‘Profoundly disturbing’: Why this smiling photo enraged a nation

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·3-min read

Doctored photos showing the smiling victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide have sparked a heated backlash, prompting Cambodia to demand an apology from the artist behind the edited images.

An article published over the weekend by US-based outlet VICE included altered photos from artist Matt Loughrey, as part of a project to colourise photos of prisoners who died in the "killing fields" of Cambodia under the Communist regime in the late 1970s.

Ostensibly, the artist's project was about humanising the victims of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, and the 14,000 Cambodians executed and tortured there under despot Pol Pot.

However after it was published, backlash began brewing online when readers noticed a chilling detail that was different to the original prisoner photos. 

Some subjects were smiling only in the artist's coloured images.

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The condemnation from many Cambodians was swift.

“To play around by using technology to put make-up on the victims of S21… is a very grave insult to the souls of the victims of #genocide,” exiled Cambodian politician Mu Sochua wrote on Twitter.

Prof Tanja Bueltmann, chair in International History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, labelled the project "profoundly disturbing".

"This guy colourised old photos and photoshopped smiles on people’s faces... people soon to be murdered by the Khmer Rouge in this instance," she wrote on Twitter.

Many others criticised the artist for "falsifying history".

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, compared the alterations to rewriting a painful and dark chapter of the country's history.

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Cambodia Ministry calls for images to be removed

Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture issued a statement calling on Loughrey and VICE to remove the images.

“We urge researchers, artists and the public not to manipulate any historical source to respect the victims,” the ministry said.

An online petition demanding the article be removed gained thousands of signatures in the past 48 hours.

On Sunday (local time), the article was pulled down from the online publication.

Tourists walk past hundreds of photographs of prisoners showcased in the classrooms of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21).
Hundreds of photographs of prisoners at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21). Source: Reuters/Adrees Latif via AAP

When contacted by Reuters, Loughrey, who in the VICE interview said he had worked with victims’ families to restore the photos, declined to comment.

A Twitter account for the artist's My Colourful History page appears to have been deleted. His website says the work is about "bridging a gap between history and art".

Before the VICE article disappeared, an editor's note was added to it, Reuters reported.

“It has been brought to our attention that the restored portraits published in this article were modified beyond colourisation. We are reviewing the article and considering further actions to correct the record,” it said.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial was scathing in its criticism of the doctored photographs.

"This was done without the consent of family members who lost loved ones in the prison," it said.

"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."

At least 1.7 million Cambodians died in the extremist Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

with Reuters

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