There has been widespread condemnation over “sickening” images published by news outlet Vice Asia, which show colourised photos of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime from the S-21 archives in Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh, whose expressions have been altered to show them smiling. After the outcry from the Royal Government and readers, the post was deleted by the artist but the damage was done.
The original images were originally taken as part of the induction into the infamous S-21 prison – which operated between 1975 and 1979 and is estimated to have sent over 20,000 Cambodians to their deaths at the hands of the notorious Duch and his Khmer Rouge henchmen. These original images now form a central part of the sombre display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and have achieved an iconic status as a symbol of the horror of the Pol Pot era.
The new images, “restored” by Matt Loughrey, “a self-taught artist living in Ireland,” appear to have not only had colour added to them but also, in a horrific twist, have been digitally altered so that some of the victims appear to be smiling.
The “artist” said:
“Out of 100 images I looked at, the data showed that the women tended to have a smile on their face more so than the men. I think a lot of that has to do with nervousness. Also – and I’m making an educated guess – whoever was taking the photographs and who was present in the room might have spoken differently to the women than they did the men. I thought about this time and time again when I was working on them. We smile when we’re nervous. We smile when we have something to hide. One of the classic things is to try to be friendly with your captor. So a smile would seem natural. I’m sure it’s very easy for the oppressor to smile, because they have all the power. And when you see a smile, you may try to mirror it in order to become synchronised with your captor. To make yourself feel like you have some control.”
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has asked Loughrey and the VICE website to remove “colourised and smiling” images of S-21 prison victims from the website, saying it will consider legal action if the demand is ignored.
The reaction was made in response to the VICE article on April 9, titled “These People Were Arrested by the Khmer Rouge and Never Seen Again” and showed colourised photos made by Loughrey of victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide regime from the S-21 archives in Tuol Sleng museum.
In its statement issued yesterday, the ministry said Loughney posted some photos of victims of the former Khmer Rouge prison S-21 through the VICE website.
“The photos had been colourised and also edited in part, mainly by altering the expression in the faces to make the victims appear to be smiling,” it said.
Editing S-21 photos ‘erasing history’
“[The ministry] does not accept this kind of manipulation, and considers this work of Matt Lougnrey to seriously affect the dignity of the victims, the reality of Cambodia’s history, and in violation of the rights of the Museum as the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs,” it said.
“[The ministry] would like to take this opportunity to call on Matt Loughrey and VICE to remove these images from their media,” it added.
“We urge researchers, artists and the public not to manipulate any historical source to respect the victims. [The ministry] will consider to take legal action (both national and international), if Matt Loughrey does not comply with the above request,” the statement said
Social media users have provided documentary evidence that the “artist” has digitally altered many of the images by turning their expressions into smiles – the complete antithesis of what they would have felt as they were photographed in the Khmer Rouge era.
It must not be forgotten that, of the 20,000 people who were photographed, there were only 12 known survivors (seven adults and five children). These altered pictures are a direct insult to their memory and to the Cambodian people.
In addition to the images, the text on the VICE article is not only deeply insulting, but also contains a number of factual inaccuracies, such as stating that 2,000 of the S-21 inmates survived when, as pointed above, there were only 12 documented survivors.
VICE Asia claimed that “These portraits, recently colourised, humanise that tragedy”, but has now put up a statement on the story saying:
“It has been brought to our attention that the restored portraits published in this article were modified beyond colorization. We are reviewing the article and considering further actions to correct the record.”
However, the images still remain in place on their website – as well as being heavily promoted by VICE Asia on social media.
Outrage from Cambodia and the world has not been slow in coming, with social media comments like:
“Colorizing the photos as requested by some of the family members of the victims is completely different from editing smiling faces on them making it seem like they were enjoying it! This repulsive sense of humor is degrading and undermining the pain of the Cambodian people.”
“Respect the people who are still suffering from the impact of this genocide! Respect the Cambodian history!”
“Why the f**k after 24 hour Vice Asia still not acknowledging this? That’s just a complete b******t how they treating this case as something they can ignore after all these comments. This is also not the first time they made mistake.”
“This is totally horrendous of you and quite sick to put smiles on the beautiful Cambodian people who were subjected to torture, rape and eventually murdered. They were utterly terrified…..No respect for the victims or their families. I suggest you remove this article and make an official apology to the Cambodian people”
“I understand that colorization is an art. BUT CHANGING THEIR FACIAL EXPRESSIONS is not an art. It’s a total DISRESPECT to those victims, their families, and all of Cambodians. And NO! These photos CANNOT be accessible to anyone because it showcases the wrong information!”
The public wave of revulsion has been gathering pace against the digitally altered pictures.
The National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial commented via social media saying:
“We are made aware of the recent feature on VICE News on the S21 Tuol Sleng pictures that were recently colourized and re-digitize to add in “smiles” to the innocent Cambodian prisoners who were photographed by the Khmer Rouge. This was done without the consent of family members who lost loved ones in the prison, and with other Cambodian community organizations who are involved in this work. The Tuol Sleng / S21 prison camps imprisoned thousands of Cambodian civilians including children and elders who were subjected to torture, hunger, pain, and to their eventual violent deaths. In 1979, four years after the prison was opened at the start of the Khmer Rouge regime, only 7 prisoners survived out of the many thousands who were killed. As this April marks the celebration of the Khmer New Year, but also the 46 year mark of the Khmer Rouge takeover, it is an important reminder of the continual generational healing that takes place for our Cambodian community,” it said.
“We do not endorse those that seek to profit and benefit from the violent and lived traumas of our past and current history, nor endorse those that seek to do the same with our joy and celebration when it comes at the expense of our Cambodian community who have so much to contribute to our rich, layered, vast and evolving history and culture. Minimizing the pain and trauma of our community from those who are not connected to the experience is not only revising and erasing history, it’s a violent act. There is no celebration from these traumas. There is no amount of reparations and restorative justice that can bring those killed back to life. Our community has survivors, children and grandchildren who are the stewards of our Cambodian / Cambodian-American history. Our community is still processing these traumas. Our community is still healing. Our community is still telling their stories. Please listen to them, and most importantly, honor them,” it added.
Petition against artist and VICE launched
In addition to the hundreds of negative comments on the original Facebook post, demanding that the images be removed, a petition has now been started on change.org pleading for the removal of these deeply offensive images.
Entitled “We need your help! Sign and let Matt Loughrey and VICE know we do not accept this!”, the petition had already attracted over 3,600 signatures at press time, stating:
“VICE News recently ran an article on photos from the S21 Tuol Sleng prison that were recently colourized and re-digitized by Matt Loughrey to add in happy facial expressions. As stated by the National Cambodian Heritage and Killing Fields Museum, “This was done without the consent of family members who lost loved ones in the prison, [or of] other Cambodian community organizations who are involved in this work. The Tuol Sleng / S21 prison camps imprisoned thousands of Cambodian civilians including children and elders who were subjected to torture, hunger, pain, and to their eventual violent deaths [. . .] In 1979, four years after the prison was opened at the start of the Khmer Rouge regime, only 7 prisoners survived out of the many thousands who were [imprisoned there].”
“We reject Mr Loughrey’s attempt to profit and benefit from the traumas of our history.”
“Minimizing the pain and trauma of our community by those who are not connected to the experience is not only revising and erasing history, it is a violent act. Our community is still processing these traumas. Our community is still healing. Our community is still telling their stories. Please listen to them, and most importantly, honor them.”
“VICE, take this article down. Mr Loughrey, please stop using photos of Cambodian genocide victims for your experimentation and entertainment. We demand an apology.”
Comments on the petition include:
“Tone deaf and racist, I wonder if this guy would do the same thing to European victims of the holocaust or British atrocities in Ireland? What does this say about the professionalism and editorial standards of VICE news? It says they don’t have any.”
“This artistic license to re-imagine and glamorize trauma and torture with false intent should be widely condemned. Shame on this “artist” and shame on VICE for not doing the due diligence of accurate research, reporting, and background checking before approving this article and the many images. Disgusting.”
. Khmer Times