Warning: This post contains images of deceased Cambodians who disappeared during the Khmer Rouge Regime.
On 9th April, Vice Asia posted an interview with artist Matt Loughrey (note: link reflects that the article has been taken down) about his work on colourising images – something that he seems to be a specialist in -, and in a new work has colourised images of prisoners from the infamous S-21 Tuol Sleng Prison. Tuol Sleng was an infamous torture and execution centre used during the Khmer Rouge regime; today it is a memorial museum and the archives associated with it can be found online. According to the interview, Loughrey was contacted by a person in Cambodia to colourise three images, but then started to colourise more on his own:
Originally the project was for three images: one was from when this guy was very young, one was a family picture, and the other one was his ID picture from S-21. That was my job, to restore all three. The more I looked into it and the more images I saw, I thought, well, this has to be done. This just has to be done. So that’s what got the ball rolling.
On first glance, the colurised images are interesting – they add a human element to the original black and white images. It is important to note that not everybody agrees with colorising images from the past (here is another story by a professional colourist on the matter, who agrees that these pictures should not be altered). Things started to take a turn when people, especially Cambodians, noticed that some images were not just colorised, they were altered to make the subjects appear to be smiling. Compare the images from the Vice article to the digital records of the Tuol Sleng Museum:
Changing a person’s face from sombre to smiling without their permission is disrespectful at the very least; it is made much worse because of the context these images were created in. Even if the photos were commissioned by families, it seems inappropriate to be publicizing them. In both examples above, the pictures above belong to unnamed people, which makes their context even more dehumanizing. As you can see from the following selection of comments (link no longer actve), many people are aghast at this supposed work of “art”, and Vice Asia’s refusal to take down the article.
As it turns out, the article and statements by Loughrey also carry some inaccuracies as well. A photograph of a smirking man is identified as Bora in the Vice article and described by Loughrey: “I only know specifically about what happened to one person, Bora. He was electrocuted and then set on fire… He was a farmer, a simple farmer. A father, as well. His son contacted me.” However, “Bora’s” niece has a different story, and you can read an expanded version of her tweets here.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts issued an official statement stating that it “considers the work of Matt Lougnrey (sic) to seriously affect the dignity of the victims… and in violation of the rights of the Museum as the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs”.
At the time of writing this article, Vice Asia has updated the article saying it was aware that the photos were altered beyond just mere colourisation. By the time I finished the post, the article has been taken down, and in the morning after an editorial note has been put in its place.
Some people on social media have posted screenshots of conversations with the artist that seem to indicate that the artist rejects the accusations of impropriety, but I have not I have not been able to find any official public comment from the artist as yet – the Reuters story said they they tried to get a comment without success.
I share these events because as an archaeologist who works heavily with photography as a research tool, this incident gives me a lot to reflect about the use of photography in research, and the human aspect of archaeology as a whole. Archaeologists colourise the past by adding context to the material remains, and in doing so they interpret the past in (hopefully) meaningful ways. When the base data is falsified (much like how the unnamed prisoners are given fake smiles), it gives us an incorrect view of the past. The events of Tuol Sleng are not 50 years old and are still very much in living memory – we should take care that in presenting stories about the past we remain accurate to the data. At the same time, while archaeology is cool and all that – I mean, I have an Instagram feed based on my archaeology photo archive – this incident reminds me about the sensitivities attached to human remains, and the memories associated to things past. Archaeology is interested in the past but it only serves the living.
Revision update: In the hours since first posting, I made a number of revisions to this post. Just as I had finished writing this article, Vice Asia took down the article, and later on the Facebook post, perhaps in response to the threat of legal action from MOCFA. I added links to the relevant news articles at the end of the post, and also updated the updated images on this post. The original images showed the full faces, and after consideration I’ve made them partial screenshots to show the main alteration (the smile). The orignal photos are referenced and you can find them on the Tuo Sleng Museum website. I will continue to update this post where necessary. Many thanks to Suon Sopheaktra for giving me context to this story as it developed.
- Outrage and Horror as website publishes altered “colourised and smiling” images of Khmer Rouge victims from S-21 prison | Khmer Times, 11 April 2021
- Government: “smiling Khmer Rouge” photos “seriously affect the dignity of the victims” | Khmer Times, 11 April
- Cambodia condemns VICE for images by artist who added smiles to Khmer Rouge victims | Reuters, via Toronto Sun, 11 April 2021
- Culture ministry: Take Tuol Sleng photos down, or else | Phnom Penh Post, 11 April 2021
- Photoshopping history: The true story behind the smirking man of Tuol Sleng | SEA Globe, 12 April 2021
- Vice removes altered photos of Khmer Rouge victims as Cambodia protests | CNN Business, 12 April 2021
- Vice published altered photos showing Cambodian genocide victims smiling. It unleashed an uproar. | Washington Post. 12 April 2021
- Colorization Artist Slammed for Adding Smiles to Genocide Victims | Petapixel, 12 April 2021
- Cambodia criticises edited photos of Khmer Rouge victims | BBC, 12 April 2021
- Cambodia condemns VICE for images by artist who added smiles to Khmer Rouge victims | ABC News, 12 April 2021
- ‘Smiling’ images of Khmer Rouge victims, by artist Matt Loughrey, taken down | Hindustan Times, 12 April 2021
- L’artiste Matt Loughrey accusé d’avoir trafiqué des photos de victimes des Khmers rouges | Le Figaro, 12 April 2021
- Cambodia condemns artist who added smiles to Khmer Rouge victims | The Age, 12 April 2021
- Vice removes altered photos of Khmer Rouge victims as Cambodia protests | CNN, 12 April 2021
- The Khmer Rouge controversy: Why colourising old photos is always a falsification of history | The Irish Times, 14 April 2021
- Manipulated images of smiling Khmer Rouge victims prompt Cambodia to threaten Vice media with legal action | The Art Newspaper, 15 April 2021
- VICE Asia removes article with altered S21 photos, issues apology | Phnom Penh Post, 19 April 2021
- Photo Retoucher Criticized for Adding Smiles To Cambodian Citizens Murdered by the Khmer Rouge | FStoppers, 23 April 2021