April 12, 2021

"Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has said that an Ireland-based photo restoration artist broke the country’s archive law after he digitally colourised and added smiles..."

"... to images of genocide victims. VICE has removed an article showcasing Matt Loughrey’s work, whilst a petition demanding an apology gained traction on Sunday evening.... ... Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said on Sunday that the photos 'are in violation of the dignity of Cambodian Genocide victims and of the rights of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum… We urge researchers, artists and the public not to manipulate any historical source to respect the victims.'... The project received a widespread backlash on social media with many calling it 'tasteless,' 'racist' and 'tone-deaf.'... Cambodia-based photojournalist John Vink was among the critics on Twitter: 'Matt Loughrey in Vice is not colourising S21 photographs. He is falsifying history,' he tweeted."  

Hong Kong Free Press reports. 

I can't imagine that Loughrey thought he was doing something that was anything other than uplifting and kindly, making a nice image of a real person from a photograph captured under horrific circumstances. I don't think what he did was racist, but it was poor judgment — by Loughrey and by VICE. There shouldn't be laws against artistic poor judgment, and I would think the intense disapproval is enough. But Cambodia has its own laws.

FROM THE EMAIL: Colin writes:

The people sent to this prison were tortured and then executed, usually in the most brutal and horrific fashion. After a few months of operation, essentially everyone in Cambodia knew that NO ONE got out from Tuol Sleng Prison. These people in the photos were all facing terror and death with no hope of reprieve or escape. 20,000 people passed into this place, there were just 12 known survivors. Putting smiles on these people’s faces is an abomination. It makes a mockery of what they were facing.

I agree it's bad, but I am nearly certain Loughrey meant well. It's an example of embarrassingly bad judgment, not any sort of evil. It's a shame VICE saw fit to highlight his work. 

AND: The reader Tina emails:

It’s easier to understand VICE’s motive for whitewashing the horror of communist concentration camp victim photos if you first understand that VICE is just a hip iteration of old-school anti-America demoralization agitprop for disaffected truthers types of both political flavors, funded by the usual suspects, as are Al Jazeera, RT, Unz Review, Alex Jones, Voltaire Network, Nation Magazine, etc. Also, of course, they get a permanent pass for concentration camp whitewash stuff because they courageously cancelled Gavin McInnes.

AND: Laura writes: 

Thank you for this post. It prompted me to think remember the work of French artist Christian Boltanski, specifically this piece, Gymnasium Chases from 1991. 

Boltanski has taken school photos of Jewish teenagers from the 1930s and recreated them so that they are out of focus and distorted. It turns the smiling young people’s faces into death’s heads. This is a class looking forward to a future of unfathomable horror - only they don’t know it. It’s a moving piece of art: a memoriam to a time, place and people extinguished by the Holocaust. It reminds us of the fragility of what we take for granted and the plans we make. It’s not beautiful; it hits us in the gut. 

The photos from Tuol Sleng Prison are a kind of class photo too, although of course these “students” know they’re staring into the abyss. To distort their expressions into happy school kid smiles dishonors the dead and the horror they faced. It’s bad art too. It invites you to scroll by this powerful and moving archive they same way you would an uninteresting series of Instagram posts, just another set of images to see and forget. It doesn’t have a power to shift you so you see the world differently, in my mind the test of whether work of conceptual art really is art. 

Thank you for the blog. I’ve been a reader for a long time - since 2005 I think. Never commented before now - so I have to say I like the new format. It’s appropriate for the moment we are in now.

Thanks, Laura.

Here's Boltanski's work:

ALSO: Tina writes again: 

In the early 90's I was responsible for Hmong and Cambodian community outreach for the CDC programs in Atlanta. And I got to know a lot of them, nonverbally.

By nonverbally, I mean that they were so traumatized and detached from knowing written language that they communicated entirely through physical contact. I entirely believe the story that they didn't know what cameras were when subjected to those photographs, and so it is especially cruel to manipulate those shocked and shocking images. In addition, their religious beliefs included baseline ideas about stealing a soul through physical images, and I cannot believe the VICE crew nor the "colorizer" knew nothing of this. It's the first thing you learn about this community, for eff's sake.

Both Cambodian men and women held my hand without any sense of discomfort, and I learned to love that about them. I placed several of the men in work at the Georgia World Congress Center, where the Vietnamese and Chinese men I knew were instructed to not screw with them -- on threat of consequences.

I was the consequence. I was already quite aware of the abuses of these people by the more powerful Vietnamese and Chinese cabals. And they were cabals. There were Mexican cabals, black cabals, white cabals, Vietnamese cabals and Chinese cabals. Plus union cabals, anti-union cabals, Atlanta political cabals, Georgia legislature cabals, and Ted Turner, a cabal unto himself -- and a bozo of equal bozosity to his former wife, Jane Fonda. Idiots.

Since then, I've met many Cambodians through the Catholic Church. To a person, they are broken, traumatized, nonverbal, yet physically affectionate in ways Westerners may not understand. If you meet a Cambodian, gently hold his or her hand, say nothing, and you will be rewarded by a glimpse of the unending universe of their pain and survival.

But do not take pictures of them.