By Khvay Samnang
Single-channel video, 51’48”
In 2008, cross-media artist Khvay Samnang was asked to take portraits of 800 high school students for their graduation. Through the process of repeating so many individual shots, Khvay unwittingly recreated the vision of mug shots of S-21, or Tuol Sleng, a Phnom Penh high school converted into a prison and interrogation center during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79.
An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned and tortured in Tuol Sleng before they were sent off and killed. Until recently, only about 5,000 photographs of victims were found, with a large collection displayed at what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In August 2012, an additional collection of over 1,200 photographs was discovered.
Khvay’s Reminder testifies to the way deeply ingrained trauma and memory can resurface through iconic visual references. Each student in Khvay’s photographs, originally exhibited as a single-channel video, wears a nametag, as in the photos of Tuol Sleng prisoners. Because of the kind of lens he uses, the subjects look strange with somehow exaggerated heads when close to the camera. Without the artist suggesting the topic, the students are reminded about the prison photos through this process. The students articulated this to Khvay as they posed for his camera, complaining that his composition had disturbing connotations, which he had not previously considered. With this in mind, we might imagine that Khvay’s images document the precise instant of the students’ remembering. In each shot, it seems that their expression captures the moment when they are thinking about the Tuol Sleng portraits.
Though in color format, the simple, repeating grid composition of the photographs closely resembles the photo panels displayed in Tuol Sleng, reconnecting viewers to the notorious regime, which killed approximately 2.2 million Cambodians.
_ Vuth Lyno