Cambodia condemns Irish artist for adding smiles to victims of Communism

The Cambodian government has lashed out at the Canadian media company VICE after an Irish artist edited photos of victims of communist genocide, adding smiles to their mugshots. Politicians have called it a “grave insult” to victims of the “Cambodian Auschwitz.”

The images were originally intended to be colourised mugshots of the victims of the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmer” – a violent Cambodian Communist group led by Pol Pot in the 1970s. The group is best known for carrying out a brutal genocide against an estimated 1.7 million people – almost a quarter of the country’s population. Many of the sites of these massacres, known as “killing fields”, still exist today as memorials around Cambodia, and display real pyramids of skulls and human bones from the group’s victims.

However, in addition to colourising the photographs, Irish artist Matt Loughrey was found to have added smiles to the mugshots of inmates inside the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, where some 14,000 Cambodians were tortured and executed.

“To play around by using technology to put make-up on the victims of S21 or the Cambodian Auschwitz is unacceptable and must be stopped. It is a very grave insult to the souls of the victims of genocide,” wrote Mu Sochua, a Cambodian politician.

Additionally, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture called on Loughrey and VICE to remove the photos, urging “researchers, artists and the public not to manipulate any historical source to respect the victims.” They also reportedly threatened legal action, alleging that the edited images infringed Cambodia’s 2005 Archives Act.

“This was done without the consent of family members who lost loved ones in the prison, and with other Cambodian community organizations who are involved in this work,” a Facebook statement by the National Cambodian Heritage and Killing Fields Museum said.

“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,” they added.

Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodian, Youk Chhang, compared the edited photos to re-writing history.

Loughrey has declined to comment to the media so far on the photos.

VICE has since taken the article down from their website, saying “It has been brought to our attention that the restored portraits published in this article were modified beyond colorization. We are reviewing the article and considering further actions to correct the record.”

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