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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum–No Pictures, Please

There comes a time when taking pictures is just not appropriate, period. I’m old enough to still remember when a film roll came with 24 shots, so it was impossible to snap photos of every single item that I saw. I had to be discerning. I had to enjoy something for what it was and walk away knowing it would not be burned onto a piece of film.

I’m old enough to still remember dropping photos off at a local Walgreens and hoping every frame came out crystal clear, not overexposed or completely black.

And I’m old enough to know better.

Thus, when I found myself giving the teacher stare (also known as the death stare) while on vacation, it was well warranted. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a haunting memorial to the Khmer Rouge’s brutal genocide of its own people. As a teacher, I was horrified that they turned a school into a torture center. Photos abound of people who walked in and never walked out. Audio tours warn of violent descriptions and rooms still have iron bed frames where people were chained and tortured. Tally marks are still etched into cement walls and barbed wire tops every wall.

There are also clearly marked signs that say no pictures. Period.

Thus, when a white male found it appropriate to pose with his bottom lip pushing out while standing behind some barbed wire, my teacher stare was trained right on him. He flinched. He knew. So did his silly friend holding the camera.

I didn’t say a word though I could feel the anger bubbling in me. A family friend left Cambodia because of the Khmer Rouge, people’s lives were torn apart because of this brutality, and you want to take a picture that will probably end up on Facebook in the next two minutes? In other words, you want to be the stereotypical, disrespectful, Western tourist.

I didn’t say anything because 1.) arguing loudly (I don’t think I could’ve said anything quietly at that moment) would’ve been just as disrespectful to the space as taking photos and 2.) I don’t even know if the man spoke English.

Instead, I gave the uncomfortable stare and kept walking. Not much later, an Asian woman posed…smiling…in front of the torture rooms.

And I was disgusted.

I think social media has made us–humans–even baser than before. We no longer have respect for privacy–our own privacy or that of others’–and we can’t even take a moment to reflect without wanting to “prove” we were somewhere. A genocide museum is not a form of entertainment. It’s not something that we should say proudly, “I went there! Look at the photo!”

We go as a testament to the evil that all humans possess. We go to remember and hopefully not repeat. We go to pay our respects, not to get our next Facebook photo op or conversation starter.

Thus, when visiting The Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (both in Cambodia) and The War Remnants Museum (in Vietnam), I had to put my camera away.

The pricking behind my eyes, the catching in my breath, the heat that overwhelmed, the heaviness that was my heart was enough “proof.”

And no photo can ever capture that, nor should it.