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date: 21 February 2018

Visual Representations of the Genocide

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: genocide, photography, film, the Khmer Rouge, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC, also known as Khmer Rouge Tribunal)

Genocide and the Visual

Following Adorno’s injunction that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (Adorno, 1983, p. 34), it is often stated that it is not possible to completely understand genocide: its horror and suffering defy complete representation. Any representation of genocide will only ever be partial and specific, whether that is in law, art, or language. 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. These cultural representations are important media through which to learn, try to understand, and bear witness to what has happened. At the same time, images of genocide raise questions about the ethics of viewing suffering and the limits of representation.

This article is concerned with visual representations of genocide, primarily film and photography. It is possible to discern three main approaches in such scholarship: The first two examine the extent to which photos and film can document and thereby provide evidence of genocide. One version of this examines “truths” of a particular genocide—whether what occurred amounted to genocide, and then understanding its intricacies—by examining images. The second version focuses instead on the role of photography, questioning and examining its role as evidence and in providing “truths.” The third central approach may flow on from an examination of an event, but rather than examining photographs, uses them as an impetus to “never forget” or “never again.”

The scholarly field on genocide is immense. Genocide is approached from a wide range of disciplines, including law, sociology, journalism, history, and studies in trauma, memory, transitional justice, archive, visual arts, and criminology. Reflective of this disciplinary breadth is the range of questions posed. Some of these are concerned with the effectiveness of preventive mechanisms on the global level and the mechanisms of genocide on structural and individual levels. Others examine particular events or practices of memorialization in which genocide forms the background. There is also an interdisciplinary concern with the representations of genocide and the way images relate to genocide.

As a way of illustrating visual representations of genocide and the scholarly field the topic occupies, this article focuses on representations of the Khmer Rouge period. This is a useful case to examine not only for its many cultural artifacts, but also because the status of the Khmer Rouge atrocity as “genocide” is contentious. Although the atrocity is known as a genocide, both colloquially and in much of the scholarship on the period, most of the crimes that occurred do not meet the legal elements of genocide. There was no intent to destroy a group distinct from that of the perpetrators,1 something that is required to meet the elements of the Genocide Convention. Before turning the particular questions relating to cultural and visual representations of genocide, it is therefore important to note that there are competing definitions of genocide: colloquial, scholarly, and legal. The authoritative legal definition is found in the Genocide Convention,2 which in Article 2 states that:

genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:

  1. a) Killing members of the group;

  2. b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  3. c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  4. d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  5. e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948).

Most subsequent legal definitions, such as the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, adhere to this definition. There are two main problems with this legal definition. Firstly, genocides that have sprung out of colonial practices tend to fall outside this definition. This has partly to do with the lack of legal recognition of cultural genocides, something that generally excludes forced assimilations of indigenous populations through destruction of cultural artifacts and banning of languages. Furthermore, it has been difficult to demonstrate the existence of the necessary intent to destroy the group with colonial genocides, as many practices that are arguably genocidal were introduced with a misplaced idea of “welfare.” One such example that therefore does not amount to genocide is the Australian policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families (the so called “stolen generation”), a policy aimed at assimilation and under the banner of “protection,” but which ripped families, communities, and individuals apart (Australian Human Rights Commission, 1997; van Krieken, 2004). These examples also demonstrate the limits of the applicability of the Genocide Convention in circumstances where killing was not the primary means. The second controversy concerns the limitation of “groups” to national, ethnical, racial, or religious. During the negotiations for the Genocide Convention, there were suggestions to include other forms of groups such as political, linguistic, ideological, and economic, as well as a residual “other.” All of these were ultimately rejected (Schabas, 2009, p. 117). As a result, some scholars who otherwise follow the definition set out in the Genocide Convention add “political” as a group to better recognize the diversity of the harm (e.g., Rafter, 2016). Nevertheless, it remains the case that the definition presented in the Convention is limited and excludes events that are otherwise considered genocides from being legally recognized as such.

The Khmer Rouge genocide is one such example. Between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979, Cambodia was called Democratic Kampuchea and was ruled by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge. During this period, somewhere between 1.5 and 2.25 million people, or a fifth of the population, lost their lives from purges, starvation, overwork, and lack of sanitation and medical care—although definite numbers are difficult to ascertain (Heuveline, 2015). Cities were evacuated, hospitals closed, an advanced security apparatus implemented, and people starved as impossible quotas for producing rice were introduced (see e.g., Becker, 1998; Chandler, 1999; Hinton, 2004; Kiernan, 2008; Vickery, 1984). However, because there were no national, ethnic, racial, or religious distinctions between most victims and the regime leaders, the event does not formally meet the legal criteria for genocide. Despite this tension between legal and cultural understandings of genocide, in this article, the Khmer Rouge atrocities are referred to as constituting genocide, given that this is the way it is known colloquially and by most non-legal scholars.

This article on the visual representations of the Khmer Rouge period has three parts: The first engages with discussions on the role of the camera and photography in the context of genocide and focuses on the photographs taken at the Khmer Rouge security center S-21. The second part attends to representations of genocide in film and examines a number of films on the Khmer Rouge period that, in different ways, engage with questions about responsibility, memory, and trauma. Finally, the review section of this article looks more broadly at criminological engagements with genocide and with cultural representations of genocide.

Capturing Genocide

The Camera as Part of a Genocidal Practice

The camera may capture genocide, but only sometimes is the aim to stop the violence. At other times, the camera partakes in the genocidal practice. This was the role of the camera at the Khmer Rouge security center S-21.

S-21 was one of 196 security centers operating during the period and the most important. In facilitation of the center’s purpose of identifying traitorous elements and producing confessions, a team of photographers and administrators worked incessantly with the documentation of the prisoners. The bureaucracy was meticulous, reminiscent of a police station or perhaps a prison. The details of those arriving were jotted down in files and mug shots were taken. In these photography sessions, some of the prisoners would remain shackled to their neighbor, mothers with infants would hold their babies, and some would exhibit evidence of recent beatings. Later, the prisoners would be interrogated in a practice that would lead inevitably to a confession. Even if S-21 resembled a prison in some respects, there were crucial differences. While at least 12,500 people entered the facilities—a number most likely closer to 14,000 or even 17,000, considering how many files have been lost (Chandler, 1999; Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia ECCC, 2010)—only seven former prisoners are known to have left it alive.3 Those who were killed were men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds. Many were targeted in centralized purges of perceived traitorous elements within the Khmer Rouge military apparatus; others entered the facility as a result of having been named in an earlier “confession.” The more important prisoners would often stay for months, producing long confessions that inevitably led to further arrests. After the inevitable confession, the prisoner would be taken to Choeung Ek Killing Fields to be killed. If the prisoner was deemed significant, s/he would again be photographed after death, providing a record for the bureaucracy of a task completed.

S-21 was a key component of the Khmer Rouge security apparatus (ECCC, 2010; Hawk, 1986, p. 25), and the photographs part of its practice. Indeed, as archivist Michelle Caswell points out, they “both discursively produced the criminals they claimed to document and enabled the administration of mass murder within the Khmer Rouge bureaucracy” (Caswell, 2014, p. 26). The role photographs played here was similar to that during other genocides such as the Nazi Holocaust. There, photographs were produced as part of the “scientific” studies in eugenics, with the aim of capturing individuals (and “races”) for the purposes of classification and ultimately “purification.” The Khmer Rouge were less interested in eugenics or race, but more in identifying “criminals” and “traitors.” As such, in the bureaucratic machinery of S-21 with its documents, files, and mug shots, the Khmer Rouge relied on the classification system developed by Alphonse Bertillon in 1879 (Caswell, 2014, p. 47). In this way, and what has to be seen as ironic given their anti-colonial orientation, the Khmer Rouge adopted a system of classification “thoroughly entrenched in French colonialism” (Caswell, 2014, p. 33). So, although the Khmer Rouge had no interest in eugenics, the mug shots taken at S-21 “primed” the genocide just like those taken in the field of eugenics primed the holocaust (Hinton, 2004, p. 280).

The Camera Documenting Genocide

The photographs taken at S-21 were part of the genocidal violence, but the camera has also played an important part in attempts to prevent or stop genocide. This documentary tradition can be traced back at least to the activists E. D. Morel and Alice Harris, who, during the early days of the 20th century travelled across Europe and the United States in a rally against the atrocities committed in King Leopold’s Congo. In what has been described as the first human rights campaign, their lecture series included a magic lantern show with photographs taken by Harris when, as a missionary, she documented some of the atrocities and their aftermath (see Hochschild, 1998; Morrison, 2004, 2010). These photos were to stand as “evidence” of the crimes, and “rouse any audience to an outburst of rage” (Harris in Morrison, 2010, p. 200). In his satire, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, Mark Twain muses: “All had gone so well in the Congo, but [t]hen all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible kodak—and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness . . . I couldn’t bribe” (Twain, 1905, p. 40).

The documentary tradition takes advantage of the power of photographs to depict something that exceeds the written. Photographs depicting horror are used in this way by human rights campaigners to shed light on injustices. The camera here operates as a witness, and the photographs depict something that words may not have been able to capture. For Roland Barthes, “language is, by nature, fictional,” whereas the photograph “is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself . . . Photography never lies” (Barthes, 2000, p. 87). This supposition of the authenticity of photographs and their ability to reveal a truth is what makes the camera a powerful means of documentary. For Barthes, the photograph stands as a medium of the past, bringing a “real” past to us in the present. It documents what has been or what has occurred. There are many examples of instances when this has been taken advantage of, and Harris’ photographs in the Congo are only among the first. Consider the many photos taken at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, for instance, or the photographs of young aboriginal children being inspected at their white man’s orphanage. The list goes on. Photographs and films have an ability to enter our consciousness as depicting or providing knowledge about genocides.

During the time Cambodia was known as Democratic Kampuchea, no such photographs were taken or disseminated. There were reports coming from refugees having escaped to the Thai border, and the French priest François Ponchaud, who had been expelled from the country, warned against the Khmer Rouge revolution as early as 1976 and 1977 (1978), but there were no photographs depicting the horror. Instead, almost all films and photographs that were taken during the regime celebrate the “glorious revolution,” depicting happy farmers and workers. The country closed itself in, allowing only a handful of visitors from friendly nations or groups who were taken on tours of a country most likely staged as a Potemkin village, where all were happy and life ideal. In this genre, we find the photographs taken in 1978 by Gunnar Bergstöm and Hedda Ekerwald during a trip to Kampuchea they took as part of a larger group from the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association (Bergström, 2009). The photos depict smiling villagers, clean hospitals and factories, and children at school and in child care. These photographs today are dismissed as “propaganda,” and its foreign photographers are questioned for the way they could let themselves be deceived or even blind. Yet, as Benzaquen argues (2015), this practice of “not looking” is more complex and involves a broader discursive apparatus that cannot simply proceed from all of that which is known today. Drawing on Liss (see below), Benzaquen points to the “‘chasm’ between those who experienced the events and those who look at the representations of these events nowadays.” This involves reflecting on the strategies employed at the time by those who were present while considering the “Western political and cultural assumptions of that period.” The challenge is, as she puts it, “how to turn such photographs into educational tools and make them ‘witnesses in spite of themselves’” (Benzaquen, 2015, p. 218).

Images captured during genocides play multiple roles, at times decrying and seeking to end the violence, at other times partaking in the genocide as part of its practice.

Viewing Images, Interpreting Genocide

The Khmer Rouge S-21 photographs were taken as mug shots, portraying criminals, or more precisely, “traitors” of the regime. As such, they drew upon the power of the mug shot tradition to inscribe criminality on its subjects (see Tagg, 1988). Today, however, the same photographs stand for something very different. Today, they are known as the Tuol Sleng photographs and represent the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. This shift in meaning and reading of the photographs illustrates the way photographs depend on their context for interpretation.

The photographs were discovered only days after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese, and their ability to evidence the horror of the regime was immediately recognized. Security center S-21 was turned into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and a number of the photographs were enlarged and became a central feature of the museum’s exhibits. Since 1980, the photos have been hanging at the museum, presented as evidence of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge (see e.g., Chandler, 1999; Hughes, 2003; Ledgerwood, 1999). In its early days, Cambodians came to the museum looking for lost loved ones. Today, the museum is frequented by both Cambodians and foreign tourists, and since 2011, it has been visited by participants in a Study Tour organized by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the internationalized tribunal tasked with trying senior leaders and those most responsible for the crimes committed during the period (Elander, 2014; Manning 2011).

Didactic Photographs

The museum has always had a clear didactic aim. The first main curator Mai Lam has explained how he saw the museum as “for the Cambodian people to help them study the war and the many aspects of war crimes . . . For the regular people who cannot understand, the museum can help them” (interview by Sara Colm, quoted in Chandler, 1999, p. 8). This didactic aim has been picked up by the ECCC, whose work in outreach aims not only to link the court and the general public for purposes of communication and information, but also to educate the public more broadly about the Khmer Rouge period. To achieve this, the Public Affairs Section of the Court organizes regular study tours to the court, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. According to one report, the tour is “educational for many participants as well as cathartic for some” (ECCC, 2011, p. 3; Elander, 2014).

For the person who has not experienced the genocide, what does a photograph tell? If the children, men, and women depicted in the Tuol Sleng photographs once appeared as “traitors” but now stand for “victims,” what is it one learns by viewing the photos today? Whereas documentary photography strives towards relating to an audience the occurrence of, for example, genocide, there is a strong tradition highly skeptical of the ability of photographs to depict truths (for thorough discussion, see Linfield, 2010). According to Susan Sontag, photos can affect you deeply, but the meaning of an image depends on words, as only narration can make us understand (Sontag, 2003, pp. 29, 89). For her, an encounter with a photograph can be “a negative epiphany,” and she describes how nothing has “cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously” as coming across photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau (Sontag, 1977, pp. 14–15). Yet, as powerful as photographs may be, at the same time, she writes, “[p]hotographic images [are] treacherous” (p. 2). Clearly not believing in photography’s power to rouse a public to prevent or stop a genocide, to take a photograph is for her “essentially an act of non-intervention” (p. 8). Similarly skeptical, John Tagg has written against what he sees as a problematic belief in the ability of photographs to depict reality. He argues that it is impossible to dissociate photographs from the larger social and political field, with its intricate webs of relations of power. Tagg insists that photographs do not depict the real, but that “every photograph is the result of specific and, in every sense, significant distortions” (Tagg, 1988, p. 2). In other words, while appearing as if they were automatic or self-reliant evidence that “proves” something, photographs are always already mediated. Photos require interpretation.

Regardless of whether approaching photographs from a documentary tradition or from a position of skepticism, there is recognition of a gulf or gap between the event photographed and the resulting photograph, and between those photographed and those seeing the photographed. The question is how wide the gulf is and whether it is surmountable at all. For some, what is important is the way the image or photograph leaves, or perhaps even is, a “trace of an encounter” (Cati & Sánchez-Biosca, 2015, p. 9) between the person holding the camera and the object—the person suffering or victimized. This is not to say that the trace portrays the whole truth. There are few, if any, who now believe the camera is able to capture complex circumstances or that the image can ever be “pure,” beyond framing devices or mediations. And so, for some, it is the gulf, and the effects of this gulf, that must be interrogated. Scholars such as Liss (1998) have attended to the “postmemories” of the Shoah, that is, “the imprints that photographic imagery of the Shoah have created within the post-Auschwitz generation” (p. 86). For her, the chasm that exists between those who survived and/or personally bore witness to the horror and those who come to the horror second hand, only deepens the “abyss” that the Shoah was. Here, the question becomes “not only about the appropriate form that representation should take but also . . . who can legitimately voice and recount the events” (Liss, 1998, p. 85).


The position and role of photography and other cultural representations like film as evidence of genocide becomes more complicated in light of the centrality of the Nazi genocide in Western knowledge about genocide. According to Buettner (2011), the Holocaust has become a sort of benchmark against which other events are measured, its imagery resurfacing again and again (p. 2). Indicative of this dominance is the way Rafter, in her book on genocide (2016), takes the Holocaust as a starting point, asking “What do genocides look like? Do most or all of them in fact resemble the Holocaust?” (p. 2). When it comes to the imprints of the Holocaust on representations of the Khmer Rouge genocide, the films by filmmaker John Pilger are illustrative. When the Khmer Rouge was ousted by the Vietnamese from Phnom Penh in 1979, Pilger was one of the first journalists to enter the country. After his 1979 documentary Year Zero, Pilger returned several times to make films about Cambodia and the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge destruction. In his works, he repeatedly draws links between the Khmer Rouge and the Nazi Holocaust. So for example, in Year Zero, the institution S-21 is presented as “Gestapo,” and the place itself is described as a “camp,” an “Asian Auschwitz.” In “Cambodia: Return to Year Zero” (1993), Pilger compares Pol Pot with Hitler. This type of referencing suggests that an atrocity is placed in relation to the Holocaust so that its gravity may be apprehended, at least by Pilger’s most likely Western audience.

In Cambodia, there has been concern about authenticity in the way the genocide has been presented. Not only is the main curator, Mai Lam, Vietnamese by origin, but also turning S-21 into Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was done with the help of specialists in Holocaust memorials. The mug shots were enlarged with the help of an East German team and throughout the 1980s, Mai Lam travel to countries such as Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, and Russia for research and studying museums in situ. Hence, Tuol Sleng has been accused of being “refurbished … to attract part of the sinister charisma of Auschwitz” (Thion, 1993, p. 182). According to Serge Thion, this imagery was “a conscious attempt … to introduce images drawn from the German concentration camps” (p. xix). For Judy Ledgerwood (1999), such accusations tie into questions about authenticity about a place, and whether they accurately represent the past or have been distorted by foreign elements (Ledgerwood, 1999, p. 89). Because of Cambodia’s delicate relationship with Vietnam, it is perhaps less the shadow of Auschwitz that puts authenticity into question in local interpretations of Tuol Sleng, but rather the Vietnamese influence over the narratives, embodied at Tuol Sleng in Mai Lam. In any case, it is the framing of the photographs that raise questions, and whether the photographs appear “out of context.”

If interpretation relies on context, it matters where the photographs—as an archive—are located. In situ in Cambodia, many of the around 6,000 photographs known to exist hang on walls and screens at Tuol Sleng. Whereas there was previously very little information provided at the museum, an audio-tour available in numerous languages was introduced in 2015. This takes the visitor through the place and the regime, discussing some of the photos in detail and replaying testimonies by survivors and perpetrators. However, the Tuol Sleng photographs have far exceeded the space of the museum, and now appear within a range of contexts. Collectively, they form part of an archive on the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, physically held as microfilms at Cornell University and at Tuol Sleng, and as an online depository organized by Yale University under the Cambodian Genocide Project.

Some photographs also appear as forms of illustration in books, films, and television. At times, the photo is presented simply as an illustration of genocide or political violence (e.g., Linfield, 2010). Often, the photographs appear as illustrations of the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge regime, accompanying narrations on purges. Sometimes, the words they accompany do little to explain their particular place in the regime. Consider the appearance of the photographs in the episode on the Khmer Rouge in Scream Bloody Murder, the 2008 CNN documentary series by Christiane Amanpour on the world’s many genocides. In describing the Khmer Rouge crimes and its victims, the photographs flash by, while Amanpour tells the audience that to achieve their goal of a return of medieval greatness—“a pure nation”—the Khmer Rouge “had to purge everyone else; the rich, the religious, the educated, and anyone from a different ethnic group” (Amanpour, 2008). In other words, the Tuol Sleng photographs in the documentary represent these particularly targeted groups. But what is not mentioned is that the vast majority of those killed at S-21—those whose photographs accompany her words—were Khmer Rouge cadres who had been accused of treason and of conspiring against Pol Pot (Chandler, 1999; ECCC, 2009; Elander, 2013). Now indeed victims of the regimes, but mostly targeted not because they were rich or educated, but because they were, rightly or falsely, accused of conspiring a revolt within the Khmer Rouge. The photographs taken at S-21 have then, as Barbie Zelizer argues in relation to images of the Nazi genocide, been “reprinted not necessarily because they supported a photo’s original publication but because they help launch new rhetorical arguments” (Zelizer, 1998, p. 187). In Amanpour’s documentary, the photographs thus support a claim that the Khmer Rouge targeted particular groups—rich, religious, educated, and ethnic groups, when this is only partly correct, and those killed at S-21 are definitely not representative of such a claim. Moreover, her reference to “the religious . . . and anyone from a different ethnic group” also situates the victims within the definition of genocide in the Genocide Convention. Today, the photographs also appear as illustrations of the work by the ECCC to educate the public about the Khmer Rouge killings. Here, the emphasis is not on the fact that so many of those killed at S-21were indeed Khmer Rouge cadre, but rather that everyone in Cambodia suffered during the Khmer Rouge, everyone was a victim, and only a handful of leaders were responsible (Elander, forthcoming). Thus, the photographs move between and across contexts, so that “[e]ventually, one reads into the photograph what it should be saying” (Sontag, 2003, p. 29).

Photographs, Art and the Aesthetic

The S-21 photographs have appeared also within institutions of art. The relation between art and genocidal images has long been controversial, some of which goes back to the uneasy position of photography as art in the first place. As de Duve puts it, “photography has become in the last forty years a vast gray zone where the boundary between art and non-art is constantly shifting and being renegotiated, on aesthetic, ideological, and institutional levels” (de Duve, 2008, p. 6). When it comes to genocidal images presented as art, a number of questions arise: Are there limits in the way genocide may be represented and remembered, and if so what are these limits (Biber, 2009)? If a photograph taken as part of a genocidal practice appears at an art center or gallery, does that make the photographer an artist (de Duve, 2008)? And what are the ethics of presenting images of suffering and of genocide as art? Does it beautify the suffering, as Walter Benjamin warned? There are many examples where the choice to present images or other pieces of arts that represent genocide have caused controversy and uproar. One such example concerns two exhibitions in 1997, with the S-21 photographs.

Images as the Other

In 1997, some of the S-21 photographs appeared in exhibitions at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and at the French photo festival Les Rencontres photographiques d’Arles. A few years earlier, two North American photojournalists had traveled to Phnom Penh and, upon seeing the photographs, decided to “rescue an endangered photographic archive,” threatened by a volatile political situation, [and] years of neglect,” as their project proposal put it (Photo Archive Group, in Hughes, 2003, p. 29). As a first step, their organization cleaned, indexed, and printed some 6,000 original photographic negatives. In addition, 100 photographs were chosen for reproduction, most of which were then published by the art and photography publishers Twin Palms in a book called The Killing Fields (Riley & Niven, 1996). Notably, the two journalists claimed copyright over the photographs they reproduced. MoMA selected some twenty photos of the 100 reproduced for an exhibition in 1997. Shortly thereafter, it bought a few of the photos. The exhibition was presented in one of their smaller galleries “where visitors may pause to sit and read, to rest and reflect” (MoMA in Hughes, 2003, p. 34). Although the exhibition was meant to function as “bearing witness to violations of civility and human rights” (MoMA’s senior curator of photography, Susan Kismaric in Hughes, p. 37), it sparked much controversy. As Rachel Hughes points out, the photos were presented as having been “discovered” by the two North America photojournalists, despite having been on display at Tuol Sleng since 1980. Not only is the claim inaccurate, it also plays into colonial and developmental narratives of heroic Westerners who “discover” and “save” non-Western artifacts. This presentation of “otherness” was reinforced through the way the Khmer Rouge period was presented in the materials of the exhibition as completely detached from the larger geo-political struggles. The only context given to the rise of Khmer Rouge regime was a reference to their “seiz[ure] of power in Cambodia … after five years of disastrous civil war” (MoMA in Hughes, p. 35). There was no mention of the deep involvement of the United States in this war. This meant that the photos on display, and the atrocity they represented, could be approached as completely detached from the place of the exhibition. As Guy Trebay pointed out in the Village Voice, the exhibition did little to answer questions about who those photographed were or about “the role of our own amnesiac culture in the atrocities that took place” (Trebay in Hughes, 2003, p. 36). Instead, the visitor was left to view the photographs as exotic exhibits, results of events that could be isolated to that particular place and time (Hughes, p. 36). Furthermore, some also questioned whether it was appropriate to present the photographs at an institution of art in the first place. One visitor suggested, for example, it would have been better placed at the office of the United Nations (Hughes, p. 37). This last question was also the basis for the criticism by art critic de Duve, who visited the exhibition in Arles.

Photos, Aesthetics and Ethics

The exhibition in Arles was part of a larger photo festival, which went under the motto of “ethics, aesthetics, politics.” Explicit regard was here given to the potential problems of presenting atrocity images alongside those by artists. Main curator Christian Coujolle organized the exhibition, simply called “S-21,” as part of a segment called “Duty of Memory.” According to him, its inclusion in the festival was political rather than aesthetic, aiming to “remind us that two million people … had been massacred” (Coujolle in de Duve, 2008, p. 4). de Duve was not convinced. Is it possible to disregard the aesthetic quality in the photographs? And what about the humanist legitimation for art, tied with the idea that artists act as spokespeople for humanity? How can we reconcile this with the photographers here being part of the genocidal machine? For de Duve, the exhibition called for an examination of “the legitimacy of art and the art institution in the face of radical evil” (de Duve, 2008, p. 4). According to him, a fundamental problem when curating this type of atrocity photography at an art institution is the way the aesthetic concern is disavowed (p. 10). However, whereas the aesthetics are disavowed by the curator, they were clearly outspoken by the two photojournalists who claimed to have “discovered” the photographs. In an interview in a photography journal, the two describe their initial reaction when seeing the photos in Cambodia:

“When we saw the original six-by six negatives, we knew we could make very good prints,” said Niven. Riley corroborated: “We could create exceptional quality prints from these negatives. And with this quality, we could get them into publications, galleries, and museums, so as to reach a wider audience.” Asked whether their project evolved out of photographic or historical concern, Riley answered, “Our initial reaction was purely photographic,” and Niven added, “Even though they were of horrible subject matter, with horrible histories, we saw the possibility of making beautiful photographs.”

(de Duve, 2008, p. 11)

The publisher at Twin Palms is even more explicit about his aesthetic judgment: “I thought they were the most amazing photos I’d seen in years. The emotional rapport the viewer has with subjects I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I thought to myself, ‘That’s as good as photography gets’” (de Duve, 2008, p. 11). For de Duve, this is highly problematic and difficult to accept. For him, there is a role as spokesperson for humanity in being an artist. But if this is the case, does that mean the photographers at S-21 also acted as representatives of humanity? Again and again, de Duve comes back to the difficulty of conceiving of the photographers at S-21 as artists. For him, the only way to ethically respond to the photos and the exhibition is to address the people in the photos, one by one. Only then can he “acknowledge receipt of their gaze” (p. 22). This is imperative, even a responsibility, he states, as the persons photographed were not addressed by those who took their photo (p. 23). Given that de Duve sees the photos at an exhibition at which there are “only” one hundred photographs, that may be a possible ethical response. But what about those who see the photos at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, at which there are approximately 6,000 photos? Is it then even possible to meet the eyes of each and every individual? And what is at stake in such an enterprise or notion of ethics?

These questions are linked with those on the limits to the representations of genocide and the ethics of viewing images of suffering. Here, Adorno’s famous claim that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (1983) forms a starting point to a rejection of the possibility of any type of representation, and, perhaps in particular, visual representations of genocide. In this vein, an exhibition that included four photographs taken by Jewish members of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz caused uproar, and the art historian who wrote the accompanying catalogue, Georges Didi-Huberman, was accused of voyeurism. The debate that ensued crystallized the division between those who outright rejected all representations of genocide and those who saw things as more complicated. For example, Claude Lanzmann, whose film Shoah (see below) contained no archival footage, argues that “the Shoah is unimaginable and has, even should have, no image” (Carrabine, 2014, p. 149). In contrast, Didi-Huberman’s response is more nuanced. As Carrabine explains, his presentation of “the remaining fragments offer a compelling sense of illumination which should not be confused with a claim of total comprehension” (p. 149). It is against such a debate that de Duve views the S-21 photographs, one in which viewing genocidal images is clad with claims of voyeurism and the unrepresentability of genocide. What further complicates the ethics of viewing the S-21 photographs is the way the viewer remains in the position of the photographer. If the viewer can be said to meet the gaze of the photographed, s/he does so from the position of the perpetrator. In response to this, it seems like de Duve seeks to replace the position previously taken by perpetrator: He finds himself compelled to “address . . . each person in the photos, individually before I could acknowledge receipt of their gaze . . . Only then did the people in the photos rise from the dead” (p. 22).


Whereas the question that interests Sontag relates to interpretation and how well (or poorly) photographs narrate, and de Duve is concerned with the relation between photographs, aesthetics, and humanity, scholars such as Alison Young are more interested in the affective qualities of images. Approaching the Tuol Sleng images from this perspective—which Young calls “criminological aesthetics”—means asking questions about “the images themselves and the relation between the spectator and the image” (Young, 2010, p. 83). Affect here is not so much about emotions as about relations and intensity. For her, this is to ask “what affect arises from an encounter with an image of crime? how does such an affective encounter relate to the politico-cultural and legal factors which limit what it is possible to say and do about a particular image?” (p. 85). It is difficult to take in 6,000 photos, such as those hanging at Tuol Sleng. As this kind of mass of photos, they remain what Barthes called studium, horrible “scenes” that require the “rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture” (Barthes, 2000, p. 26). Yet, something in the photographs pulls the viewer closer. In one image, the young girl looks at the photographer/viewer with disbelief, another with what seems to be charm. This is what Barthes called punctum, that which “pricks” the viewer (p. 27). This may be a detail, but it may, just the same, be something else. Commenting on “Portrait of Lewis Payne,” a photo by Alexander Gardner (1865) of a young handsome man sitting casually with his head leaning back on the bright wall, Barthes writes that the punctum here is the knowledge that he is on death row: “he is going to die” (Barthes, 2000, pp. 95–96). In this way, the concepts of punctum and studium help us tease out the affective responses.

Faced with the Tuol Sleng images, what pulls one closer is only partly a striking feature of the individual, it is also (or even primarily) the knowledge of the atrocities that followed: the smashing, the killing, the brutality. Approaching the photographs from the perspective of criminological aesthetics allows then for appreciating them beyond any epistemological knowledge that they may or may not reveal. Instead, there is a power in the photographs that calls for an attention to their affective function: who does the viewer become through the encounter? How do the collectives of viewers constitute themselves in relation to the images? Consider the way the ECCC takes participants of a study tour to the museum and the photographs. Here, the participants are encouraged to view the photographs as evidence, through which they learn about the crimes and the killings. Yet, rather than offering much evidence that can be read, the images interpellate the participants to be just that—a collective of participates who take part in a national endeavor to face the past and refute the Khmer Rouge killings (Elander, forthcoming).

Filmic Representations of Genocide

Filmic representations of genocide have, as Nicole Rafter writes, done much to alter and affect “a worldwide consciousness of genocide” (Rafter, 2016, p. 10). Films on genocide are commercial and independent, motion picture, and documentary. There are those that are “retrospective,” and seek to “portray” the genocide; others focus on the activities after the events, such as the return of those involved and the justice mechanism, and yet others are “interpenetrative” and “attempt to merge the present and the past” (Hron, 2012). For Michelle Brown and Nicole Rafter (2013), it is primarily documentary films that are relevant for criminology, as these hold a capacity to contribute towards a public criminology of genocide through their critical questions (pp. 1019–1020). In this section on representations of genocide in film, attention is paid primarily to two categories of films about the Khmer Rouge genocide: Films that operate as testimonies to the genocide and films that examine questions of responsibility. Additionally, attention is paid to the relationship between court proceedings and film. While the films discussed are highly multi-genre, they are made after the events, are based on the stories of “real” people, and return to the scene and time of the genocide. While the categories of films discussed at times overlap, films that operate as testimonies proceed with clearer imperatives to bear witness whereas films that examine questions of responsibility are more investigative, probing difficult questions. However, before attending to these categories, another form of film calls for attention, namely the activist documentary.

John Pilger was one of the first Western documentary film makers to arrive in Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from Phnom Penh. The resulting documentary Year Zero—The Silent Death of Cambodia (Pilger & Munro, 1979) is a film on the destruction of the regime and the desperate situation of survivors. Highly critical of the cold war geo-politics, Pilger’s film was an accusation equally against the Khmer Rouge regime and against the West for failing to denounce Pol Pot and provide aid to the people. It depicted children starving and dying, it heard hospital workers lamenting the lack of equipment, and survivors testifying to the horrors of the last few years. If the aim of the film was to trigger a reaction from the West, and in particular the British population, it was a success. According to Pilger, within a day, ordinary British bus drivers, retirees, and parents had donated £1 million “to Cambodia,” and within a year, that sum had reached £20 million (Pilger, 2009). There is an immediacy about the film, a sense of urgency to immediately help the starving. As such, it is not a film that raises difficult questions about personal responsibility or the human within genocide; but with its geo-political critique, it calls for immediate public reaction. Thus, this is film as a kind of activism. These films tend to receive less scholarly attention, in contrast to the commercially successful and the in-depth documentaries that either seek to bear witness or understand the genocide, films to which I now turn.

Bearing Witness to the Genocide

Roland Joffe’s blockbuster motion picture The Killing Fields, from 1984, remains for many in the West the primary filmic representation of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. It is a film that seeks to portray the event through the story of the two protagonists. It is hard to exaggerate the success of the film. It won eight BAFTA awards and three Academy Awards and continues to be lauded in the press (see e.g., von Tunzelmann, 2009). More than 30 years after its release, it is also still screened daily in Phnom Penh, primarily for tourists. The Killing Fields shares much of the basic story line with other genocide movies (Wilson & Crowder-Taraborrelli, 2012, p. 5). In the attempt to not surrender to the utter destruction of the situation, it concentrates on the life, and ultimate survival, of the heroic protagonist(s). Based on a true story, The Killing Fields follows American journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterstone) and his Cambodian fixer Dith Prahn (Haing Ngor) as the Americans first bomb and then withdraw from Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge arrive in Phnom Penh. This type of commercial film is, for Brown and Rafter (2013), not very relevant for public criminology. In their article on genocide films, they argue that commercial, Western cinematic renderings of genocides are often considered “inspirational” (Brown & Rafter, 2013, p. 1019), but in their mind, because these films “pose less complex critical questions …, [they] contribute less to the public criminology of genocide” (p. 1020). As in the similarly successful Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Schindler’s List (1993), in The Killing Fields there are clear “good guys” and “bad guys” and an easily followed plot. Like The Killing Fields, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was a huge commercial success, but in contrast to the former, Schindler’s List has received much criticism in genocide scholarship. Liss describes it as “kitsch” and finds that it asks questions too innocently (Liss, 1998, pp. 101–102). More generally, it has been accused of “Hollywoodizing” and “Americanizing” the Holocaust, and of trivializing and sensationalizing the event (see e.g., Hansen, 1996). Some of the criticism can also be said about The Killing Fields. For Brown and Rafter, commercial genocide films like these “stifle public criminology, leaving it with little new to say” (Brown & Rafter, 2013, p. 1020).

Without necessarily dismissing this critique, different readings of the film and its success are also possible. Rather than focusing on the quality of the film or its questions for public criminology, we might want to examine the way the film produces a certain popular understanding of genocide. Thus, films like The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda can be read as containing or reflecting a particular lex populi, a people’s law or pop law (MacNeil, 2007) of genocide. Moreover, The Killing Fields provides a popular history of the Khmer Rouge period, educating a broader public about the events. Indeed, as stated above, many in the West first encounter the Khmer Rouge genocide through this particular film, and so it continues to provide a particular form of public education for people who were not there. The way it does so is in the form of a testimony: one about hardship, folly, and strength. As a successful testimonial film, it “reaches beyond individual narrative and reflection, functioning as cinematic witness as it counters silences, fills historical gaps, and provides a testimony that is polyphonic and collective” (Torchin, 2014, p. 32). To the extent that the testimony in Killing Fields reaches beyond Schanberg, it suggests that individual heroism is possible and that, although mistakes are made, nothing is impossible to rectify. After Schanberg fails to save Prahn from the Khmer Rouge, the two are separated. While Schanberg leads a comfortable life in the United States, Prahn struggles to stay alive in the countryside. Nevertheless, in the last scene of the film, Schanberg and Prahn are reunited—all to the tones of John Lennon’s Imagine. With this, the film ends with a sense of optimism and closure. Brown and Rafter argue that commercial genocide films tend to “anaesthetise the audience, offering spectacles of violence and telling us at the end that all is now all right” (Brown & Rafter, 2013, p. 1020). And so, with Schanberg and Prahn’s ultimate reunification, the film suggests that although things may get tough, everything will be all right in the end, and all will be forgiven.

Where The Killing Fields presents a story of struggle, hope, and closure, Rithy Panh’s documentary, The Missing Picture (2015), openly and directly refutes any suggestion that it could offer closure, or even depict the genocide in the first place. Instead, under the premise that events such as the suffering experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime fails to be enacted, the film narrates Panh’s experiences as a “new person” (the term by the regime given to a former urban dweller forcibly removed to the country side) during the regime, primarily through the use of clay figurines. In Pahn’s film, no answers are offered, there is no linear narration. It is a film that “works through” the genocide and remains ambivalent about the prospect of justice (Brown & Rafter, 2013, p. 1020). The film contrasts documentary images shot by the regime with tableaux vivants populated by clay figurines that portray the characters in the film. The film is what Hron calls “interpenetrative,” it vacillates between the past and the present, before and during the regime (Hron, 2012, p. 147). It draws on techniques familiar in trauma cinema that “deal(s) with traumatic events in a nonrealist mode characterised by disturbance and fragmentation . . . of [its] narrative regimes” (Walker, 2005, p. 19). In one scene, Panh offers his father the funeral he was never given, but only in words. His father, the clay figurine, lies in the grave and is covered again and again with earth, as if it fails to completely settle. Haunting the film is the photograph that does not exist, the “missing picture.” The only films the audience is exposed to, apart from those shot by the regime, are scenes depicting films that are still in their canisters, laying in rubbles on the floor, dusty, and possibly rusty. As Torchin suggests, “film, as a medium of record, becomes suspect” (Torchin, 2014, p. 37). The audience does not know what the rusty film canisters contain, but even so, they may not be able to represent what has occurred, as has been demonstrated in the case of the films produced by the regime. And so, whereas The Killing Field ends with the embrace of the two main protagonists, The Missing Picture ends with waves against a sandy beach, and the voiceover telling the audience that the missing picture is nowhere to be found: “The political film should unearth what it invented. And so I make this picture. I look at it. I cherish it. I hold it in my hand like a beloved face. This missing picture, I now hand over to you, so that it never cease [sic] to seek us out.” In this way, the film actively implicates the audience in a gesture towards the active role of audience and bystanders. It is the deep sadness and the inability to escape the repetitive waves that remain, insisting that there is no complete picture to offer. Thus, in relation to the question of representing genocide, The Missing Picture alludes to the unspeakable, while The Killing Fields gives testimony to survival.


If The Missing Picture and The Killing Fields can be categorized as testimonial, and Year Zero as a form of activism, another category of films turns the camera towards the perpetrators and examines questions about responsibility. These films are neither accusatory nor excusatory, but carefully and slowly raise difficult questions about responsibility and ethics. A classic such film (which also portrays victims) is Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoah, briefly mentioned above, and the significance of which is difficult to overestimate. This significance lies in both what is told and how. Controversially, the film proceeds as an indictment of Poland and Polish bystanders to the Holocaust. As a documentary, it is original in its refusal to show any original footage from the Holocaust: no bodies, no old newsreels, no soldiers. According to Lanzmann, “archival images are images without imagination. They petrify thought and kill any power of evocation” (quoted in Carrabine, 2014, p. 149). Instead, during the nine-hour long film, Lanzmann interviews the bystanders and survivors, victims and perpetrators. The interviews are long and slow, painful testimony to what is difficult to grasp. In Shoshanna Felman’s reading, the film marks a “conceptual breakthrough . . . in our apprehension of the Holocaust . . . add[ing] a new idiom to the discourse” (Felman, 2001, p. 201, italics omitted). Films such as Shoah are films that pose complex ethical questions and are said to “help us understanding [the genocide], empirically and theoretically” (Brown & Rafter, 2013, p. 1020). With their focus on the (alleged) perpetrators and questions of responsibility, they at times operate in parallel to the legal court where individuals are tried.

One such film that helps us understand the Khmer Rouge genocide is S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Rithy Panh’s 2003 documentary on the security center that condemned so many to death. In this film, we meet former staff at the center, responsible for the daily running of the place: the interrogations, the torture, the killings. Mostly filmed at the center, it “reassembl[es] the living memory of Duch’s S-21” (Lim, 2012, p.118), while Duch remains physically absent. Some of the other survivors—victims and perpetrators—speak to the camera about their time at the place and describe how it affected their lives. Some former prisoners and staff are also brought together. Vann Nath, who survived thanks to his skills as a painter, poses repeated questions to the former staff, but the latter are unable to answer. Their reluctance, or perhaps inability, to speak stands in contrast to the ease with which they re-enact their former tasks at the center. As they open doors and unlock chains that are no longer there, it seems that the movements have been etched into the bodies of the once so young cadre, as procedural or sensory memories perhaps not consciously available.

The film shares this feature of perpetrator re-enactment with Joshua Oppenheimers’s The Act of Killing (2012), which focuses on the leaders of the Indonesian anti-communist death-squad. In this latter film, the perpetrator-actors become more and more extravagant, and their acting more and more spectacular and absurd. As a result, the film fundamentally split its audience. Lauded by some and the recipient of numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the BAFTA Awards, others took great issue with both the aesthetics of the film and its morals. The British film critic Nick Fraser charged it with being a snuff movie (Fraser, 2014) that is “rich only in cruelty,” claiming it was “porn for liberals” (Fraser, 2013, p. 22). The film thus raised longstanding discussions over whether the camera aestheticizes, and whether it is ethical to view, images of suffering. According to Eamonn Carrabine (2014, p. 114), this critique can be traced to Walter Benjamin, who in 1934, wrote against “photography’s ability to beautify suffering.” In the words of Allan Sekula, this is the “pornography of the ‘direct’ representation of misery” (1978, pp. 867–868). This charge of pornography in relation to images of suffering has since been repeated ad infinitum, sometimes with the addendum “war porn” or “development porn” (Linfield, 2010, p. 40). None of this can be said about the aesthetically sparse S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Panh, 2003). Here, the soul-searching remains slow. Here, there is no visible make-up and no props, just the former perpetrators through mime, opening the doors, slicing throats.

While different in their aesthetics, what these films—Shoah, S21, and The Act of Killing—hold in common is a concern with the difficulty of narrating responsibility. They all film individuals who perpetrated—or stood by—horrific events. The results are troubling accounts of individual responsibility.

Film as Evidence of Genocide

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Panh, 2003) was filmed shortly before the start of the trials at the ECCC. With its focus on the perpetrators, the film operates in parallel to the proceedings, offering an independent venue for questions of responsibility. Although films do appear in trials as evidence, the ECCC has struggled to deal with film as evidence. In the trial against Duch, the co-prosecutors sought in their opening address to include footage from the film made by the Vietnamese as they entered Phnom Penh. The footage, according to the prosecution, was “relevant and probative as the only film footage known to have been taken of S-21 soon after its use as a prison” (ECCC, 2009). Yet, the defense contested the authenticity of the footage and argued it contained inaccuracies and was “politically motivated.” Ultimately, the film was not allowed into evidence as no verification of its authenticity would be possible within a reasonable time (ECCC, 2009). Nevertheless, the fact that the film was rejected as evidence due to unclear authenticity at the ECCC has not prevented the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum from displaying stills from the film. Here, the visitor can see, for example, an enlarged still depicting the children found at the place, one of whom appeared as witness in the trial against Duch. What the film shows is how institutions of law and history/memory differ in how they manage documents and in what sources they attribute authority.

At other times, the genres of trial and film merge. Whereas Panh has emphasized that his film S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is not a “court,” and he not a “prosecutor,” and he did not want his material to be used at the ECCC (in Delage, 2010, pp. 1101, 1104), there are nevertheless moments during which the filmic investigatory techniques are similar to that of a criminal procedure. Consider for example the technique of re-enactments, employed both by Pahn in S-21 and by the ECCC in the case of Duch. While Pahn was filming at the site, Duch was held in detention, waiting for his trial, and therefore remained manifestly absent in a film that centered around his work. Yet, not long after filming, Duch did return to the center to re-enact his routines, not in front of Panh’s camera, but those of the ECCC (Office of the Co-Investigating Judges, ECCC, 2008a, 2008b). On this visit in February 2008, Duch appeared alongside former guards at the center who had been called as witnesses in the case. In the images annexed to the report of the visit, there is a larger group of people that also included victims such as Vann Nath (ECCC, 2008b). However, the public has still not seen the whole film produced here. During the trial, the re-enactment was admitted into evidence and referred to on several occasions, such as during witness testimonies, but the film was not shown in full during the hearings. A film is said to be forthcoming, once all trials have been completed.4 In this way, the re-enactment organized and filmed by Rithy Panh provides the public a form of evidence of the everyday actions at S-21, whereas the re-enactment by the ECCC remains classified as secret, but with a promise of future knowledge. The films and their screenings pose questions about authority: who may speak and who may view. While the scenes of re-enactment may not differ drastically, the authority with which they are filmed and shown do.

Yet, documentaries do appear as evidence in international criminal proceedings. Such was the case in the trial at Nuremberg International Military Tribunal against the Nazi leadership, where the prosecution presented the documentary Nazi Extermination Camp. This was the very first time a documentary film was presented as part of the evidence of criminal wrong-doing (Douglas, 1991, p. 451). For the prosecutorial team, the film “represents in a brief and unforgettable form an explanation of what the words ‘concentration camp’ imply,” as the images were meant to “speak for themselves in evidencing life and death in Nazi concentration camp” (Dodd & Donovan, in Douglas, pp. 450, 452). In this way, the presentation reinforced the longstanding—and, as seen above, equally disputed—argument that certain images hold a self-explicatory force. But despite this emphasis on the power of the images, the focus in the contemporary commentary of the screening was not on the contents of the film but instead on the reaction of the accused. Throughout the screening, there was a light directed towards the benches where the accused were sitting, so that all could observe who among the accused watched eagerly and who turned away. Here, what seems important is not so much the film but the cinematic event (Rush & Elander, unpublished manuscript) while the question of its representational quality of a genocidal practice remains (see Douglas). With its emphasis on the self-explicatory power of the documentary, the film also forms a bridge between representations of genocide in still photography and motion picture.

What these films show, from The Killing Fields, to S21, to The Act of Killing, to Shoah, and Nazi Extermination Camp, is the wide range of filmic representations of genocide. There is no one genre of films in which genocide is represented. Films about genocide perform different roles: At times, films provide legal evidence; at other times, the primary aim is a form of dark entertainment, or possibly showing the way horrible events sometimes end well. Sometimes, the films provide education on the genocide, or perhaps confront the viewer with the trauma of genocide. What they share is a concern with the event of genocide.

Review of the Literature on Visual Representations of Genocide

The article now turns to look more broadly at the scholarly work that has engaged with genocide from a criminological perspective and the main works in photography on which scholars tends to draw.

As noted, the scholarship on genocide more generally is immense and approached from a range of disciplines such as law, anthropology, media studies, memory studies, history, etc.

Criminology came relatively late to the study of genocide. This relative lateness has been suggested to be because of the way criminology traditionally has approached crime as something defined by the state (Morrison, 2010, p. 192; Rafter, 2016, p. 15), whereas genocide is a crime often committed by the state. In an early article, Woolford argued that often, when criminologists deal with genocide, they treat it as a distinct problem completely external to criminology, a “thing” that criminologists can simply measure alongside other harms (Woolford, 2006, p. 89). Since that article, there have been more engagements by criminologists with genocide (e.g., Alvarez, 2010; Hagan & Rymond-Richmond, 2009; Rafter, 2016; Rafter & Walklate, 2012; Savelsberg, 2010). Within criminology, much attention has been given to understand the mechanisms of genocide. Hagan and Rymond-Richmond’s 2009 book Darfur and the Crime of Genocide has been described as a turning point within criminology (and sociology) for its theory on collective action, and Alex Alvarez’s 2010 book Genocidal Crimes was among the first thorough criminological engagement with genocide as crime, using classic criminological theories to examine genocide. Finally, Nicole Rafter’s Crime of Crimes (2016) is worth mentioning for the comparative method of examining eight genocides in the study of what genocide “looks like.”

Among the criminologists who have written directly on cultural representation of genocide are Biber (2009), Brown and Rafter (2013), Carrabine (2014), and Morrison (2004, 2010). In their article, Brown and Rafter argue that films on genocide constitute a particular form of “public criminology” that contributes to the public’s understanding of genocide. According to them, although “[g]enocide films are already part of public criminology” (Brown & Rafter, 2013, p. 1030), some films are better at pushing the limits of our understanding by asking difficult questions. Both Biber (2009) and Carrabine (2014) engage with the question of the limits of representation and the ethics of visual representations of genocide. In “Bad Holocaust Art,” Biber (2009) examines the controversy surrounding the presentation of artworks that purported to represent the Holocaust. In a nuanced reading of the claims and the artworks, she argues that there is a significant difference between finding certain aesthetical practices “bad” and suggesting that they are as bad or wrong as criminal conduct and, by extension, the Holocaust. Meanwhile, in “Seeing Things,” Carrabine examines four photographs taken at Auschwitz and situates these in the context of the production of the modern criminal subject that appears through the relationship between criminology, photography, and, might I add, genocide. He discusses the controversy that arose in exhibiting these images, explicating the common claims that the Holocaust cannot be (should not be) represented in images. Carrabine then turns to the works by Alfredo Jaar to argue that “the visual is always much more than the visible” (Carrabine, 2014, p. 154). Finally, in his works, Morrison (2004, 2010) seeks to expand the boundaries of criminology both by including genocide and by using photographs as worthwhile “evidence” or “data.”

Further Reading

Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over, The Voices of Cambodia’s Revolution and Its People (1998);Google PreviewWorldCatAlexander Laban Hinton’s Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (2004);Google PreviewWorldCatBen Kiernan’s Pol Pot, Regime, Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge 1975–79 (2008);Google PreviewWorldCatMichael Vickery’s Cambodia 1975–1982 (1984).Google PreviewWorldCat

On the Cambodian genocide generally, essential works include and

Michelle Caswell, Archiving the Unspeakable, Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia (2014);Google PreviewWorldCatDavid Chandler, Voices from S-21, Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (1999);Google PreviewWorldCatThierry de Duve, “Art in the Face of Radical Evil” (2008);Google PreviewWorldCatRachel Hughes, “The Abject Artefacts of Memory Photographs From Cambodia’s Genocide” (2003);Google PreviewWorldCatJudy Ledgerwood, “The Cambodian Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes: National Narrative” (1999).Google PreviewWorldCat

For work on S-21 and/or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the photographs, see and

Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)Google PreviewWorldCatJohn Tagg, The Burden of Representation, Essays on Photographies and Histories (1988);Google PreviewWorldCatAllen Sekula, Reading an Archive: Photography Between Labour and Capital (2003).Google PreviewWorldCat

Among classic works on photography that are often engaged in writings on cultural representations of genocide are and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003); and The more recent The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, by Susie Linfield (2010) stands out for the belief in an ultimately beneficial power in photography and the documentary tradition.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (2008);Google PreviewWorldCatMarianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (2012);Google PreviewWorldCatAndrea Liss, Trespassing Through Shadows: Memory, Photography, and the Holocaust (1998);Google PreviewWorldCatJanina Struk, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence (2005);Google PreviewWorldCatBarbie Zelizer, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye (1998).Google PreviewWorldCat

Among significant work on photography and the Holocaust are and

Allan Thompson (Ed.), The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (2007);Google PreviewWorldCatWilson and Crowder-Taraborrelli, Film and genocide (2012).Google PreviewWorldCat

Two edited collections on film and genocide are and


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ECCC. (2008b). Annex 1, Tuol Sleng, 27 February 2008. Case No 002/14-08-2006. E3/24 Office of the Co-Investigating Judges.Find this resource:

ECCC (2009, July 29). Decision on the Vietnamese Film Footage Filed by the Co-Prosecutors and on Witness CP3/3/2 and CP3/3/3. Trial Chamber. Case File 001/18-07-2007. E5/10/5.Find this resource:

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Material from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)

ECCC. (2008a). Report of Reconstruction. Case No 002/14-08-2006. E3/242 Office of the Co-Investigating Judges.Find this resource:

ECCC. (2008b). Annex 1, Tuol Sleng, 27 February 2008. Case No 002/14-08-2006. E3/24 Office of the Co-Investigating Judges.Find this resource:

ECCC. (2009, July 29). Decision on the Vietnamese Film Footage Filed by the Co-Prosecutors and on Witness CP3/3/2 and CP3/3/3. Trial Chamber. Case File 001/18-07-2007. E5/10/5.Find this resource:

ECCC. (2010, July 26). Prosecutor v. Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch (Judgment). Trial Chamber, Case No 001/18-07-2007/ECCC/TC 26 July 2010).Find this resource:

ECCC. (2011, January). Court Report 32.Find this resource:


Amanpour, D. (2008, December 4). CNN Documentary: Scream Bloody Murder.Find this resource:

Joffe, R. (1984). The Killing Fields [Motion picture]. United Kingdom; Goldcrest Films.Find this resource:

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Oppenheimer, J. (2012). The Act of Killing [Documentary]. United Kingdom; Final Cut for Real.Find this resource:

Panh, R. (2003). S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine [Documentary]. Cambodia & France; Arte France Cinéma, Institut National de l’Audiovisuel.Find this resource:

Panh, R. (2013). The Missing Picture [Documentary]. Cambodia & France; Catherine Dussart Productions, Arte France, Bophana Productions.Find this resource:

Pilger, J., & Munro, D. (1979). Year Zero—The Silent Death of Cambodia [Documentary]. United Kingdom; Associated Television.Find this resource:

Pilger, J. (1993, April). Cambodia: Return to Year Zero. New Internationalist Magazine. this resource:


(1.) The exception here is the violence committed against the Cham Muslim and Vietnamese minorities, which is currently being tried as genocide at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

(2.) United Nations, Resolution 260, Article 2, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948.

(3.) The NGO DC Cam (Documentation Center of Cambodia) claims to have found documents that suggest 179 were released. However, the released persons have not been identified, nor has it been confirmed that the documents are from S-21

(4.) The trial in Case 002, against the former leaders, is expected to finish with closing hearings mid 2017. Two more cases, 003 and 004, are still under investigation, but as these have not been signed off by the national co-investigative judge, their position remains unclear.