Killing FieldsChris Riley & Douglas Niven(Twin Palms, 1996)
In the spring of 1975, after a bloody and relentless seven-year assault against government forces, Cambodia and its capital Phnom Penh finally fell to the Khmer Rouge. Twelve months earlier, the leader of the Khmer Rouge and General Secretary of the Communist Party, Brother Number One Pol Pot, had been internationally recognized as the de facto head of state; however, this ultimate victory saw the initiation of ‘year zero’ and a subsequent four year reign of state-fuelled horror.
Once the Khmer Rouge had sacked the capital, the regime and its paranoid leader purged the educated and urban, forcibly evacuating all major cities to agricultural state collectives and a newly constructed agrarian utopia. Those accused of disloyalty were imprisoned in state detention centers, and of the estimated two million Cambodians that died during the regime, some two hundred thousand were tortured and executed as enemies of the state.
S-21 (a former high school) was one of the most notorious Khmer Rouge extermination facilities, ‘processing’ some twenty thousand men, women and children. The accused were photographically catalogued, tortured to submission and sentenced to a barbaric and savagely violent death. S-21’s photographic records (some six thousand negatives) were discovered in a filing cabinet on the former prison site in the 1990s; created as documentation of treachery, they are evidence of a sickening state atrocity.
The fate of those photographed is inescapable, penetrating the viewer with each terrified anonymous gaze. The same ruthless conclusion is embedded in each image, however much we wish to reach out, or believe in another outcome – misery, pain and death hang over each sorry portrait. Killing Fields is a seventy-eight frame nightmare that reeks of barbarity and violence – a ruthless work of staggering importance and overwhelming power.