After receiving a complaint from the Cambodian government, the media outlet VICE removed an article from its website that featured colorized mugshots of Khmer Rouge prisoners. The images, restored and edited by artist Matt Loughrey, spurred widespread backlash for altering mugshots of slain Cambodians, adding smiles to their faces.
The dictatorial Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, captured and murdered nearly two million Cambodians. Mugshots of these victims are on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the city of Phnom Penh, the site of the Khmer Rouge’s former Security Prison 21 (S-21). They stand as a painful reminder of the “Killing Feilds” of Pol Pots’ brutal communist regime.
Loughrey’s colorized images of prisoners from S-21, published by VICE on April 9, caused an immediate uproar on social media after some noticed that the facial expression of the victims had been changed from somber to smiley. VICE’s article did not show the original mugshots.
“Matt Loughrey in Vice is not colourising S21 photographs. He is falsifying history,” tweeted John Vink, a photojournalist who posted comparisons between the original mugshots and Loughrey’s altered images.
Loughrey did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. In his now-deleted interview with VICE, he claimed that he had worked with victims’ families to restore the photos, according to Reuters.
On Sunday, April 11, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture issued a statement calling on VICE to remove the images, saying that they “seriously affected the dignity of the victims.”
“We urge researchers, artists and the public not to manipulate any historical source to respect the victims,” the ministry’s statement said.
The ministry added that the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was the lawful owner of the images and threatened to take legal action against Loughrey if he does not comply with the request.
Hours after the Cambodian ministry’s statement, VICE removed the article from its website. On Monday, it issued a statement saying the article “did not meet the editorial standards of VICE .”
“The article included photographs of Khmer Rouge victims that Loughrey manipulated beyond colorization,” the statement said. “We regret the error and will investigate how this failure of the editorial process occurred.”