The Case For Documenting Death

by Ian MacKenzie Mar 12, 2007

Skulls at the Killing Fields in Cambodia

The stacked skulls at the site of the killing fields, Cambodia.

In the journey for the authentic, we inevitably find ourselves confronted with the horrors of humanity’s past.

Famine. War. Genocide. Not only do these spectres haunt the tourist’s path, but they’re increasingly part of the tour.

I found myself face to face with these demons on my trip to the Killing Field’s of Cambodia, a topic I’ve touched on numerous times in the past.

“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” – James Nachtwey

I remember standing before the tower of skulls, the instruments of torture, and the remnants of mass graves, and removing my digital camera from my pack.

I had never known the stories of the victims, nor would I ever understand the trauma experienced by those still living. Perhaps that is why I struggled with the dilemma of documenting this death.

A part of me felt like a crass tourist, simply collecting photographs just like any other scene – no different than the motivation behind a snapshot of the Eiffel Tower or an elephant ride.

But another side of me felt compelled to bear witness, fulfilling the solemn duty of the traveler to collect evidence of sorrow in order to share it with their friends and family, who would likely never see these places on their own.

To Reflect A Human Being

Recently, I posed this dilemma to the travel community at 9rules, and received some thoughtful replies.

Gnorb wrote:

“I say document it. Too many people don’t realize the true horrors of places like these, and while reading a story is no substitute for actually going to the place, at least information is out there about what has happened.”

Kristin, a photographer, confessed she’s debated this topic many times with other photographers.

“Really.. it just depends in the manner of which you do it. If it is tasteful and respectful then I’m all for it. We had to take this photography ethics course in school and I’ll always remember what my professor said: “How does the photo reflect on you as a photographer and a human being, and does it show the subject with a degree of integrity.”

In my own example, with the subjects long since dust, the judgment on their preservation of integrity is left up those living. Or more accurately, the survivors that endure.

Three BuddhasTin Tin, our guide one afternoon in the weeks after the Killing Fields, was only too adamant in sharing his personal history.

He spent months as a boy in a Khmer Rouge work camp, half-starved and worked to death, at one point forced to inadvertently poison his own mother. He had little knowledge of Pol Pot and his agrarian reform, yet only knew he must survive.

We listened in disbelief, unable to fathom such sadness. Yet I believe he told us for the sole reason of hearing his tragedy, not to solicit our pity, but to prevent us from stumbling down the same path.

Since, as we all know, societies are often doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Confronting Our Own Truth

Having spent two months in Southeast Asia, I returned home and collected all the photographs, all the video clips, and all the memories. I arranged them into folders, neat and tidy, and marveled at how little disk space such a span of your life can occupy.

I set about editing the trip into a DVD.

Each section was a rousing 5-6 minutes of compelling visuals and music, meant to entertain as much as invoke envy in my future audience.

When it came time to include the section from the killing fields, I hesitated.

It was an infinitely sobering montage of torture chambers, shallow graves, and black and white photographs preserving the dead. Did it belong in the middle of an otherwise uplifting travel slideshow?

But then I remembered my promise to Tin Tin and the rest of the Khmer I met on the road. I promised to share their story.

For that reason, the final cut of the film included the Cambodian interlude. And in a small way, I feel like I kept my promise.

Ian MacKenzie is editor of Brave New Traveler, and co-founder of the blogging community TravelBlogger. Aside from writing, he spends his time exploring the fundamental nature of existence and wishing he did more backpacking.

Have you had a similar experience on your travels? How do you decide what to capture and what to leave alone?

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