“Vicarious Catharsis…”: Experiencing Portraits of Atrocities (II)

“We are preaching hope, standing on the bones of the past.”

-John Rucyahana, the Rwandan bishop on finding forgiveness.


‘Dark tourism’ is the visitation of historical sites of genocide that display forensic evidence of human suffering and pain experienced, often in situ. These sites may not be appealing, but exude a certain macabre appeal, drawing ‘dark tourists’ for various and varying reasons. One of them is to ‘re-experience’ a tragedy as ‘authentic’ as possible in experiencing recreated death.

In our engagement with the “display of atrocities”, what do we actually experience? How are we provoked? What is the process of our provocation?

Part 2 of a series of entries on ‘Displaying the Abject’



Exhibiting historical portrait photographs of victims of genocide is probably the most common exhibitory method, but why is the viewing experience always so traumatic? Sometimes these photographic images appear to collectively convince viewers that ‘they were taken not to please generals or to shock the world press’, but were addressed to those who suffered what they depicted. While the presentation and display of historical photographs of genocide for permanent and public dissemination certainly encourages international awareness, each portrait acts as a surrogate for each victim of the genocide of the Khmer Rogue, Cambodia.

One passes by the silent halls of the Cheong Ek Genocidal museum, gazing into empty sockets of skulls, enable to pull from the melancholic eyes gazing out from the walls they have been installed on. The wall panels stretch on across several hallways and around the compound, reminiscent of a columbarium – just with no niches. In place of frescoes, religious decorations, precious mosaics and comforting verses from the suttras or the bible, the passport sized monochrome photographs are accompanied with stretches of horrific historical accounts, facts, many containing personal data of the afflicted victims. Everyone moves along with a heavy and painful crawl, as they take in the dates, images, numbers that provide the statistical collateral damage of the clinical precision, efficiency in its deliberation, and unfathomable inhumaneness of institutionalized murder.


While there is no doubt that these objects are “forensic” and hence are trusted to be authentic, it is only when these ‘forensics’ are presented and displayed that the ‘objects’ or ‘arrested moments’ start to evoke and provoke us. Is it reasonable to say that is it only through the presentation and ‘curation’ of forensic evidence that these displays in turn become collectively evocative and provocative?

Reality has always been interpreted through the reports given by images through recording otherwise ‘unwitnessed’ and ‘unattended’ events. Although photographs are historical documents that provide pictorial evidence to a historical event, they can never act as surrogates of first hand experience for photographs are still one step short of reality are documents of ‘what was past’; duplicating in absentia ‘what has passed’.

Perhaps the issues that need to be determined first are:

“How effective is the display of this type of photographic material in preventing historical amnesia to society?”

“To what extent can visiting a site displaying photographic evidence of genocide act as surrogates for human memory?”

We have to consider the difference between encountering (an) object and experiencing the display of object(s).

When Susan Sontag first saw the photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau in 1945, she commented, “One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany.”  While Sontag describes her experience as being a ‘negative epiphany’, I describe mine as a kind of ‘catharsis by proxy’ or a ‘vicarious catharsis’.

Can one experience tragedy and trauma vicariously simply by re-experiencing the stories of loss, torment and survival of a genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime through the photographic image? The ‘proxy prerogative’ only allows the viewer, the voyeur, the intruder, the leech from the present to leach on the collective suffering of those who have suffered. The display of the abject spectacle Genocide creates a certain unifying horror, we approach with trepidation yet with thrill. Skulls are placed on pedestals and photographic evidence of murder is framed and hung. Does this presentation aid in facilitating our awareness and understanding or create a space that is conducive enough to start feeling like a sacred burial site, giving the victims their long awaited farewell to the afterlife. Does the museum-like presentatoin encourage visitors to remember the unremembered, can their memory be relived here and finally attain some form of closure, to be become known and mourned?

Or is this this simply a twisted, macabre, bizarre self-indulgent, do-it-yourself psychotherapy?

That being said, is there a need to draw a line between seeing forensic objects of atrocities displayed as ‘objects of instruction’ or historical documents and as an informative activity; and ‘objects of inflection’ using the spectacle of as tools for psychoanalytic investigation. Should human remains even be publicly displayed and presented as abstract entities and arranged for aesthetic quality? Clearly, the wounds caused by the regime are still fresh and hence this exhibition is certainly questionable, but this is room for a separate argument.

What is the appeal of these chilling sites, now gaining immense popularity as tourist hot spots?

In the case of the abovementioned ‘genocidal museums’ in Phnom Penh (a term I could never use comfortably), the authenticity of the memorials is also undoubtedly enhanced by the presence of tangible evidence of the event at the actual sites of atrocity. The object, in situ, likewise ‘structural and sculptural features’. Au contraire, if an artist creates a work of art that represents or emulates the trauma of atrocities, can it be still be an authentic experience? Can the emotions it elicits still be genuine? How about historical photographs?

One can say that the question of authenticity is a futile pursuit. To start with, the notions of violence, sacrifice and abjection are merely psychological, philosophical and linguistic concepts. Thus the visual representation and appropriation of these concepts is merely a mimesis. However, whether they refer to a real or supposed situation, man will respond to this stimulus with a consciousness of perturbation or fervour.

Painting by ex-prisonr of S21, Van Naath

Painting by ex-prisonr of S21, Van Naath

According to Collingwood, this ‘consciousness’ is an oppressed condition that man can extricate himself from by the act of expression through words. The act of emancipating oneself from this state is similar to the catharsis by which ‘emotions are earthed through being discharged into a make-believe situation’ . Thus, if these emotions are ‘effectively earthed’, one can achieve a sense of alleviation which comes when we are conscious of our emotions, instead of being merely conscious of an unidentified perturbation, in an abyss of non-comprehension.

Therefore, when confronted by an image portraying elements of violence, sacrifice and the abject, they will inevitably raise eyebrows and issues whether or not the intention of the material is authentic or make-belief. While these fascinating specters of death, suffering and the profane are polar opposites of sensuality and merriment, its display is not presented to repulse. These visual stimuli may initially transgress and threaten our senses or cause psychological displacement.

Why and how do we react to these portraits of pain? How can the phenomenology of the perception of pain be explained? What is ontology of empathy? Are certain stimuli predisposed with the propensity to elicit more complex and profound reactions than others? If so, what are the prerequisites?


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