A Prayer from Hell

mickyates Asia, Cambodia, Documentary, Falmouth, MA, Masters, Photography, Travel Leave a Comment

In Phnom Penh last week, I met Youk Chhang for the first time. The visit including a lot of such networking activities, in order to start the process of getting my projects executed next year in Cambodia.

Youk is the Director of the Documentary Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), which was founded by Yale University in 1994/5. He has led the center ever since, and is founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute. A tireless advocate of the truth, always using data, Youk was both welcoming and knowledgeable. I was impressed by how objective he was on the motivations and current perceptions of all the actors in this decades old drama.

DC-Cam has been independent of Yale since 1997, and is a Cambodian NGO. The Center has the world’s largest collection of archival material of all kinds on the Khmer Rouge Genocide.

DC-Cam was instrumental in providing essential data to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which pursued criminal charges against the KR leaders. I will not dwell on that Tribunal’s success or failure at this point.

In talking with Youk, we explored many areas of common interest, including my plans for an Installation and book in Phnom Penh, and his plans for the Sleuk Rith Insitute, a new Global center of learning on Genocide (and Genocide prevention).

In fact, subsequently we have been able to provide each other with several networked connections – ironically, mine in Cambodia and Youk’s in the USA.

For now, I want to note two specifics.

First, Youk showed me the one of the Rolleiflex cameras used to take the Tuol Sleng ‘mug shots’ in 1975-1979.

As noted in Michelle Caswell’s book, Archiving the Unspeakable, once a photograph was taken, the inexorable bureaucratic process of torture, confession and execution took place. Nhem En, the leader of the photography group, was trained in China, and is on record as being pleased with the technical quality of the images.

I picked up the camera, and pondered. How extraordinary to hold it, an instrument of death – not just philosophically but practically. It was a central part of the apparatus of killing.

Secondly, I shared my work on Traces of Genocide, as in the landings Exhibition.

I was shooting more for the series last week – not least against Krishna’s brief to explore the inclusion of humanity in the work, and Gary’s suggestion of ‘thicker’ images.

Youk was very complimentary and encouraged me to continue. He had seen so many approaches to and records of the Genocide, and wrote:

‘This is extraordinary! Wow!! 

I am very picky with photos in general. But this one is different in approaching the genocide topic. It really conveys how difficult it is to describe the crimes of genocide.

And traces also look like a Prayer from Hell‘.

A Prayer from Hell. With Youk’s permission, I am going to consider using that title for the work, both in WIP and potentially in the final project.


Caswell, Michelle. 2014. Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Madison: Univ Wisconsin.

En, Nhem & Duong, Dara. 2014. The Khmer Rouge’s Photographer at S21. Phnom Penh: Nhem En.

Flusser, Vilém. 1983 (Trans. 2000). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books

Riley, Chris & Niven, Douglas. 1996. The Killing Fields. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers.

Trouillot, Michel-Ralph. 1995. Silencing the Past. Boston: Beacon Press.

Tagg, John. 1988. The Burden of Representation. Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts.


All images featured here are all from my latest visit to Cambodia

Negative Traces

mickyates Art, B&W, Cambodia, Colour, Documentary, Falmouth, Graphic design, Landscape, MA, Masters, Photography, Traces, Travel Leave a Comment

As some of you know, in my MA I am working on Cambodian ‘Unfinished Stories”. The impact of the Genocide of 1975-1979 is still, in many ways, hidden. It is visible only in traces, both physical and psychological.

My project is not about the Genocide per-se, but it does need to contextualise that terrible event as it sits in the background of the personal stories that I am exploring and documenting. It is a part of my personal narrative about Cambodia.

In earlier work, I created images some of which, frankly, fell foul of being ‘dark tourist’ photographs – rather literal records of the museums and mass graves associated with the Genocide. Some were more successful, I feel.

Since that time, I have been exploring the idea of aftermath, shown by traces.

This work is influenced by that of Sophie Ristelhueber, Lukas Birk and others.

Partly through the exploratory work on Cyanotypes, I became intrigued by the notion of using negatives to portray these traces. I am acutely aware that there are lines of caution between effective and respectful documentary imagery, and over-done, crass, dark tourist photographs, and I began to see negatives as a way to both challenge the viewer and avoid some of these bear traps.

In researching the idea, I was intrigued by the work of artists such as Jennifer West, who uses projected filmstrips in interactive installations. West is, of course, taking the idea of using film way past my simple ‘traces’ exploratory. But her use of the negatives images inherent in the medium both as an artefact and as an apparatus is fascinating. She uses the images in overtly spiritual ways.

And the work of photographers like Daniel Nyblin (1856–1923) using glass plate negatives, has been shown to advantage alongside printed copies of the same images. In fact, I personally find the negatives more interesting, and more engaging, than the printed images.

Neither are directly applicable to my use of negatives, but both show possibilities.

For ‘Landings’, I have decided to show only ‘traces’ images, which frankly is a very narrow slice of my overall Cambodian work. Bluntly, I want to get feedback on the idea, and this seemed  way to do just that. Cemre and others have noted that this approach has some merit, though clearly much needs to be does to develop the work. For example, I have experimented with the idea of using semi-transparent ‘traces’ as interleaves in a  dummy book.

I think it is worth looking at how I got to this point.

First, a Photograph taken last week at Choeung Ek, known as the Killing Fields. Shallow, mass graves are visible. I am deliberately choosing a rather ‘generic’ landscape view, to see what is possible.

This was taken as part of a rephotography exercise. I first visited Choeung Ek in 1994, so here is an image from that time, in situ today.

Whilst I occasionally use black and white, my ‘photographic heart’ is in colour.

Still, I have experimented with black and white interpretations of the scene as I pursue traces.

I find this interesting, as it does provide more focus on the shallow graves, yet, bluntly, is lacking impact.

On the other extreme, I experimented with digitally creating ‘colour negatives’. Whilst the colour here is not exactly Kodachrome, I think it serves to illustrate what is possible.


More focus on the graves, but I feel it is falling into the ‘too arty’ category. I would greatly value the opinions of anyone reading this post. Overall, it is not really the kind of documentary image that I believe will sit alongside my story telling, colour  work.

I might, however, pursue Infra Red next time.

I have also done a very quick scan of some of my old negatives.

I do not yet feel convinced on the colour treatment.

So, I have experimented and created presets in Lightroom to manufacture ‘digital negatives’. Of course, if I pursue this approach further, I should actually take film shots in black and white, and use the negatives directly. Right now, though, I feel this is a good proxy.

I feel that is is beginning to get some power, focused a little attention on the graves, and begging some questions in the viewer’s mind as to what they are seeing.

When I go back to the very first image, above, this is the equivalent.

It seems to me that different details are being highlighted – the chain, for example, and the shapes of the flowers and bone shards.

In an allegorical sense, I do think this approach potentially has the power to highlight the negatives of human atrocity, the negatives of personal tragedy.

And, from an audience perspective, such negatives require interpretation. They are just not our normal way of seeing. Instead, these negatives are a step in the process of seeing, not seeing itself.

I could see these traces working alongside other images, videos and artefacts in a multi-media installation, and they would also be good to usewith light boxes.

Here’s the ‘Landings’ work.


Birk, Lukas & Foley, Sean. 2008. Kafkanistan. Austria: ?Fraglich.

Herschdorfer, Natalie. 2011. Afterwards. London: Thames & Hudson.

Ristelhueber, Sophie & Mayer, Marc & Ladd, Jeffrey. 2009. Sophie Ristelhueber: Fait (Books on Books). New York: Errata.

Daniel Nybin, at Public Domain review. https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/daniel-nyblins-glass-negatives-of-artworks/ (Accessed July 14, 2018).

Jennifer West, at Vilma Gold. http://vilmagold.com/artist/jennifer-west/ (Accessed July 14, 2018).