Hundreds of stark black-and-white portraits of terrified people are displayed on large panels in Tuol Sleng, the former Cambodian prison that is now a museum. The portraits stand as a visual symbol of a genocide: The subjects were photographed before they were tortured and put to death under the Khmer Rouge, the fanatical communist regime that, from 1975 to 1979, caused the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians.
Matt Loughrey, an Irish artist who runs a business colorizing old photographs, recently colorized versions of the same portraits found in the prison. In some cases, he altered the images to put smiles on the victims’ faces. In an interview with Mr. Loughrey published last Friday, Vice Media said the colorization was intended to “humanize the tragedy.”
Vice’s publication of the doctored photos caused an outcry from Cambodians worldwide who saw them as a trivialization and desecration of their national tragedy. Vice has since removed the article, but many Cambodians remain shocked by Mr. Loughrey’s treatment of the portraits and have called for an apology.
“The colors do not add humanity to these faces,” said Theary Seng, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who has written a book about her childhood experiences. “Their humanity is already captured and expressed in their haunting eyes, listless resignation, defiant looks.”
The inhumanity, she said, was in Mr. Loughrey’s “inexplicable adding of makeup and a smile, as if to mock their suffering.”
Mu Sochua, an exiled Cambodian politician who lost relatives under the Khmer Rouge, said she was so disturbed by what Mr. Loughrey had done that she could not sleep. Soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, in the early 1980s, she went through a list of those tortured in Tuol Sleng, searching in vain for the names of her parents. “To this day I don’t know how they died,” said Ms. Sochua. “I just can’t believe this artist can be so hurtful.”
Two of the few living survivors of Tuol Sleng also voiced their anger and sadness at what they said was an insult to the souls of the dead.
Bou Meng, who was tortured but then put to work as a painter, still carries with him a small copy of the portrait of his wife, who was killed in the prison. “I want him to apologize to the Cambodian people and to me, a survivor,” he said of Mr. Loughrey. And Norng Chan Phal, who watched his mother dragged away to be tortured when he was a small child and then survived his own incarceration, said, “These are historic photos and I absolutely don’t want anyone changing them.”
Mr. Loughrey told Vice that the project began at the request of someone in Cambodia and that it initially involved a family photo, suggesting he was working with permission from the families. But at least one family was taken by surprise when a photograph of a relative, Khva Leang, appeared in the Vice article, colorized without their permission and with an incorrect name and biographical information.
A niece, Lydia Chim, said she had reached out to Vice to try to make contact with Mr. Loughrey but received no reply. “These photos were taken of prisoners in the worst moments of their lives and should be treated with the care that the gravity of the history demands,” she said.
This is not the first time Mr. Loughrey has been accused of undermining historical truth in his work. When asked about the ethics of altering historical images in a 2019 interview with Digital Camera World he said, “I used to answer that question by saying that the brain is designed to see in red, green and blue, which of course it is. However, I think I was attempting to argue or defend this work when really there’s no need to. We either like something or we do not and that’s an essential part of living.”
Mr. Loughrey did not respond to several messages asking for comment on the recent images published by Vice.
The victims in the photographs had been arrested in widespread purges in which the Khmer Rouge leadership, looking for traitors in its midst, devoured itself. Some 18,000 people were imprisoned in Tuol Sleng, by an updated count. Victims were brought blindfolded into prison and the pictures were taken moments after the blindfolds were pulled from their faces.
“Imagine the terror they felt,” said Rithy Panh, an award-winning Cambodian documentary filmmaker whose relatives died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. “When the Khmer Rouge photographers took off their blindfolds, the first thing the victims saw was the camera and sometimes the flash of the flashbulb. That is the first act of the killing. From that moment on they were only numbers.”
In an interview before he died in 2011, Vann Nath, one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng, said many of the victims had been starved for a week or beaten before the pictures were taken. Many had never seen a camera before. “These expressions that people empathize with are just pure shock from the flash,” he said.
When journalists and art critics write about the photographs, they tend to focus on the victims’ expression as an indictment of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, said Mr. Vann Nath. “But this is all in their imagination,” he said. “They have no clue.”
Many of the photographs were taken by Nhem En, a village boy who was chosen at the age of 15 to be an official photographer at Tuol Sleng. He was sent to China to learn photographic techniques and many of his pictures are technically beautiful.
After the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion, the pictures lay moldering and unattended in drawers inside the prison until 1993. That year, two young photographers, Chris Riley and Douglas Niven, cleaned and archived 6,000 negatives in return for the right to publish 100 of them in a book called The Killing Fields.
Although the photographs were intended as identification mug shots to be attached to the biographies of the prisoners, they have since been presented in different guises, as historical artifacts, as legal evidence and as art.
A selection of 22 of the photographs was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997 — perfectly framed and perfectly lit.
Reporting was contributed by Ros Sampoeu in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.