Pictures from Tuol Sleng (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

Written by on April 9, 2009 in Photo Posts, Photos and Stories in Progress with 4 Comments

Tuol Sleng, a.k.a. S-21, was a prison and torture facility used by the Khmer Rouge. Approximately 17,000 people were interred there with only 7 known survivors. If you are ever in Phnom Penh don’t miss it. It is a reminder of the reality of evil that we all share.


The woman on the far wall was the wife of leader in the Khmer Rouge. He fell out of favor, so he was purged along with his entire family. The baby was taken from the mother shortly after the photo was taken and killed. If you look closely you can see the extreme shock on her face, like all the hope had just been sucked out of her. She walked in the halls of power then sat in the victim’s chair. The security we build in life is such an illusion isn’t it?

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This boy was a Khmer Rouge cadre. Most of those held at Tuol Sleng were Khmer Rouge soldiers or peasants themselves. Perhaps his entire unit was purged because the comander belonged to the wrong faction, or just him for some reason. The tag says “1” because he was the first prisoner admited that day.

The second photo is a painting by Vann Nath, one of the 7 survivors (more here). He was kept alive to paint pictures of Pol Pot, and later he began to paint scenes at Tuol Sleng from his memory. This painting depicts a prisoner being waterboarded, a method used and developed by the Khmer Rouge that simulates death by drowning. Waterboarding has long been recognized as torture, but in recent years (to our shame) it was used by my own government under George Bush. Sadly, we have people in power who scoffingly refer to waterboarding as “getting your face wet” and would like to see the practice continued– though they would surely balk if our enemies used it on our own people. That will undoubtedly happen now. Recently, at his trial which is now in progress, the former director of Tuol Sleng (Duch) said that 80 percent or more of the “confessions” extracted by torture were probably false. People will say anything to escape unbearable pain.



I intentionally captured reflections of visitors at Tuol Sleng in these pictures of torture, including a reflection of myself taking the photo (see the man being whipped). I wanted to contrast torture and the passive audience looking at it from a distance. People are still being tortured today and what are we doing to stop it?



The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous photographic records of each person admited to Tuol Sleng and each person who died there. Many of the records were destroyed, but thousands of photos were found intact and are now on display. The photographer was a Khmer Rouge cadre (more of his story here).


About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Nice pics. I’ll visit again and give some substantive comments, but your photos are wonderful.

  • idon’tknow

    The Khmer Rouge were simply crazy,physco,ugly,stinky,naive,selfish,conceited,dumb donkey people. They are disguisting and are the people who SHOULD be tortured to death just like the innocent millions who died because of them.

  • Hmm, but many of the “innocent” victims in the photos were Khmer Rouge themselves, and all were Cambodians.

    When I read memoirs about the time under the Khmer Rouge, I get very dark thoughts toward them, too. But calling them names masks the truth that they are not “donkeys” but people much like us (too much like us). Torturing them, though, takes the other route of becoming like them.

  • zarfina

    i been there. if u want to know more stories contact me via email