Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A few thoughts on Archiving the unspeakable: silence, memory, and the photographic record in Cambodia by Michelle Caswell

Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in CambodiaArchiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia by Michelle Caswell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is about the archive of photographs from the Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia. These are photographs of people who were killed by the Khmer Rouge. These photographs, while documenting most of the people from one prison, represent a small number of the total people killed during the time the Khmer Rouge were in power.

This book is a detailed exploration of these photographs, how they have been used, and occasionally misused, including one art book which seemed to ignore the fact that these were real people who had been killed. This book also investigated the power of documentation as the approximately 17,000 people killed in the Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia is a small percentage of all the deaths during the time of the Khmer Rouge, but because they are documented there is a focus on them. There is an interesting discussion of how they were used during a war crime trial, with Duch, the person on trial arguing that if the person had not been photographed he was not responsible for their death.

There is very interesting discussion about the importance of provenance in archival collections, including the reason for the records being created. In this context these photographs were taken as part of documenting prisoners, only seven people living to actually describe their experiences.

This is a very interesting, and disturbing book to read. The detailed exploration of why the photographs were created and the many ways they have been used provides ways for thinking about other archives, and their potential use. It also highlights the need to collect a range of resources.

This is a useful book to read to think about the social justice implications of archives, and other historical collections such as local studies collections in public libraries as it really encouraged thinking about who is included and who is excluded.

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