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Altered Khmer Rouge victim photos were falsifying history
I didn’t think too much of it at first when I first opened Vice’s article on the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
The article covered a project by Matt Loughrey, an Irish artist who has been working to colorize headshots of the people that were murdered in the S-21 prison in Cambodia, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A quarter of Cambodia’s population died as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide. “These portraits, recently colorized,” the article noted, “humanize the tragedy.”
It was a harrowing gallery: photo after photo of victims staring straight at the camera, with the color making the tragedy somehow feel even more shocking than any statistic could ever convey.
But there was something that was strangely off-putting about the photos. In many of the portraits, the victims were smiling.
Loughrey attempted to explain: “I think a lot of that has to do with nervousness…I thought about this time and time again when I was working on them. We smile when we’re nervous. We smile when we have something to hide. One of the classic things is to try to be friendly with your captor.”
It still felt more than a little strange and disturbing — after all, I’d never recalled seeing photos of the victims smiling — but I did not pursue this thought further, even as something in me told me not to hit the retweet button.
A while later, however, John Vink, a photojournalist who was based in Cambodia for sixteen years, tweeted that Loughrey had gone beyond simply adding color to the photos. No, he had gone quite beyond that: the smiles themselves had been photoshopped. “He is falsifying history,” Vink said, with a side-by-side comparison of the original photo and Loughrey’s version attached.
Loughrey issued a response, calling the accusation “nonsense.” The families in Cambodia that he had worked with, Loughrey says, had requested those smiles be added, and in some instances the prisoners had genuinely been smiling. “That my altered pictures were published alongside my quote is happenstance,” he said.
That explanation in itself pushes the blame towards Vice’s editors, who had for some reason or another failed to clearly note that the editing on the photos had gone beyond color alterations, yet still tries to justify a reason for why the smiles had been added. Then, however, National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial then pushed a statement that said the coloring and addition of smiles had been done without the consent of family members. At this point, we must ask: then for what reason were the smiles added?
It is true that the artist’s response may not have been wholly inaccurate. Some of the facial expressions may truly have been there. Lydia, a relative of one of the victims wrote on Twitter that she had seen the original photo, and thus did not believe the smirk on her uncle’s face had been photoshopped.
But, she noted, the story Loughrey told about him is not accurate either.
His name was Khva Leang and had been a primary school teacher, but the interview says he was a farmer named Bora. The story states his son was electrocuted and set on fire, but she believes it was impossible that he would have had any contact with his children who had also died. Perhaps, Lydia conceded, her uncle had told his captors a false story. “But that moment, when I read that story and imagined that I could have a cousin out there and not know it, was gut-wrenching.”
All of this is enough to make anyone feel queasy. For one, sloppy journalism on a tragedy that took the lives of so many is awful and should not have passed basic fact-checking. But there is also something uniquely abhorrent and shocking about passing on, without clear explanation, edited photos showing the victims of a genocide smiling not long before their demise, when those smiles had not been theirs.
When those smiles had not been theirs. What message, after all, do those false smiles convey? My personal sense is that it lessens the magnitude of the tragedy and trauma that occurred in Cambodia. It washes away the terror of the victims in the face of one of the worst state-perpetrated mass murders of our time. It conveys an emotion that did not exist — indeed, it replaces one with another.
For let us not forget that emotion is a core part of history. I’m reminded of a photo of the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, where a crowd smile and laugh as they watch a man bash a hanged student hanging from a tree. Those smiles convey an emotion that is hard to understand — that sense of hatred so strong and overpowering that it stops people from seeing the common humanity we all share. Those are smiles we do not want to see. But at the very least, they tell a story of the past, one we must all learn from, one which we do not want to ever repeat.
But these edited smiles —put on the face of the victims, no less, and posted without labels? Many felt this is the substitution of fear with something else — and whatever that something else is, it is not real. As one netizen noted, while faces do tell stories, “altered faces tell false stories.”
Simply put, it not a faithful representation of the past. Indeed, it twists the past in a way that is distasteful and disrespectful to both the deceased and the living family members who carry on the pain. And the past is, needless to say, painful enough for them in its unadulterated form.
Late yesterday, Vice retracted this piece. Although they did so only after threat of legal action from the Cambodian government, it was the right decision. They owed at least that much to the historical record on one of the 20th century’s worst genocides, and to all the people that this tragedy affected.