Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has said that an Ireland-based photo restoration artist broke the country’s archive law after he digitally colourised and added smiles to images of genocide victims. VICE has removed an article showcasing Matt Loughrey’s work, whilst a petition demanding an apology gained traction on Sunday evening.

Photo: HKFP.

Between 1.5 to 2 million people were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979 in a China-backed push towards communism. Phnom Penh ‘s Security Prison 21 – now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – was an execution centre where thousands of victims were photographed upon arrival.

Loughrey “restored” and colourised some of the images, whilst some of the victims had smiles digitally added. One photo had a bloody handprint added to the wall in the background, the Khmer Times reported.

Photo: HKFP.

A Facebook statement by the National Cambodian Heritage and Killing Fields Museum criticised the project: “This was done without the consent of family members who lost loved ones in the prison, and with other Cambodian community organizations who are involved in this work… 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.”

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said on Sunday that the photos “are in violation of the dignity of Cambodian Genocide victims and of the rights of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum… We urge researchers, artists and the public not to manipulate any historical source to respect the victims.”

The ministry threatened legal action and said the images infringed Cambodia’s 2005 Archives Act.

By Sunday evening, the article had been deleted after a message was added saying editors were investigating reports that the images had been modified beyond colourisation.

Social media backlash

The project received a widespread backlash on social media with many calling it “tasteless,” “racist” and “tone-deaf.”

Photo: HKFP.

Cambodia-based photojournalist John Vink was among the critics on Twitter: “Matt Loughrey in Vice is not colourising S21 photographs. He is falsifying history,” he tweeted.

Documentarist Magali-An Berthon said “this article is an insult to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime / and pure whitewashing white savior narrative on such a complex tragic history that has been documented. This is not Loughrey’s to reclaim or recolorize or add smiles.”

Photo: HKFP.

Twitter user @theycallmelyd said that she recognised her uncle in an image, but Loughrey had not been in touch with the family and his story accompanying the image of her relative was likely false.

‘We demand an apology

Loughrey claimed in the VICE article that some of the women – in particular – were already smiling in the photos he had seen, perhaps out of nervousness: “One of the classic things is to try to be friendly with your captor. So a smile would seem natural,” VICE quoted him as saying. It was not clear from the article that some smiles had been digitally added.

A Change.org petition calling for an apology had garnered over 3,000 signatures by Sunday night: “We reject Mr Loughrey’s attempt to profit and benefit from the traumas of our history… Mr. Loughrey, please stop using photos of Cambodian genocide victims for your experimentation and entertainment. We demand an apology.”

E. Quinn Libson – a Cambodia-based journalist – said on Twitter that Loughrey had responded to her calling her criticism “nonsense.”

He reportedly said some Cambodian families had requested that their relative smile in the photos and feedback had been “positive.”

HKFP has reached out to Loughrey for comment.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications & New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Quartz, Global Post and others.