Major Project: The Photos of S-21

These are a series of photographs i took of the actual photographs of the victims of the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh Cambodia. All of my Paintings and Sketches in the past year have been of these images. This is actually the first time I have placed the photos and paintings together since I actually made the pieces.

It is a challenge painting from photographs with no actual physical source but I think the interesting aspect here is that I am using the photographs purposely as my focal point. The subjects in the photographs had died before the shots were taken, and these images were taken of the original copies and therefore have aged and disintegrated long after the victims of the Khmer Rouge had been buried.

The photographs were taken in black and white but the colour had changed to sepia and dark greens due to the age and the way they had been kept. I wanted to paint in full colour but due to the lack of it in the photos I would be making it wholly representational. Lately I have been influenced by the work of Korean artist Kwang Ho Shin. The artist uses abstract figurative work and mostly works from photographs he has taken of people. I am especially interested in his thickly applied oil paints and strong use of colour, his paintings can be quite dark and twisted and this is a quality I wanted to bring to my paintings.

Using Photographs as a primary source for painting is inevitably going to result in a flat image but in this instance I thought it was important as I want the paintings to depict the photographs as much as the subject. I wanted to capture the image as it was in real life, a flat profile, a documentation of the aftermath of a grotesque atrocity.  The colours were strong and vivid in opposition to the decayed photographs everything had an artificial feel as I wanted to depict the visceral and violent end to the victims as opposed to copying the existing photograph.

I am aware that the paintings are not necessarily appealing in the classic sense of the word but that was not my intention.

The combination of painting the deceased is a challenge in itself that brings up many ethical questions. Firstly my main concern about the subject matter is that I am using it to create art. Does this belittle the victims? Are there other mediums that could be used better to depict and document the atrocity? Why Paint it at all?

I feel it is important to say now that the reason started this project is because being in Cambodia gave me an insight into something that, in the West, may have been forgotten or overlooked. I was fascinated and appalled by the fact that it happened so recently (The Khmer Rouge only disbanding officially in 1990) and while the world looked on (the Khmer Rouge were even granted a seat on the UN). I felt it important to show people what we are capable of and that there are strong parallels to be found with current conflicts in Syria and Somalia.

I didn’t set out wanting to create something that was anti-war as such. Although I strongly oppose any sort of conflict I do recognise it as an important aspect of human nature, one that cannot be staved or altered with any ease. What I did want to show was how important it is to recognise what has happened and will continue happen when we ignore the plight of everyday people when their basic right to live has been taken.

I have chosen to paint the images due to it being my own language, my own take on the events. The photographs are already in existence and they are there to be viewed by anyone who visits Cambodia or who reads a book on the subject. People can be desensitised by the violent images or can choose to ignore them completely due to the strong imagery but a painting instantly subjects the viewer to question the subject matter and encourages curiosity. This  is my intention, I can say honestly that I made these paintings with no intention of turning them to commercial products or to gain any of the the self gratification that can come with art. All I want is for people to become more aware of the world around them as this is the only way we can hope to make a difference.

Moving on from the Oil paints I have began to experiment more with ink wash, the three pictures below are amongst the first outcomes.

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