Extra: Willmar grad restoring art and human rights in Cambodia

If Erin Gleeson had missed a required art class on her very first day of college, she wouldn't have seen a slide show that included stark photographs of Cambodians who were imprisoned, tortured and killed at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phenom Penh i...

If Erin Gleeson had missed a required art class on her very first day of college, she wouldn't have seen a slide show that included stark photographs of Cambodians who were imprisoned, tortured and killed at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phenom Penh in the 1970s.

The photographs are simple head and shoulder mug shots of Cambodian artists and intellectuals who were victims of the cruel Khemur Rouge ruler Pol Pot. The photos depicted just a handful of the estimated 14,000 killed at the prison. The images were seared into Gleeson's mind. "They stuck with me," said the 1997 Willmar High School graduate. "It was quite an awakening." The photographs, and the evident pain of a country and people whose soul had been destroyed under the Pol Pot regime, eventually led Gleeson down the Mekong River for two days and up a rugged road in 105-degree heat to find the man who took the pictures.

Led on a pilgrimage of the heart, Gleeson has lived in Cambodia for a total of three years. During various stints in Cambodia, Gleeson has taught at an emerging University, used art to address political issues as part of a job with the United Nations and worked with groups to improve human rights by using art. She also writes for an art magazine and teaches yoga.

Her latest volunteer project involves helping to organize a forum for 20 Cambodian artists to display their nontraditional visual artwork. One of the featured artists of the exhibition is a survivor of the Tuol Sleng prison.

The art exhibit represents a huge step forward for the artists and the country, said Gleeson, who spoke with the West Central Tribune during a recent trip to visit her mother, Lori Peterson of Willmar.


Years of a repressive culture and a tightlycontrolled art market has made it difficult for artists to sell paintings, drawings or sculptures unless they captured traditional scenes of temples, flowers or dancers. "There's no freedom," said Gleeson. "They've really lost their soul." The Visual Arts Open, Dec. 9-31 in Phenom Penh, will provide a unique opportunity for the artists to display artwork that's out of the accepted Cambodian art boundaries.

The format will give the artists a place to "feel safe and uncensored," said Gleeson.

In an article for the upscale magazine, ArtAsia Pacific, Gleeson wrote that the art exhibition will attempt to "re-introduce diverse modes and purposes of visual art after the crushing cultural effects of genocide and civil war."

The exhibit may be an eye-opener for Cambodian residents, who may not appreciate, or know how to appreciate, original artwork.

In the article, Gleeson wrote that the exhibit "aims to empower artists, build community and cultivate art appreciation by raising awareness about the diversity of contemporary visual expression. The festival also strives to create regional and international dialogue about the history and future role of Cambodian arts."

While on her recent visit to Minnesota, Gleeson also met with people in the Minneapolis art community about bringing a collection of Cambodian art to the state for a possible exhibit this spring.

Spinning the globe

After she graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in 2001 with majors in art history and fine art and a minor in peace studies, Gleeson obtained a scholarship from the Humphrey Institute to examine peace and conflict in the arts. She had the option of going anywhere in the world. Remembering the photos of the prisoners she saw on her first day of college, Gleeson, who was 21-years-old at the time, chose Cambodia. Her initial stay lasted six months. Since then, she has spent most of her time in Cambodia, interspersed with stays in Minnesota to pursue additional training in photography.


While in Phenom Penh, Gleeson learned about the Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S-21, where 14,000 to 17,000 Cambodians were registered between 1975 and 1979.

The facility is now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Prison identification photographs line the walls of the museum where confessions were tortured out of them. Only seven people were known to have survived, including Vann Nath, who is one of the featured artists in the Visual Arts Open.

Nhem Ein, who was a 15-year-old boy in the 1970s and living under the orders of the Khmer Rouge, is credited for taking many of the photographs. Every day Ein took photos of the doomed prisoners as part of his job to catalogue the inmates.

It was during a two-week stay in Cambodia that Gleeson decided to find -- and talk to -- Ein. After revealing her desire to a friend, the friend revealed that he knew Ein. They were both photographers, but they didn't like each other, said Gleeson. The two, however, set off to find the prison photographer.

After a grueling journey down a river and a bone-jarring truck ride, they found Ein at his home. Despite granting only a few interviews in the past, or asking for exorbitant fees for his time, Ein talked to Gleeson for 3½ hours without charge. He was talkative and eerily cold and analytical about the photographs he had taken, said Gleeson.

Ein told Gleeson he'd taken a picture of himself in the prison chair where thousands of prisoners had been photographed. Hoping for some deep insight as to why he'd done that, Gleeson was chilled by the answer. The self-portrait was taken only to make sure the camera was focused correctly for the day. Listening to him, she said, was a "really big test in empathy."

He told her "he took pictures. He didn't kill anybody," said Gleeson. One of the prisoners Ein took a picture of was a close relative of his own, said Gleeson. He also told her his choice at the time was to take the pictures or die. Another prisoner that was photographed was Vann Nath, the artist. The Khmer Rouge kept him alive in prison to paint pictures of their leader, Pol Pot, according to published reports of the artists' life.

Gleeson sought out Nath and listened to "his view of sitting in the chair."


She said she's come to the conclusion that "they're really both survivors."

Minnesota project

After her initial stay in Cambodia, Gleeson returned to Minnesota to pursue a degree in photography. She obtained another grant to work with the Cambodian community in Minneapolis. She taught the elders English and taught their youth how to photograph their environment as a way to address gang activity among Cambodian teens.

Gleeson then took on a project that somewhat mirrored that of Nhem Ein. But instead of photographing people who would die, Gleeson photographed those who had survived the Khemer Rouge and had begun new lives in Minnesota.

After gaining their permission, Gleeson photographed individual Minnesota Cambodians as they sat in a chair in their church basement. She took just one photo of each of the 80 individuals. Out of respect for them, Gleeson gave the photo collection to the elders.

By contrast, two Americans have obtained the copyrights for many of the prison photos Ein took. The photos have been shown as art exhibits in museums and have been published in a book. "It's such a contradiction," said Gleeson, who is disturbed by the public marketing of the photographs.

It was, however, the haunting prison photographs that drew Gleeson to Cambodia with the desire to help empower artists and restore human rights to a country that is "full of spirits" and absent of "a restful space."

Although the country is politically stable now, Gleeson said living in Cambodia isn't always easy. Corruption in government is common, she said, and journalists are advised to have a ticket in their pocket to get out of the country quickly.


Gleeson, who lives in an apartment above an art gallery surrounded by an international community of friends, said she intends to stay in Cambodia at least a couple more years.

Her passion for helping individual artists overcome roadblocks to artistic expression, and her desire to help a community appreciate the artwork, will keep her there, she said. Doing that will help restore what was what lost when the pho tographs at the Tuol Sleng prison were taken.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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