The man who photographed thousands of doomed prisoners at the Khmer Rouge regime’s S-21 interrogation and torture center confirmed Monday that he is auctioning off two of the cameras he used to shoot his chilling black- and-white prison portraits, as well as a pair of Pol Pot’s shoes, an idea that one historian described as ghoulish.
Former Tuol Sleng photographer Nhem En, now deputy governor of Anlong Veng district in Oddar Meanchey province, said that he is setting a starting price of $500,000 for the three items, money that he will use to build a museum of his photographic work in Anlong Veng, with a special focus on the Khmer Rouge years.
“Nobody and no organization has provided any help for my project yet, which is why I needed to hold an auction to earn money,” Mr Nhem En said by telephone. “The selling of these things will not make money for my personal use,” he said, adding that the total cost of his “National Museum Anlong Veng” is predicted to be $320,000, but that he doesn’t plan to pocket any profit beyond the costs for the museum.
“With the remaining money from the sale, I plan to build an orphanage, a center for the elderly and especially to build schools and a referral health center,” he said.
However, Mr Nhem En has said previously that any profits derived from the museum itself would go into his pockets.
The museum will be stocked with photographs and other items related to the Khmer Rouge, including mementos from Pol Pot’s last years, he said.
“I want to tell the public that I have also kept the tires used to cremate Pol Pot and Pol Pot’s toilet, too. These things are really the most historical items.”
The museum will not contain any of the thousands of mug shots a teenage Nhem En took of those tortured and killed at S-21. Many of those photos are on permanent display at the former site of S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime.
Mr Nhem En predicted that the most likely buyers for the cameras and sandals would be foreigners, but added, “I still hope some wealthy Cambodian people would want them as well.”
He added that he did not think his starting price was too high. “I think that the price I set for the auction is not expensive, because even the glasses of Indian leader Gandhi sold at auction for millions of dollars,” Mr Nhem En said.
A package of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal items, including his eyeglasses, fetched about $2 million at auction in the US earlier this year.
Historian Henri Locard, who has studied the Khmer Rouge, called the idea “unconscionable” when reached by telephone Monday.
“This man is revolting,” he said. “He could be excused when he was first engaged by [S-21 chief Kaing Guek Eav], because he was still very young,” Mr Locard said. “This is the only excuse that this man has. Now that he’s an adult, the idea of making money out of what he was forced to do as an adolescent is monstrous.”
Artist and S-21 survivor Vann Nath said Monday that he would not comment on the proposed auction. “These things do not belong to S-21, so the auction will not hurt or harm former prisoners,” he said.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said Monday that the former photographer has every legal right to sell the items, because they are his own private property. However, he added, “I couldn’t do stuff like that, because so much has been lost under the Khmer Rouge…. I don’t think that Cambodians will agree with this.”
In his experience collecting artifacts of the Khmer Rouge regime, Mr Youk Chhang said that he has met scores of Cambodians who have offered up their property free of charge to add to the historical record. He said he only recalls one other case of someone trying to make a profit—a British man who auctioned off a machete supposedly used by Pol Pot.
“I have not met a person who would do this so publicly,” Mr Youk Chhang said.
Oddar Meanchey Provincial Governor Pich Sokhin said by telephone Monday that he was unaware of Nhem En’s planned sale, and will discourage it. He said that he has supported the photographer’s efforts to collect items for his museum, but that he will call Mr Nhem En to ask him to call off the auction.
“Selling Pol Pot’s shoes and these cameras by auction is a commercial act, which is why I do not support this,” Mr Pich Sokhin said. “These historical items could be bought and taken away from this country.”
Mr Nhem En said that he will hold a press conference soon to announce the timing of the auction, and whether it will be live or on the Internet.