The Little Red Facebook by Paul Groot

Peter Klashorst puts new life into the portraits of Saloth Sar’s “blind photographer”.

1. The blind photographer

He is not an anonymous employee anymore; we all know the name of the photographer who worked at Tuol Sleng between 1975-1979 and took the pictures of the prisoners just before they were executed. He worked in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, at the detention center with the gruesome name S-21, where, during that time, 14,000 detainees were horribly murdered. He himself is still “alive and kicking” and anything but demented. He would like to forget this dark period of his work. Better not ask him, but rather go to the place of the crime… to the former S-21 prison where he worked during the regime of terror of Saloth Sar (the dictator of Cambodia, who called himself Pol Pot), where the portraits are exhibited. A horrendous series of pictures; a blueprint for our common memory; a database full of portraits of “important” and “less important” people who stared at death straight in the eye. Enemies of state, they were called and those pictures just “shot” before their execution were the living proof that the death sentence was actually carried out. All of this was to show to the constantly paranoid Saloth Sar that the treacherous scum had indeed been wiped out. 

He saw thousands of startled faces; thousands of faces in terror stared and looked at him, begging at times, though essentially vanquished, some calm, some confused, depending on each one’s individual character.  Again and again, these same glances from constantly different victims; children, babies, elegant women, battered men and elders. All this should sweep one away into an incredible depression. But nothing of all this was visible; nor to the highest in command, Brother No. 1, nor to the lower-ranking comrades in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy. 

Those who belonged to the elite did not know each other personally. But they were witnesses to this brutal period in the history of Cambodia. Two figures chiseled by a cruel fate and scarred forever. Yet each, at his own level, was called to duty as a Seer, with a capital S, and played his role in history. This is the kind of Seer we know from Ancient Greece: a blind man who travels through time and space and sees more than the others who actually see; while surprisingly being able to fathom the present, past and future through his insight, yet veiling his own handicap at the same time.

They both did not see what they had perpetrated: they knew it but they did not deal with it, because they were the Seers of a religion that made them untouchable. They were not in the right mindset when their utopian political dream became reality. One became the higher priest; the other the simple plain servant. Yet both were lead by a dream once started by Plato in Ancient Greece and then bequeathed by Mao Zedong until it became their own. The eyes of Pol Pot, the almost invisible leader, were blinded by the light of the permanent revolution which inspired him; our photographer became the documentary undertaker, the eyes of the models infected him and he temporarily lost all consciousness. The eyes of the living dead had ruined him already and, after that, he just continued as a blind photographer. Thus it was not necessary to judge the quality of his work; his job was to preserve the work for the next generation. Until today, he would never have thought that his exhibit and camp-diary would be recognized as a prototype for the Facebooks we are all addicted too. Faces in different variations with which we become friends at an addictive rhythm. He clicked a total of 14,000 faces, which, for a long time, set a record.

2. The Cambodian facebook of the blind photographer

It seems a fortuitous coincidence, but it is more than that. For decades the American universities and high schools have had their facebooks, the yearbook with all the faces of the students. If you look them up, you will find rows of innocent looking students with smiling faces, with funny looking square mortarboards. If you compare these to pictures from the 60s, these are often the same faces who later joined the American army and became crewmembers of the B-52 bombers. Innocent looking, friendly guys in their freshman year, yet later involved in the deadly killing machine which day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, caused death and destruction in Southeast Asia. Their own faces are erased behind their fireproof masks; by completely eliminating themselves, they drop bombs in turbulent seas of fire which destroyed large parts of Cambodia. 

From these high altitudes, the American facebook faces do not see how the nature and its inhabitants perish in hysterical fear and psychosis. But on the ground, on Cambodia soil, nobody is spared this deliberate destruction. Everyone in Cambodia - whether you belong to the intellectual elite or to the peasantry - everyone has to live with the consequences of this horrific bombing. The number of Cambodian lives destroyed under the carpet bombs (estimated number of deaths is beyond imagination) is atrocious; at the same time the country loses any unifying structure and becomes more or less prey to domestic and foreign adventurers. As a result of their devilish work, these neat American facebook boys, set the stage for the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, who cause an equally incredible number of victims with their Permanent Revolution (estimated number of deaths is beyond imagination as well). The devastating napalm from the B 52 bombers, the first perpetrators of this destructive hysteria, is no excuse for the terror and deaths at S-21, but maybe clarifies the reason behind the madness better. Saloth Sar’s cause was strengthened by such horrific bombing during his fight for a cultural revolution. In a way, the American B52s were responsible for the first killing fields but were relieved by Saloth Sar killing fields, of which S-21 was part. B52 vs S-21 and American President Johnson face to face with Pol Pot.

3. A retouched facebook and Mao’s Little Red Book

Welcome to the utopia of the Khmer Rouge, where the destructive effects of the jungle napalm bombing of the previous years take effect. Welcome to the darkroom at S-21, the workshop of our blind photographer, who unintentionally became the initiator of the Cambodian facebook. Of course he had no clue of this. Naturally, he was not aware of such a thing as a student facebook. Nevertheless, he makes one of the most fascinating facebooks of that time, which casts a shadow on all of its American variants. A facebook of Cambodian faces still alive; yet the development of the pictures turned them into death masks. 

During this period of time, 14,000 pairs of eyes pass in front of the camera of the “blind photographer” at S-21. On behalf of Brother No.1, this figure reaches 2,000,000 Cambodian people, yet nobody has seen anything. Look at a youtube interview with Pol Pot in later years ( You see him, a bright, handsome young man whom you might understand. Do you think that he is a Director of Death? Hear him talk; he is rather a victim, as his happy message has not been understood. Nevertheless if you still doubt his sincerity, you must remember this: how would you have survived the hell of those bombings? Perhaps in the beginning you would have still counted the casualties - one murder is gruesome, a second murder is repugnant, a third murders is really unbearable - but then, as the numbers increased, you would have become less vulnerable. And after a certain number, almost suddenly, the dead would have been just numbers. This is the time when one can work on the utopian dream, the bright future of humanity. This is what Saloth Sar embodies, the oh so human hallucinations with which he challenges the elite American war culture. He is now seen by many as the devil’s impersonator. Against the terror of war, he was able to portray himself as an idealist and as a definitive bastion against the bellicose world. In the face of the American bombings, he looked for a dignified alternative. The Americans wanted, as per their own saying, to bomb Cambodia back to the “stone age”. What kind of alternative did Pol Pot offer against this odious future? An idealistic view of the past where the pure, old customs gained ground again. Get rid of Western values, get rid of Vietnamese values and live in the true spirit of Cambodia! Is this a strange message after seeing everything destroyed by the napalm bombings? 

Saloth Sar, once a student in Paris, learned from a handful of thinkers and philosophers. He cherished their portraits and when the Khmer Rouge were on the winning side, he stored the pictures away in the “Little Red Book” given by Mao himself. This little book becomes his facebook, where next to the quotes of China's great leader Mao Zedong, Western thinkers as Plato, Hegel and Marx, Lenin and Stalin are allowed to join in. A list of names that inspired him, but in which he probably could not see the danger. The insight came from the French philosopher André Glucksmann, when the terrible consequences of their ideology gradually surfaced. Gluckmann’s insights into the disastrous impact of these gallant philosophers is spectacular. In his books The Master Thinkers and The Cook and the Man Eater, he explains in sharpest detail the intrinsic demon of these very widely admired but frequently misunderstood philosophers. Glucksmann demolishes that beautiful and bright Plato-inspired utopian future as a terrorist nightmare. Soon after Glucksmann was published, terror broke loose in Cambodia and his warnings were confirmed. 

Glucksmann and the great truth? However, that is only one side of the coin. One should try to read this philosopher against a positive light. So try to understand the dark sides of this philosophical tradition and try to detect the positive message in their minds. Then Glucksmann’s demons turn into a brilliant platonic heaven, as in dialectical turnaround. Then this European philosophical tradition suddenly is transformed into great dreams of a utopian vision which is placed above everyday reality. If we see Pol Pot as a serious pupil of Plato, Hegel, Marx and Mao, even he seems like a normal politician through his utopia. Of course, drunken spirits most often overtake objective reality. Convinced of his own hallucinating truth, tantamount to the more than two thousand years of the European philosophical tradition as well as to Cambodia's awareness of itself, he emerges, full of energy, out of Plato’s dark cave where thousands of philosophers have been hiding and steps into the sunlight of a universe illuminated by Mao Zedong, who during that period of history illuminated the world through the cultural revolution, holding in one hand The Little Red Book. Hegel, Marx, Lenin and Stalin were seeking a Platonic peace, so was Pol Pot. Mao finally taught him his solution. In the clean-up, which was necessary for Asia to liberate itself from the colonial powers, Pol Pot will use and apply the ideas of Mao literally. In the West The Little Red Book is seen as a gadget. Cambodia became a guinea pig for the application of the ideas of the great leader who knew that everything was possible if only you followed him. That is why Pol Pot, even after his defeat, was not aware of doing any harm. In an interview, we see a friendly and confident man whose portrait can truly be placed next to that of the triumphant Mao.

4 Houellebecq and Peter Klashorst's facebook

Painter Peter Klashorst arrived in Cambodia in a grey twilight zone. He is certainly not the first Western contemporary artist who is seeking adventure and personal challenges in the Orient. A cynical atmosphere is described by the French writer Houellebecq in his novel Platform. In it, a European traveler travels to Asia. In this story, a prototype character from Houellebecq imagination emerges. Houellebecq tells us about the European tourist looking for love in tropical countries. Tourists in search of what Houellebecq calls yellow fever. In his mind, the European enlightenment is showing its real colors today. The western expansion into Asia encounters its last pitiful final phase. From Pol Pot’s paranoia to the cynicism of Houellebecq, the circle is closed and it comes together in Klashorst’s home in Phnom Penh. 

But is Klashorst, thus, Houellebecqian? 

That seems rather out of the question, but Klashorst’s role is also certainly not without questions. Klashorst, originally a Dutch painter, settled in Phnom Penh in 2010 and decided to give the faces of the death camp S-21 color again. He works totally from his own perspective and is using the pictures of the “blind photographer” in order to show his personal reflection on this unimaginable tragedy; he will do so certainly not without ambiguities. Because his work in Phnom Penh is of course not self-evident. 

He arrived in Cambodia, maybe according to this plan, yet he easily
 escapes the Houelbecqian view because any Houelbecqian cynicism is foreign to him. Klashorst may at times be daydreaming artistically but his sense of reality always brings him back with his two feet on the ground.

5. Klashorst and the “blind photographer”

While preparing the exhibit, a typical facebook dilemma occurred: who to include and who not? There were also a number of alternatives available for the technical implementation. He could have, for example, retouched the blind photographer’s pictures and turn them into wonderful, semi-soft, almost colorful portraits, thereby giving those faces, in all of their diversity, beauty, fear, pity, with death in their eyes as a well-earned everlasting glory. Or should he have chosen a traditional Cambodian style?

Klashorst knew what he wanted. As an experienced portrait painter with a lifelong obsession which brought hundreds, maybe thousands, of “live” models to his studio, he starts work. This is the first time he is painting portraits of portraits. But now he can do the victims justice by bringing them back to life -  all those who were only seen as workers by Pol Pot, as numbers who had to meet production standards and were forbidden from showing emotions, even towards their own family; all those who lived in a society not based on assimilating the former opponent, but on exclusion, oppression, torture and killing the enemy, and which soon grew into paranoia, even amongst their own supporters. That Klashorst will go for the Western artistic approach is obvious. Especially through how he reinvents Jackson Pollock drops by creating an emotional tool, using this method to capture the sorrow and tears of the victims and to be remembered by their loved ones. This was designed, of course, to help mitigate the relentless paranoia of the Terror on the other survivors. For instance, his portraits of the dead will give them a deserved rehabilitation, in which the survivors may find comfort.

How Klashorst incorporates them into his artistic family and opens his world up through his artistic energy and awakens them to a new life is a nice trick. 

One questions keeps haunting me, however. What will the former “blind photographer” think of these portraits? Will he understand anything of what is happing here? And will Klashorst succeed in making contact though his work with his memory that has been troubled for decades?

Paul Groot