Cambodia has condemned images published by Vice media group that featured victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, colourised and with some apparently edited to add smiles to their faces.
The artist Matt Loughrey modified images taken at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, where thousands of people were tortured and interrogated before they were sent on to the killing fields of Choeung Ek.
Detailed records were kept by jailers, who took black-and-white photographs of every prisoner. The images were profiled by Vice on Friday, in an article that has since been removed.
Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which maintains a vast archive of material relating to the Khmer Rouge, and a survivor himself, said his heart pounded when he saw revised versions of the photographs. “How can you change hell to happiness?” he said. “It was a grave injustice to the victims to alter such a piece of history, which is still a living history.”
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said it considered the edited images “to seriously affect the dignity of the victims” and called for them to be removed from publication, threatening legal action.
Vice said the report did not meet its editorial standards: “The article included photographs of Khmer Rouge victims that Loughrey manipulated beyond colorisation… We regret the error and will investigate how this failure of the editorial process occurred.”
In the interview with Vice, now removed, Loughrey said he began working on photographs from Tuol Sleng when he was contacted by someone in Cambodia who wanted three photographs – including one ID photo taken inside the prison – to be restored.
He then worked on further images of victims, adding that more people had come forward with requests.
Asked about the smiles that appeared on some victims’ faces, Loughrey said this may have been due to nervousness and that women appeared to smile more often than men, but he did not say that he had added smiles to some of the restored images. The allegation that the expressions on people’s faces had been changed was not raised during the interview.
However, on social media, people posted what appeared to be the original images alongside the edited versions, questioning why individuals’ expressions had changed.
“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,” the exiled Cambodian politician Mu Sochua tweeted.
An estimated 1.7 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time, were killed between 1975 and 1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime.
The ministry said Loughrey’s project also violated the rights of the museum as the lawful owner and custodian of the images. “We urge researchers, artists and the public not to manipulate any historical source to respect the victims,” it said.