A portrait artist in Cambodia, Vann Nath was forced to work the rice fields when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. In January 1978, he was arrested. He never found out why. “They arrested nearly everyone in my village,” he said later. He was tossed into Tuol Sleng “S-21” prison, a former high school that locals called “the place where people go in and never come out.” Like other prisoners, he was chained to the floor and given a tiny handful of rice to eat each day; like other prisoners, he kept going by eating any insects that came into reach. One day, the guards came in and wanted to know which one was “the painter.” He was taken to an office and shown a picture of Pol Pot. Could he paint his portrait? “I said, ‘Right now, I can’t even stand up.’” He was given enough food to get his strength back, and every day, he painted “the same portrait over and over” — to the sounds of other prisoners being tortured. “I hated him while I was painting him,” he said years later. “I wished I could kill him.”
Vann Nath’s painting of S-21 prison waterboarding torture — and the actual waterboard used, including the blue watering can he depicted:
When the Khmer Rouge was driven from power at the end of 1978, Vann Nath was rescued — one of only seven of the more than 14,000 prisoners to survive the prison. In all, the Khmer Rouge killed between 1.2 million and 1.7 million people. After gaining his freedom, Vann Nath painted scenes of life in the prison, and wrote a book about his experiences, both of which helped to document what few lived to tell about. Tuol Sleng prison reopened in 1980 as the Tuol Sleng Memorial and Genocide Museum, which features many of Vann Nath’s paintings, including his own self-portrait. “I was just a body then,” he said in 1997 about the starving man in his painting. “My spirit had gone out.” In 2009, he testified against S-21’s prison chief Kaing Kek lew at his war crimes trial; “Comrade Duch” (as he was known to most) was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Vann Nath, who never regained his health after his imprisonment, died September 5 in Cambodia from kidney disease and other problems. He was 66. Only two other inmates from the prison are known to survive him.