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.”
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.”