"The Ghosts of Khmer: Light and Memory"
In the comfortable histories of our youth, genocide seemed an answered question; the retrograde horrors of a generation removed, a closed book. A decade before the present moment of uncertainty in our global existence, the photographer Binh Danh refused this pat conclusion. Danh’s early work compiled the Khmer Rouge regime's eerie death portraits, taken in the moments before its victims were executed, and transformed them into a living archive of proliferation: Danh devised a method for creating chlorophyll prints on tree leaves, and inscribed hundreds of images of lives lost in the Cambodian genocide upon the tree’s organic surfaces.
Revisiting this process in the current body of work, Danh has remade the leaf portraits in daguerreotype form. “Once I made a chlorophyll print, the leaf was fragile and degraded. The daguerreotypes hold onto the ghostly quality of the chlorophyll print.”
The reflective surfaces of Danh’s daguerreotypes act as a mirror, and the portraits are created at human proportions: “You will see the leaf and the portrait,” says Danh, “and you will see your own face overlaying the face of the victim.”
While the daguerreotype images of Danh’s chlorophyll prints serve as both memento mori for individual lives lost and a reminder of the frightening realities of global politics, they are also evidence of more intimate processes. In these photograms, which Danh says could more accurately be called “Daguerreograms,” Danh invests a personal discourse about the moral and aesthetic implications of photography. In making these works, he remarked, he returned again and again to the philosopher Roland Barthes’ description of the intimation of death in photographic works. Says Danh, “In an image of someone who has passed, they don’t know they’re dead, because they’re alive in the photograph. But we know they’re dead, because we have lived beyond their time.”
“Photographs change society and the way we think about time,” Danh continues. In the process of making these highly reflective works, Danh also considered a far earlier transformation in human perception: The introduction of the mirror. Prior to the moment in the thirteenth century when reflective silverized surfaces were popularized as mirrors, humans defined themselves as members of a group. “At the beginning of human evolution, we didn’t see ourselves in a way that required self-reflection. When mirrors became common, humans became individuals and stopped thinking in terms of the group.”
In "The Ghosts of Khmer: Light and Memory," viewers are compelled to explore the issue of human individuality and responsibility, and the ways those concepts shift over time, in both the ethereal reflective surfaces of the large-scale daguerotypes, and the images’ paradoxical subject matter, in which portraits of Tuol Sleng genocide victims etched on the silver surfaces recall the bas-relief idols on the walls of Angkor Wat’s temples, which stands within steps of the modern-day Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
During his own travels to Tuol Sleng, Danh was drawn to views of of the former prison’s bleak rooms; stark cases filled with victim's belongings, beds with shackles, menacing outdoor spaces. In conceiving of his recent works, Danh remarks, “I was not sure why the images of these places stood out to me. But in thinking about them I began to remember the images we saw from the prison at Abu Ghraib [in Iraq], and it occurred to me that I have actually been thinking about the images of Abu Ghraib since they appeared in the media several years ago. Maybe we have all been thinking about these images.”
An intentional exercise in contrasts, this body of work includes Danh’s images of the temples of Angkor Wat and the vast and ancient Buddhist statuary seemingly in symbiosis with the forest around it. Influenced by the early photograms of Henry Fox Talbot and cyanotype prints of nineteenth-century botanist Anna Atkins, Danh’s daguerreotype plates are glimmering tributes to the photographic moment, seeming to capture in monumental scale a world left behind, and a glimpse at the extremes of our tenuous existence.
“I don’t like to think too much about binaries,” Danh says, “but with Angkor Wat, here is this beautiful architectural achievement, of art and religion and Buddhist culture. And it was through the beauty of the Angkor Wat temple that the Khmer Rouge emerged, as the regime sought above all to return Cambodia to its glory days. And in order to do that, they had to remove anyone who did not go along with their ideology. This is a theme I return to: the darkness and beauty in our history.”
An homage to the black and white binary that defined early photography, the intensely argent surfaces of Danh’s works present a secondary imagery resembling a double exposure, a vibration of shadow and light around the composition’s edges. Whether in the starkly luminous chambers of injustice or the luminous expressions of monumental gods, Danh’s images record a secret energy at play in all human endeavors. As we contemplate the mysterious machinations of human destruction, we cannot lose sight of the generative mystery of the Buddha’s form, rising up from the forest floor.