A torture and detention room at the S-21 security prison, now part of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. (Photo: Wikimedia)
Media company Vice-Asia has pulled a heavily doctored photo essay portraying Khmer Rouge victims as smiling while being processed for extermination amid a hue and cry from government officials, peers and relatives of the victims.
Complaints were heaviest online with a petition demanding their withdrawal from online publication and an apology from Vice-Asia editors and Matt Loughrey, the photographer who colorized the images and turned expressions of resignation into smiles.
Loughrey justified his work as art but was instead accused of falsifying Khmer Rouge history.
“In the name of art … shame on you, Matt Loughrey,” wrote one objector while urging people to sign up to the petition.
Renowned international photographer John Vink echoed those sentiments on Twitter, saying: “Matt Loughrey in Vice is not colorizing S-21 [security prison] photographs. He is falsifying history.”
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) was also offended.
“The MCFA does not accept this kind of manipulation and considers this work of Matt Loughrey to seriously affect the dignity of the victims, the reality of Cambodia's history, and in violation of the rights of the museum as the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs,” it said.
The photos are kept on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh on the school site where S-21 was housed between 1975 and 1979.
About 20,000 people were processed and sent for slaughter in Cambodia’s Killing Fields from this center by the Khmer Rouge.
They were among two million people who died through genocide, starvation and illness under Pol Pot and the photos are evidence at the UN-backed tribunal charged with finding justice for the victims.
Many were tortured before being killed with an ox cart axle to the nape of the neck and their remains, which often still lie where they died, are also evidence for the tribunal.
The trial is ongoing after securing three convictions for genocide and crimes against humanity, with a decision still to be made on one indictment and an appeal to be heard for the former head of state, Khieu Samphan, the sole surviving leader who remains behind bars.
Once the tribunal is finished, a final resting place for the remains of the victims is expected to be announced. A memorial dedicated to them, which might include the photographs from S-21, is expected to be constructed.
The MCFA said it urged all artists not to alter historical sources out of respect for the victims and warned legal action — local and international — would be taken.
Vice has an industry-wide reputation for shocking but the photos were removed from the Vice website two days after they were published on April 9.