by Judith Henchy, Southeast Asia Section Librarian
“Every time I remember Elizabeth Becker’s pictures, I cannot help but see Pol Pot’s total control of the production and consumption of these images; his vision of Kampuchea saturates them all. I cannot see beyond it.”
The Center for Research Libraries recently announced that The Age of the Kampuchea Picture, a video installation resulting from a collaboration between the Southeast Asia Center’s Adrian Alarilla, the Southeast Asia Section of the UW Libraries, and UW Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Jenna Grant, won the 2020 Primary Source Award prize in the Research category. The installation was recognized for “the innovative application of methodologies to open or expand avenues of scholarly research in the social sciences or humanities.” It is based on the notes and photographs of New York Times journalist Elizabeth Becker’s historic visit to Democratic Kampuchea, which took place just a few days before the Vietnamese army overthrew the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in December 1978. Becker began transferring her materials to UW Special Collections in 2007, when she realized their importance as evidence in the context of the United Nations Khmer Rouge Tribunal, to which she was called to testify. When she gave her materials, she was also concerned about making them available to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh, a research and visual training organization which she had helped establish with French Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. As a result of her request, we digitized the photographs and notes from her trip. We mounted the installation in late 2017 in connection with the visit of Rithy Panh and Elizabeth Becker herself. Adrian Alarilla, a Filipino-American filmmaker and then a Southeast Asia Studies MA student in the Jackson School and Southeast Asia Center graduate student assistant, used Becker’s photographs, audio, and text to question the limits of representation under the authoritarian regime of the Khmer Rouge.
The Age of the Kampuchea Picture is an interactive video installation that aims to express the violence of visuality that the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia projected through state power, and to explore the complex relationship between image, state violence and the ethics of representation. Elizabeth Becker’s photographs are haunting and ambiguous, even though most were clearly managed by her hosts. At the time the Khmer Rouge leadership was anxious to counter refugee narratives that were just emerging and spreading alarm in the international community about human rights abuses inside the country. The audio file that we used in the installation is Becker’s interview with Ieng Sary. Known as ‘Brother Number 3’, Sary was Deputy Prime Minister in Charge of Foreign Affairs, and his interview is a remarkable testament to the regime’s hubris on the eve of its overthrow. He asks the journalists repeatedly whether they believe refugee reports or what they “have seen with their own eyes.” The installation speaks to the question of what is allowed to be seen, what is hidden, and how we might seek the truth in that absence of seeing. Alarilla has taken inspiration from Martin Heidegger’s essay “Age of the World Picture” to theorize the epistemological violence of state optics under the Khmer Rouge through his work.
As Alarilla notes, in his “The Age of the World Picture.” Heidegger writes of how epistemological frameworks, such as science, make nature a blank slate, drawing into focus some aspects and excluding others that are not yet tidy or systematic and therefore incomprehensible. Political theorist Timothy Mitchell brings these ideas to the field of colonial visual representation, exploring how an “exhibitionary order” was integral to European domination. Despite its anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Khmer Rouge regime twisted this modernist logic of ordering to its extremes: Kampuchea had to be emptied out, turned into a blank slate onto which Pol Pot aimed to project his seemingly rational image. In a way, Elizabeth Becker’s documentary evidence is a reflection of Pol Pot’s exhibitionary order. Belying the supposed rationality of his plan is the violence of the regime that is intentionally hidden from the view that Becker was allowed to witness and photograph. This violence is embodied in its very absence; as Becker has noted in her subsequent writings about the trip, the pictures of real life are strikingly missing.
Our challenge as a library and learning organization was to create an exhibit featuring the photographic evidence from Becker’s visit to promote the collection while acknowledging that its images are tainted as representations projected by the Democratic Kampuchean state order. Alarilla’s work helps us address this challenge by creating an artistic installation that was both visually ambiguous and interactive. The installation comprises a video projection of a selection from Becker’s black and white images and a makeshift screen made of photocopied documents from her typed notes, arranged to form a rough map of Kampuchea. The pictures show us an industrious self-sufficient nation with deep cultural history. But in our representation of these materials the projection is interrupted: the screen is not blank or flat but is a fractured, multilayered representation of an outline of Kampuchea made of documents, many of which contradict the ordered intent of the overlaid photographic images. There are blacked-out spaces on the map, representing locations of the “killing fields.” The 12-foot map covered one glass wall of the Research Commons lobby, with the projection from the other side of the lobby. The dark holes in the screen represent the locations where the senselessness of genocide overcomes the rational images of Kampuchea that Pol Pot attempts to project. Parts of images are distorted as they conform to the bodies of passersby. We, too, in the U.S., are implicated. We, too, are part of the picture.
The role played by Jenna Grant, whose work in Anthropology has a focus on medical imaging in Cambodia, has continued beyond exhibition of the installation on campus. The Age of the Kampuchea Picture helped strengthen Grant’s connections to the local Cambodian American community; working with Cambodian American arts groups, we installed a Khmer language version of the installation at the ART of Survival festival in Seattle City Hall in spring 2018. Prof. Grant was awarded a Whiting Foundation Seed Grant for her public engagement project to bring Cambodian American and Cambodian audiences into dialog with the Libraries’ Becker Archive. Our collaborative work with the Bophana Center, which also exhibited the installation in 2019, and the local communities now forms a significant basis for another major pending grant request. The Bophana Center has become a leader in the region, teaching documentary filmmaking with a focus on truth-telling and reconciliation through visuality. In his 2013 film “The Missing Picture,” Rithy Panh notes the obsessive production of imagery under the Khmer Rouge; the film is framed by the discovery of reels of archival footage taken by the Khmer Rouge. Against the background of this saturating imagery – including the well-documented images from Toul Sleng prison and the gruesome discoveries of mass graves that later emerged — his cinematic strategy is to enact this story of horror through inanimate clay figurines and simplistic tableaux. The photographic and filmic record, by contrast, is voided of meaning as it is over-burdened with it. Our pending larger project would extend this work on visuality and reconciliation in a collaboration to bring the Libraries’ Southeast Asia archival collections into dialog with archives, memory institutions and visual artists in Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines, reaffirming the important role of archival collections in creative community memory projects.