Cambodia Outraged After Vice Publishes Manipulated Photos of Khmer Rouge Genocide Victims

Vice

Vice Media Group recently sparked outrage after publishing an article with manipulated photographs of Khmer Rouge victims.

“These People Were Arrested by the Khmer Rouge and Never Seen Again,” which was published on Friday, centered around an interview with Ireland-based artist Matt Loughrey.

Loughrey claimed to have colorized images taken at Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh to humanize the 14,000 Cambodians tortured and killed there under the tyrannical leadership of Pol Pot, Reuters reported.

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After comparing Loughrey’s renderings to the original black-and-white photos — which were not included in the Vice article — several readers quickly pointed out that the victims were only smiling in Loughrey’s photos. 

Cambodian officials condemned the alteration of these images, declaring the act to be disrespectful to the victims.

“To play around by using technology to put make-up on the victims of S21… is a very grave insult to the souls of the victims of #genocide,” Mu Sochua, an exiled Cambodian politician wrote on Twitter, according to Reuters.

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Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts also issued a statement in response to the article, urging the public not to “manipulate any historical source to respect the victims.” 

One Twitter user said that her uncle, Khva Leang, was one of the victims in the colorized images. She claimed that her uncle’s smirk was not digitally added, but the Vice article told a false story about him nonetheless. Loughrey also allegedly misidentified Leang as “Bora.”

“Maybe my uncle told a false story when he was captured, maybe Loughrey confused his story with someone else’s,” she offered as a possible explanation. “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.”

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“Responsible journalism is crucial, especially when it concerns the retelling of stories of real victims of a terrible genocide. These people have families and loved ones,” she added.

Vice issued an editorial statement in response to the backlash on Sunday.

“The article included photographs of Khmer Rouge victims that Loughrey manipulated beyond colorization. The story did not meet the editorial standards of VICE and has been removed. We regret the error and will investigate how this failure of the editorial process occurred,” the statement read.

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Although the media company took down the article on Monday, the original post has been archived

An online petition was created over the weekend originally demanding that Vice take the article down. It has since been updated to request a formal apology from the company, and as of this writing, it has over 8,000 signatures. 

Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s Minister of Culture, told CNN Business on Monday that the “alteration of these photographs shows an utter insensitivity for the people who died, the families who have had to continue on without their loved ones, and historical truth itself. We understand and respect artistic freedom. However, in this case, the artist has clearly desecrated the memories of the dead and robbed the victims of the Khmer Rouge of their dignity. The distorted photographs have needlessly once again traumatized the families and our nation.”

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He requested that Loughrey “immediately stop spreading these horrific images and specifically to take them off his website and out of public view.”

Though Loughrey has yet to formally comment on the matter, a recent tweet shows that he allegedly called the criticism “nonsense” in response to a Cambodian Instagrammer. 

The National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial also released a statement on Facebook, declaring, “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.  There is no celebration from these traumas.  There is no amount of reparations and restorative justice that can bring those killed back to life.”

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“Our community is still processing these traumas. Our community is still healing.  Our community is still telling their stories.  Please listen to them, and most importantly, honor them,” it added. 

At least 1.7 million Cambodians died under the leadership of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. It took around 40 years for an international tribunal to officially rule the regime’s systematic killings as genocide.  

Feature Image via Getty

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