Michael. Cambodia 1975-1981. Boston: South End Press, 1983.