Exhibitions and Events Banner Image

Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia

Thursday, September 12 at 10:00 am
Ferman Presentation Room
Garden Library, CSUN Oviatt Library

Please RSVP to Mickey Martinez at mickey.martinez@csun.edu.

Abstract: The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for less than four years. In their brief but devastating rule, approximately 1.7 million people died from untreated disease, starvation, and execution. For many, the regime’s brutality has come to be symbolized by a series of black-and-white mug shots taken at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, where thousands of “enemies of the state” were tortured before being sent to the Killing Fields. Based on a soon-to-be published book, this talk will trace the social life of these photographs through the lens of archival studies, arguing that these images are records first and foremost and that archival institutions are playing a key role in preserving and providing context to these records. From their creation as administrative records, to their transformation into museum displays, archival collections, and databases, and their ongoing uses by Cambodians to bear witness to the regime, the mug shots are agents in an ongoing drama of unimaginable human suffering. While we are confronted by the unbearably heavy silence of the soon-to-be-dead victims looking back at us in the photographs, archivists, survivors, and victims’ family members are interrupting this silence by strategically deploying these records in legal testimonies, documentary films, and new photographs of Cambodians and foreign tourists looking at them, creating a new archive of responses to the Khmer Rouge. Through the use of the Tuol Sleng photographs, Cambodians are supplanting a narrative of victimhood with a narrative of witnessing, transforming records that document an unspeakably violent past into agents of social change for the future.

Michelle Caswell is Assistant Professor of Archival Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, where she is also an affiliated faculty member with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. She holds a PhD in Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MLIS in archival administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a master’s degree in theological studies focusing on Asian religions from Harvard University. Her articles on archives, communities, and social justice have appeared in Archival Science, Archivaria, American Archivist, The Journal of Documentation, InterActions, Libri, First Monday, and numerous edited volumes. She is also the co-founder and a board member of the South Asian American Digital Archive (http://www.saadigitalarchive.org).