Asia & Pacific

‘Falsifying History’: ‘Altered’ Photos of ‘Smiling’ Cambodian Torture Victims Stir Row

US media group Vice on Friday published an interview with Ireland-based artist Matt Loughrey, who had colourised images of photos from the notorious Tuol Sleng S-21 torture prison in Phnom Penh, hailing the rule of agrarian-communist state’s leader Pol Pot, which is estimated to have killed around 1.7 million people.

In an escalating row over the allowed limits to the manipulation of historical images, Cambodians on Monday continued to censure the recently aired ‘altered’ photographs of victims of their country’s 1970s genocide.

US media group Vice on Friday published an interview with an Irish photo restorer Matt Loughrey, who had colorized original black and white photos of prisoners of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh.

Loughrey was cited by Vice as revealing that he had been hired by family members of some of the victims of the notorious prison, where an estimated 17,000 people suspected of being enemies of the ruling regime were jailed and tortured prior to their execution, to colourise photos of their loved ones.

Subsequently, the artist proceeded to alter more images from what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

As several colourised photos accompanying the article showed S-21 prisoners smiling for the camera, Loughrey said in the interview:

“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.”

‘Falsifying History’

After the article came out, readers, social media and organisations levelled heavy criticism at the artist, who was accused of adding smiles to some of the shots.

Professional photographer John Vink, who has worked in Cambodia, also voiced concerns that in at least some of the original photos, the subjects were not smiling, and Loughrey had retouched them to alter their expressions.

Vink went on Twitter on Saturday to denounce the fact that the restorer saw fit to ‘falsify history’.

​Both the efforts of an Irish photo restorer to allegedly portray the people ‘smiling’ at the camera, and the decision of the an international media group to publish them were denounced as deplorable judgement.

“To imagine the smiling faces of victims of the Khmer Rouge, your judgement then must be horrible,” Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, was cited by AP as saying on Monday.

The centre, which conducts research on the Khmer Rouge regime, boasts a vast trove of documentary evidence dating to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, who are blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million of their countrymen.

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