The Khmer Rouge controversy: Why colourising old photos is always a falsification of history

Matt Loughrey has falsely doctored photos from 1970s Cambodia – but all colourisation does that.

It’s not often that photo colourisation sparks an international incident, but this is precisely what’s occurred over the past few days, owing to a controversy that’s erupted over the online publication by Vice of doctored photographs of the 1970s Cambodian genocide, produced by the Mayo-based colourist Matt Loughrey.

The images in question belong to the archives of the Security Prison 21 (S-21) camp at Phnom Penh in Cambodia, today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a notorious site of torture operated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-9. They depict some of the tens of thousands of victims of the Cambodian genocide, shortly before their execution.

The Vice article on April 9th described Loughrey’s project to colourise these photos, but failed to mention that in addition to colourisation he had digitally altered the expression of several victims, adding smiles and softening expressions of pain or shock. Public recognition and condemnation of the intervention has been swift and forceful, and the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts issued a statement calling for the images’ removal and noting that legal action may be taken, as Loughrey’s action contravenes Cambodia’s 2005 Archives Act and the terms of use of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum archives.

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