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date: 22 April 2021

Visual Representations of the Genocidelocked

  • Maria ElanderMaria ElanderCollege of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, La Trobe University


It is often stated that it is not possible to completely understand genocide: its horror and suffering defy complete representation. For those not immediately affected by the horror, representations of genocide through photography and film are often the primary form through which genocide is encountered. It is possible to discern two key questions underpinning scholarship that engages with representations of genocide in photography and film: First, to what extent can photos and film document and thereby provide evidence of genocide? One version of this question is linked to that of examining “truths” about genocide—whether genocide occurred and understanding its intricacies. Another leads to questions about the role of photography as evidence and its limits in providing “truths.” The second central question in the scholarship concerns the role that photos and film hold in bearing witness to genocide. Here, the scholarship tends to be framed not so much a question as an impetus to “never forget” or “never again.”

During the Khmer Rouge genocide, somewhere between 1.5 and 2.25 million people were killed. While most killings do not meet the legal elements of genocide, the event is nevertheless colloquially known as genocide. Among the most known photographs from the period are the photographs taken at the security center S-21. Today, they stand as representative of the victims of the Khmer Rouge and have appeared at genocide museums, research archives, institutions of art, and as illustrations for various legal claims. The debates that have accompanied these appearances are illustrative of the debates on images of genocide more generally, focusing on, for example, limits of representation, the appropriate place for such photographs. and claims of voyeurism. Numerous films have been made about the Khmer Rouge period, some of which have been major commercial successes, others have been independent documentaries. Films such as The Killing Fields and The Missing Picture can be seen as bearing witness to the genocide, whereas documentaries such as S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine pose intricate questions about responsibility. Finally, it is noteworthy to pay attention to the way film appears within criminal proceedings, as this sheds light on the different understandings of evidence when the task is to bear witness and assign responsibility.

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