Cambodians who lost family during the Khmer Rouge genocide on Sunday slammed an Irish artist’s decision to digitally add smiles to old black-and-white pictures of victims killed by the regime.
The Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge installed a reign of terror from 1975 to 1979 that left an estimated 2 million Cambodians dead from starvation, hard labor, torture and mass executions.
The brutal regime took photographs of thousands of its victims — including those sent to Tuol Sleng, or S-21 — a former high school in Phnom Penh that was converted into a prison.
An estimated 15,000 people were interrogated and tortured there before being put to death in a neighboring field.
Artist Matt Loughrey has been adding color to the black-and-white photos of victims as part of a personal project, but claims that he added smiles to some of those killed has provoked a backlash.
A selection of the images and an interview with Loughrey was published on the Vice news Web site over the weekend, attracting a torrent of criticism within Cambodia and social media.
“I’m talking with the museum about making these photos accessible to everybody,” the artist said in the Vice interview, adding that the project had seen a “superb response” so far.
The article appeared to have been pulled from the Web site on Sunday afternoon. Earlier, Vice added a disclaimer to the article before it was removed.
“It has been brought to our attention that the restored portraits published in this article were modified beyond colorization. We are reviewing the article and considering further actions to correct the record,” Vice said in an editor’s note.
Agence France-Presse has contacted Loughrey for a response.
Norng Chan Phal, an S-21 survivor who lost parents at the prison, described Loughrey’s project as “an insult to the victims of Khmer Rouge.”
“I strongly condemn these colorized pictures because all victims at S-21 were never happy,” said Norng Chan Phal, 52. “We the victims who entered S-21 never had a chance to smile. I don’t support any changes to the pictures. We were suffering.”
The Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said it considered Loughrey’s manipulation of the images to “seriously affect the dignity of the victims,” as well as the reality of the nation’s history.
The project also breached the rights of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Musuem as the lawful owners and custodians of the images, it said.
The ministry called for Loughrey and Vice to remove the doctored pictures.
The ministry “will consider to take legal action (both national and international) if Matt Loughrey does not comply with the above request,” it said in a statement.
Hun Many, a Cambodian lawmaker and youngest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, said he was shocked to see the doctored images.
“It clearly shows that those individuals, especially foreigners do not understand the painful tragedy of the Cambodia nation and particularly the victims who suffered from torture and killings at Tuol Sleng prison,” he wrote on Facebook.
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