PHNOM PENH – Cambodians on Monday continued to condemn an Irish photo restorer for altering photographs of victims of their country’s 1970s genocide to show them smiling, saying his decision and that of an international media group to publish them showed horrible judgement.
Vice on Friday published an interview with Matt Loughrey, who had colorized photos taken of prisoners of the Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where an estimated 17,000 people suspected of being enemies of the communist regime were jailed and tortured before being executed.
Vice has since taken the article off its website and released a statement saying it was investigating the issue.
“To imagine the smiling faces of victims of the Khmer Rouge, your judgment then must be horrible,” Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said Monday.
Youk Chhang’s center has a vast trove of evidence of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, who are blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million of their countrymen through execution, starvation, overwork and lack of medical care. After winning a civil war and taking power in 1975, the group's paranoid leaders blamed the failure of their utopian plans on enemies, and purges were constant until a Vietnamese invasion unseated them in 1979.
The controversy over the photos has raised questions about what limits there should be on the manipulation of historical images, an especially sensitive issue in the case of Cambodia, where the trauma from the brutality is still evident.
“A lesson we learn from this is that we must accept the fact that the Khmer Rouge is NOT about the past,” Youk Chhang told The Associated Press in an email. “How can it be about the past, when we have at least five million survivors of the Khmer Rouge are still alive today?”
In his interview with Vice, Loughrey said he had been hired by family members of some of the S-21 victims to colorize photos of their loved ones, and he then on his own worked on more images from the prison, which today is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The Associated Press was unable to reach him Monday for comment.