Cambodia’s Culture Ministry called out Vice News and a photo editing company after the media outlet featured photos of S-21 prisoners edited to have smiling faces, which Khmer Rouge survivors and family members called traumatizing.
Vice News, a U.S.-based digital news company with offices in Asia, posted an interview on Friday with Matthew Loughrey, a photo editor behind a photo restoration company, My Colorful Past, who colorized several photos of S-21 prisoners held and killed by the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
One day after the article was released, netizens circulated the original prisoner portraits used in Loughrey’s edits, showing that they had not been smiling.
Cambodians, local and abroad, called for the article and the project to be retracted and asked for an apology from the news outlet and editor. One woman disputed a description of a man identified as “Bora” in Loughrey’s project. She alleged in a social media post that the article had incorrect information: The man in the portrait was her uncle, Leang, and that he was a primary school teacher, not a farmer as the article said.
Vice removed the story midday Sunday, and later posted a statement: “The story did not meet the editorial standards of VICE and has been removed. We regret the error and will investigate how this failure of the editorial process occurred.”
Security Prison 21, commonly known as S-21, was a camp inside Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Secondary School used to torture people deemed traitors or spies by the Khmer Rouge regime into making confessions, and later killing them. During the regime’s rule from 1975 to 1979, only 12 of the estimated 20,000 prisoners survived. Guards took portraits of every person tortured and murdered inside the prison, and their portraits now hang in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and in archives online.
According to the article, Loughrey said that women “tended to have a smile on their face” among the photos he had seen. However, reviewing the original photos from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum website, none of the women who were smiling in Loughrey’s portraits had smiles in the archive photos, and only one man had a smirk on his face. Most of Loughrey’s edits that appeared in the Vice article were youth prisoners.
The Culture Ministry on Sunday called for Vice to take down the article and Loughrey to do the same with his project. It noted that the ministry had never been in touch with Loughrey, and it is considering whether to take legal action against him and Vice.
“[The ministry] does not accept this kind of manipulation, and considers the work of Matt Loughrey 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 in a statement.
Hang Nisay, director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, said that even in death the edited photos seriously violate the dignity and privacy of the people pictured.
“In some of the photos, he not only changed the color, he also put on a smile, and all that has firstly affected the dignity of victims and secondly, it affects the reality of the history of photography,” Nisay said. “As we all know, The photos in the former S-21 were taken under threat of torture, not for entertainment.”
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Khmer Rouge era evidence archive the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that he never gave any permission to Loughrey, and that any edits to the archival photos are banned. He called Loughrey’s project a “grave injustice.”
“I want to ask [him], why change? Why change the history? How would you change Hell to Heaven?” he said.
Norng Chanphal, who survived S-21 as a child and now is in his 50s, said he cannot accept Loughrey’s actions to the archival photos.
“I tell you that I refuse to have the photos changed,” he said. “If it’s falsified, it becomes a falsehood. It may turn out to seem that we were fine [inside the prison] instead if those photos are falsified.”
In messages to his Instagram account, My Colorful Past, Loughrey refused to speak. However, multiple relatives of Khmer Rouge survivors spoke out against Loughrey on Twitter and Facebook, saying he neither asked their permission to use the photos nor apologized.
Cambodians in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and other countries sent out a statement on Sunday demanding Loughrey and Vice News to apologize, neither of which had done so as of Monday. According to the statement, he responded only with a comment that he’d “run all future projects by you for moral and technical discovery.”
The National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago also wrote in the statement that the article was done without consent from family members, and that the community of survivors and family members are the “stewards” of Cambodian and Cambodian American history, whose voices should be heard and elevated.
“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,” the museum wrote.
Ellen Chang-Richardson, a poet in Canada, said that she was a daughter of a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the photographs were inappropriate.
“They capitalize off trauma and taint the memory of real individuals who were murdered during the Khmer Rouge Genocide,” Chang-Richardson wrote in the group statement. “Furthermore, they promote harm, attack, and bring on psychological and emotional trauma within the international Cambodian community.”
Jean-Baptiste Phou, an artist and writer, thanked others in the Cambodian community for speaking out against the doctored photos and the article promoting them, but he said questions still remain about Loughrey’s intention and process for editing the archival photos.
“We critically need to hear an official and sincere apology from both the media and the perpetrator of the ‘work,’” he said in the same statement. “Until then, be aware: we won’t be silent nor silenced. The Khmer Rouge did not succeed in erasing our people. Nor will you.”