UW Libraries Blog

April 26, 2020

Libraries’ Installation The Age of the Kampuchea Picture Wins a Center for Research Libraries Primary Source Award

Judith Henchy, Ph.D., MLIS Head, Southeast Asia Section, Special Assistant to the Dean of University Libraries for international Programs; Affiliate Faculty, Jackson School of International Studies University of Washington Libraries

“Every time I remember Elizabeth Becker’s pictures, I cannot help but see Pol Pot’s total control of the production and consumption of these images; his vision of Kampuchea saturates them all.  I cannot see beyond it.”

–Adrian Alarilla

The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) has awarded the 2020 Primary Source Award in the Research category to  a collaboration between the Libraries’ Southeast Asia Section, artist Adrian Alarilla, and Anthropology Prof. Jenna Grant on the video installation The Age of the Kampuchea Picture.  The award recognizes “the innovative application of methodologies to open or expand avenues of scholarly research in the social sciences or humanities.” The installation is based on the notes and photographs of New York Times journalist Elizabeth Becker’s historic visit to Democratic Kampuchea, which took place just a few days before the Vietnamese army overthrew the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in December 1978.

Becker began transferring her materials to UW Special Collections in 2007, when she realized their importance as evidence in the context of the United Nations Khmer Rouge Tribunal, to which she was called to testify.

Betsy Wilson, vice provost for digital initiatives and dean of University Libraries recalls meeting Becker in 2010.

“I met Elizabeth in Washington, DC to receive and personally transport a group of images back to UW Libraries for processing. It was one of many transfers that would eventually become the Becker Collection,” says Wilson. “She knew how special and rare the images were—representing her very unique experience and perspective as a photo journalist during an extraordinary time in history. We are grateful to Becker for entrusting such a unique collection to UW Libraries.”

When she gave her materials, she was also concerned about making them available to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh, a research and visual training organization which she had helped establish with French Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh.  As a result of her request,   the Libraries digitized the photographs and notes from her trip.  The collection is available in UW Special Collections:  the Elizabeth Becker Cambodia and Khmer Rouge Collection, 1970-1988

exhibit folder

A photo of the installation at UW Libraries Research Commons in 2017

The Age of the Kampuchea Picture is an interactive video installation that was produced in 2017 in connection with the visit of Rithy Panh and Elizabeth Becker herself. The installation was a collaboration between the UW Libraries Southeast Asia Section, Adrian Alarilla, a Southeast Asia MA student in the Jackson School and Filipino-American filmmaker, and Prof. Jenna Grant, whose work in Anthropology has a focus on medical imaging in Cambodia.

Alarilla used Becker’s photographs, audio, and text to question the limits of representation under the authoritarian regime of the Khmer Rouge. The installation sought to express the violence of visuality that the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia projected through state power, and to explore the complex relationship between image, state violence and the ethics of representation. Elizabeth Becker’s photographs are haunting and ambiguous, even though most were clearly managed by her hosts.  At the time, the Khmer Rouge leadership was anxious to counter refugee narratives that were just emerging and spreading alarm in the international community about human rights abuses inside the country.

The audio file used in the installation is Becker’s interview with Ieng Sary. Known as ‘Brother Number 3’, Sary was Deputy Prime Minister in Charge of Foreign Affairs, and his interview is a remarkable testament to the regime’s hubris on the eve of its overthrow. He asks the journalists repeatedly whether they believe refugee reports or what they “have seen with their own eyes.”  The installation speaks to the question of what is allowed to be seen, what is hidden, and how we might seek the truth in that absence of seeing.  Alarilla has taken inspiration from Martin Heidegger’s essay “Age of the World Picture” to theorize the epistemological violence of state optics under the Khmer Rouge through his work.  This violence is embodied in its very absence; as Becker has noted in her subsequent writings about the trip, the pictures of real life are strikingly missing.

Our challenge as a library was to create an exhibit featuring the photographic evidence from Becker’s visit while acknowledging that its images are tainted as representations projected by the Democratic Kampuchean state order.  Alarilla’s work helped us address this challenge by creating an artistic installation that was both visually ambiguous and interactive. The installation comprises a video projection of a selection from Becker’s black and white images and a makeshift screen made of photocopied documents from her typed notes, arranged to form a rough map of Kampuchea.  The pictures show us an industrious self-sufficient nation with deep cultural history. But in our representation of these materials, the projection is interrupted: the screen is not blank or flat but is a fractured, multilayered representation of an outline of Kampuchea made of documents, many of which contradict the ordered intent of the overlaid photographic images.  There are blacked-out spaces on the map, representing locations of the “killing fields.”  The 12-foot map covered one glass wall of the Research Commons lobby, with the projection from the other side of the lobby. The dark holes in the screen represent the locations where the senselessness of genocide overcomes the rational images of Kampuchea that Pol Pot attempts to project. The projected images are distorted as passersby cast their own shadow on the screen.  We, too, in the U.S., are implicated.  We, too, are part of the picture.

The Age of the Kampuchea helped strengthen Professor Jenna Grant’s connections to the local Cambodian American community; working with Cambodian American arts groups, we installed a Khmer language version of the installation at the Art of Survival festival in Seattle City Hall in spring 2018; and Prof. Grant was awarded a Whiting Foundation Seed Grant  for her public engagement project to bring Cambodian American and Cambodian audiences into dialog with the Libraries’ Becker Archive.

Our collaborative work with local communities and the Bophana Center, which also exhibited the installation in 2019, formed the basis for another significant, future project. Pending grant approval, the larger project would extend this work on visuality and reconciliation in a collaboration to bring the Libraries’ Southeast Asia archival collections into dialog with archives, memory institutions and visual artists in Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines, reaffirming the important role of archival collections in creative community memory projects.

For questions about the collection, and related future projects, please contact: Judith Henchy (judithh@uw.edu)