Prison Photographer’s Testimony Questioned

A former S-21 photographer told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Thursday that a man who has long claimed to have taken many of the black and white portraits at the prison—now on display at the museum on its grounds—was merely a trainee in the prison’s photography unit.

The witness, Noem Oem, said he was taken to S-21 in 1976 and ordered to learn photography alongside two others as part of a team ordered to record prisoner arrivals and deaths for the Khmer Rouge archives.

Noem Oem testifies at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh yesterday. (ECCC)
Noem Oem testifies at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh yesterday. (ECCC)

Two years later, Nhem En was one of three “children” brought to the prison to learn how to take photographs, but he did “not have any role to play” in the unit, Mr. Oem testified.

“When Nhem En arrived, he did not possess any photography skills,” Mr. Oem said. “He said that he learned photography skills in China, but from the way I observed, he couldn’t even insert the film properly into the camera.”

Mr. Oem, also known as Em Kimsrieng, said he was hesitant to teach his pupils too many skills, fearing he would be killed if he became dispensable to the regime.

“I knew that if we trained the young ones, if the young ones became experts, then the instructor would be killed, so I did not transfer all my knowledge to the young trainees,” he said.

Haunting portraits of thousands of men, women and children taken at the prison remain on permanent display at the museum, in the same buildings they were held in before being sent to their deaths.

The testimony came in the trial of regime leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, which includes crimes committed at Khmer Rouge security centers.

Mr. En, who claims to be in possession of a cache of Khmer Rouge era photographs, has made various efforts to profit from his role in the regime. Last year, he was banned from selling his memoir inside the museum’s grounds by the Culture Ministry, which suspected him of claiming as his own photographs that were not his.

During on Thursday’s hearing, defense lawyer Victor Koppe read an extract from the testimony Mr. En gave to the court during a three-day hearing in April in which he said he considered himself to be the chief of the photography unit.

Responding to the testimony, Mr. Oem said Mr. En had lied.

“Nhem En did not have any role to play,” he said. “He only came to study photography.”

Contacted by telephone on Thursday, Mr. En, who would have been in his late teens in 1978, according to earlier testimony, said he had indeed been mentored by Mr. Oem, but stressed that he was the head of the photographers.

“Yes, I was the head of the photography group with 10 members,” he said. “There were about 500 cameras at my home [at the time] and I had room for developing film as well.”

Mr. Oem’s testimony will continue today.

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