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

A motorbike drives past the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 12 April 2021. Cambodian authorities called on US media group Vice and Irish artist Matt Loughrey to withdraw an article featured altered images of Khmer Rouge victims. The article was later removed from the Vice website. EPA/KITH SEREY

A motorbike drives past the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 12 April 2021. Cambodian authorities called on US media group Vice and Irish artist Matt Loughrey to withdraw an article featured altered images of Khmer Rouge victims. The article was later removed from the Vice website. EPA/KITH SEREY

 

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.

Loughrey has defended his actions by claiming some family members of the victims requested the smile alterations, and rejecting the accusation he is falsifying history. Vice has since removed the article and apologised for its lack of editorial oversight, although an earlier article on Loughrey’s colourisations from March 19th still remains online, with its similarly distorted images of 1920s Australian female police mugshots only partially removed.

The list of offences perpetrated by the manipulated Cambodian images is long. The action of a white European artist altering traumatic images of an Asian genocide (coupled with self-promotion of his colourisation business) is unequivocally distasteful.

The anguish caused to relatives of the Cambodian victims, who’ve seen the brutal documentation of loved ones’ final moments distorted into cheerful expressions of calm acceptance, is palpable and horrifying. What could have motivated such an ill-judged decision?

According to Loughrey’s website, colourisation, digital animation, and “photo restoration” offer an opportunity to “rescue” museum collections and “upgrade and reimagine their own visitor experiences”.

But the extreme interventions performed on the S-21 photographs are on a continuum with the popular practice of photo colourisation.

Khmer News publishes before and after photos, showing a smile apparently added by Matt Loughrey
Khmer News publishes before and after photos, showing a smile apparently added by Matt Loughrey

In the past few years the production and visibility of colourised and ‘restored’ historical photographs has grown exponentially, owing both to social media and the introduction of user-friendly AI-driven colourisation software. The digitisation of photographs by museums and archives has further enabled the practice, and colourisation is encouraged by some institutions keen on amplifying public engagement with their collections.

This has also taken the form of commissioned projects in collaboration with “professional colourists”.

Another example (though it takes a different approach from the Tuol Sleng controversy) is the 2018 Faces of Auschwitz project, produced by colourist Marina Amaral working with the Auschwitz Memorial Museum. This colourises the registration photographs taken by the Nazis of Jewish and other prisoners before their extermination.

Both projects claim to restore the humanity of their subjects via the application of an invented and highly subjective colour layer. The Faces of Auschwitz website displays and annotates the black and white originals alongside the colourised versions (although commentary on the colourisation choices and method is noticeably absent).

The S-21 project had no institutional authorisation, and from a public point of view clearly crossed an ethical line in its altering of victims’ expression and not simply the addition of colour.

But is the imposition of colour, or the manipulation of archival material to please the palate or fulfil the desires of the contemporary viewer, ever really so simple?

The expansion of the technical capacity and popular appetite to alter historical photography has not been matched by sufficient debate about the assumptions and consequences of this practice. In effect, colourisers do not address photographs as physical artefacts with unique histories of creation and reception: this work treats original photos as “windows” onto the past that can be “improved for viewers.

But a photograph is never a simple mimetic representation of the past. It carries with it a complicated history of who took the photograph, who looked at it, the restrictions and possibilities its technology offered, and how it produces a relationship between representation, experience, and history. Colourisation ignores the rich repository of meaning that a historical photograph offers in its original state, bypassing deeper understanding for a fleeting jolt of recognition or novelty.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, it’s proved an enormously popular phenomenon - but harder questions need to be asked about the presumed affinity of colour with empathy for our fellow human beings, or as means of engaging ethically with history.

Dr Emily Mark-FitzGerald is associate professor and head of the school of art history and cultural policy at University College Dublin