Hout Bophana’s gaze seems to challenge the perpetrator’s camera lens in his latest portrait. She would then be interrogated, tortured, executed and thrown into a mass grave. It was the last months of 1976 and the first of 1977. Various evidence was presented against her: being a well-educated person, speaking languages and, above all, writing love letters. The young Cambodian woman was the wife of a Buddhist monk who had joined the Khmer Rouge revolution to become the right hand of a hierarch of the communist regime. When he fell from grace, the purge reached Bophana when five of her letters were discovered at her husband’s home. She was accused of being a Westerner, of spying and dragging her lover into the conspiracy. Questioned by her former literature teacher, she received a fatal blow to the head and was later beheaded the same day as her husband. The Cambodian genocide caused between one and a half million and three million deaths.
Hardly any of this drama is revealed in the photograph of Bophana that Vicente Sánchez-Biosca saw in the Genocide Museum of the former Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia. “However, when that photograph was taken to sign her, she was already condemned to death,” explains the professor of Audiovisual Communication at the University of Valencia about the image chosen to illustrate the cover of his book Death in the eyes. What perpetrates the images of the perpetrator, recently posted by Editorial Alliance.
During her research grants in Cambodia, Sánchez-Biosca collected different images taken by the direct perpetrators of the atrocities or by their accomplices, mainly. Some directly reflect all the horror of vexation in their many atrocious details or in the point of view adopted by the one who takes them. Others, such as Bophana, require documentation and contextualization work to integrate them into their subject matter: photographic, video or film images of genocides, mass crimes or human humiliations taken by the perpetrators, whether they are Nazis in the ghetto. from Warsaw, Islamic State jihadists executing an American journalist, Serbian Scorpions paramilitaries in the Srebrenica massacre or US soldiers torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison. The casuistry is very wide and varied.
“I have focused on the modality of images of the perpetrators, taken by them as part of the instrumentalization, the dehumanization of the person and the humiliation. The idea consists of conceiving this photographic or cinematographic act as an act, that is, as a series of performative images that cause an immediate impact on the observer ”, explains the author of books as The past is destiny. Propaganda and cinema of the national side in the Civil War (with RR Tranche, Cátedra, 2011). “These images have in common the fact that they force those who observe them to look through the same eyes as the perpetrators, they force us to place ourselves in the undesirable place of the person who carried out the violence,” he says.
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Most of these images originate from a narrow, semi-clandestine circulation among members who share the same ideology or the same sentiment. However, if they fall into the hands of the enemy, they are considered self-accusatory, they circulate in the opposite direction to that given by the author. For example, the use that the allies make of the images filmed or taken by the Nazis in the concentration camps of the Jews.
Also part of his analysis are the images of the liberators, “of those who are late to the crime and represent what happened through the consequences, such as the allies who launched the pedagogy of horror,” he adds. Although he did not get to film directly in the places, Alfred Hitchcock advised how to shoot those images so that they would be more effective, as recalled in the new work of this 64-year-old Valencian intellectual, founder of a research group on the relationship between events traumatic events, film and photography and on the places of mass crimes turned into places of commemoration.
Sánchez-Biosca stops at Death in the eyes in a photo that apparently does not capture any atrocity, but that reveals the horror of the National Socialist regime. It shows the solace of a large group of SS soldiers in 1944, when the German defeat was looming, resting in an idyllic mountain refuge, after the last great operation to gas hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. “Once the work is finished, he will laugh with camaraderie between huts, fields and mountains, while singing to the rhythm of an accordion, each one occupying his place, with the sense of belonging characteristic of the images of the perpetrator. It is an image to circulate among those who think like us; crime and horror are out of the picture, elsewhere. The image was in a personal album, which makes sense, “he explains.
Largest possible audience
“There are images of perpetrators that are very difficult to identify, they are very complex in all their mutations,” he adds. They also change over time. For example, the semi-clandestine circulation, which initially characterized them, is broken into a thousand pieces with the emergence of the current society of the image and of social networks and the use that the terrorists of the Islamic State, among others, make of them. The professor shreds the video of the brutal beheading of the American journalist James Foley in 2012 in Iraq, shot with many means and sophistication, nothing to do with the old pedestrian recordings, in order to reach the widest possible audience.
Furthermore, the author of Node. time and memory (with RR Tranche, Cátedra, 1993) includes in its object of study images of “religious persecution” taken by militiamen and by cameras of unidentified operators in the Spanish Civil War. “They are paradoxical, bloodless images, in which there were no deaths, but they greatly undermined the prestige of the Republic. They simulated the execution of the sacred heart of Jesus on the Cerro de los Ángeles, with a grotesque, blasphemous point. When they fell into the hands of the enemy, they were used to accuse by showing the supposed anti-clerical character of the Republic, paradoxically, through what a student of this matter called “the martyrdom of things.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.