Cambodians condemn Irish artist’s digitally altered photos of genocide victims

Cambodians condemn Irish artist’s digitally altered photos of genocide victims

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum chronicling the Cambodian genocide. Located in Phnom Penh, the site is a former secondary school which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 until its fall in 1979. Picture: @Freudianneslip/Twitter

An Irish photo restoration artist has been widely criticised after he allegedly added smiles to images of Cambodian genocide victims.

Matt Loughrey, who is based in Mayo, uses three-dimensional technology to recreate old images.

His latest work, which was showcased in a now-deleted VICE article, featured colourised photos of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime from the S-21 prison archives in Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh.

The article has since been removed after the Cambodian government said the images “seriously affect the dignity of the victims” and “the reality of Cambodia’s history.” 

VICE issued a statement on Monday to say the article failed to reach editorial standards.

“The article included photographs of Khmer Rouge victims that Loughrey manipulated beyond colourisation,” it said.

“We regret the error and will investigate how this failure of the editorial process occurred.”

Cambodia’s culture ministry also said the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was the lawful owner of the images and vowed to take legal action if the images were not taken down.

According to the Khmer Times, there has been widespread condemnation over the “sickening” images in Cambodia.

The images were originally taken as part of the induction into the infamous S-21 prison – which operated between 1975-1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime.

The prison, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is believed to have executed some 20,000 Cambodians, while up to 2m people died under the Khmer Rouge regime.


Cambodia-based photojournalist John Vink was among the critics on Twitter, accusing Loughrey of “falsifying history.”


The National Cambodian Heritage and Killing Fields Museum also criticised the project.

In a statement, the museum said: “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.

“We do not endorse those that seek to profit and benefit from the violent and lived traumas of our past and current history.

"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.” 

Head of the School of Art History in UCD, Dr Emily Mark-Fitzgerald, has said Mr Loughrey's project contains some of "the worst examples of image manipulation" she's ever seen.

It's essentially taking these photographs of people who were victims of genocide and transforming them into these kinds of caricatures.

Dr Mark-Fitzgerald the idea of "pasting smiles artificially" on people who are imminent about to go to their deaths, is "almost unimaginable." 

Jean-Baptiste Phou, a stage actor in Phnomh Penh who is campaigning for Loughrey to apologise for the inappropriate photo alterations, says there’s immense public anger in Cambodia about the doctored photos.

"Every generation - the generation who lived through it and the younger generation who are carrying the legacy and heritage, there's a lot of incomprehension, a lot of anger, a lot of pain there," he said. 

We don't need a western point of view to tell us how we should look at our history. That's not right.

Hun Many, a Cambodian lawmaker and youngest son of the country’s leader 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.

Digitally enhanced smiles

It is understood the article did not make clear some smiles had been digitally added.

Before the article was removed, it was updated with a disclaimer that read: "It has been brought to our attention that the restored portraits published in this article were modified beyond colourization. We are reviewing the article and considering further actions to correct the record."

A petition calling on Mr Loughrey and VICE to apologise for the article has amassed over 7,000 signatures.

Matt Loughrey has not responded to the Irish Examiner's request to comment.

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