Apr 13 2021

Cambodia Denounces Photoshopped Portraits of Khmer Rouge Victims

by Celina Lei

One of MATT LOUGHREY’s digitally altered image (right) next to the original photograph (left) of a Tuol Sleng prison victim from the Khmer Rouge regime. Image via Twitter.

On April 11, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) condemned Irish artist Matt Loughrey for digitally altering photos of Khmer Rouge genocide victims. The works were featured in a now-removed artist interview with the website for Vice magazine, posted on April 9.

The Khmer Rouge regime was in power from 1975–79, and resulted in the death of up to 2 million people, a quarter of the country’s population at the time. In the Vice interview, Loughrey stated that by coloring the black-and-white photos he “aimed to humanise the 14,000 Cambodians executed and tortured” at the Tuol Sleng prison, known as S-21, while adding that there were existing smiles on some of the victim’s faces possibly due to nervousness and being “friendly with your captor.” Backlash on social media revealed that some photos only showed smiles in Loughrey’s version, and not in the original.

In MCFA’s Facebook announcement, it criticized Loughrey and the platform for “seriously affect[ing] the dignity of the victims” while calling for the interview’s removal, inciting the possibility of legal action if refused. According to MCFA, no approval was granted to Loughrey for his manipulation of these images, and he has violated Cambodia’s 2005 Archives Act as well as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum’s terms of use, which mandates that “none of the content may be altered or modified.”

The article was later removed by Vice on April 11, with a statement issued on April 12 explaining that the original article “did not meet the editorial standards” and that Loughrey’s works were “manipulated beyond colorization.” The artist has yet to issue a public response, however on April 11, Phnom Penh-based journalist E. Quinn Libson shared a friend’s private message to Loughrey’s Instagram account, showing that he had responded, saying, of the 142 victims’ families that he worked with “there are 11 [families] that requested their relative to smile and in some of those cases it was the only picture they had.”

The Cambodian cultural community has protested strongly against the works. The National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial’s April 11 Facebook post tagged Vice, saying that Loughrey’s work is “not only revising and erasing history, it’s a violent act.” After the interview’s removal, a follow up petition led by Khmer-Canadian art activist Dany Pen and Cambodian artist Jean-Baptiste Phou, among other cultural workers, demanded a public apology from Loughrey and Vice to the Cambodian community, while requesting that all profits made by works to be donated to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Celina Lei is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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