As a child I used to flip through the pages of the magazines my father would leave piled up at the entrance to his garage. The words didn’t mean much to me; I was caught by the images, pictures of a war in Vietnam, an event I found difficult to place in my world (a little french village that still had its own town crier).
In 1977, on the first day of my compulsory service in the French army, I was among sixty-odd men who gave on a single command the very best salute any men could offer their flag. I was stunned at how preconditioned all of us already were, how ripe for the picking. At the very same time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the Security Prison 21 (S-21), Nhem Ein’s duty was to photograph every prisoner upon arrival. The prisoners were then subject to the most atrocious abuses human beings are capable of imposing on one another. In 1977 Nhem Ein and I were the same age, and as much as I would love to deny the possibility, I wonder what I would have done in his position.
Two days before arriving in Phnom Penh in 2005, I finished reading The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop, the photographer and author responsible for the capture of the former head of S-21, Comrade Duch. My guest house was located no further than twenty feet from S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I made it my practice to pass through the museum’s gate every day, walk the ground, sit in silence in every room, climb every stair, and let the camera be the gate that would welcome every breath left of history in an attempt to reveal the enigma of our existence.