The manipulated images — first published by Vice Asia on Friday with the headline “These People Were Arrested by the Khmer Rouge and Never Seen Again” and including an interview with the artist Matt Loughrey, who manipulated the images — prompted a wave of outrage and condemnation from Cambodia’s government and cultural institutions.
The photographs and the article were removed from the news website on Sunday. In a statement, the news outlet acknowledged that the images were “manipulated beyond colorization” and that the story “did not meet the editorial standards of VICE.”
“We regret the error and will investigate how this failure of the editorial process occurred,” the statement said.
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts issued a statement Sunday asking Loughrey to take down the photographs, saying that they “affect the dignity of the victims” and the nation’s history, and that they breach the legal rights of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, “the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs.”
The ministry also said it will consider taking legal action, through national and international channels, if Loughrey does not honor the request.
The National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial said in a poignant statement that the artist used photographs without the consent of family members who lost their loved ones in the prison.
“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,” the statement said.
The statement added that the S-21 facility held thousands of Cambodians, including the elderly and children, who were subjected to torture, hunger, interrogation and, eventually, violent deaths.
Only seven out of the 14,000 prisoners survived, according to the Killing Fields Museum.
“There is no celebration from these traumas,” the statement added.
In an interview with Cambodian newspaper Khmer Times, Neth Pheaktra, the spokesman for the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, deemed the altered images “immoral” and an “insult” to the memory of the victims, and called for a public apology.
Pheaktra emphasized that crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed at the Tuol Sleng prison, now turned into a museum, and that therefore “it is not possible to take the tragedy of the victims and their families as a joke and alter the images from the real story.”
The dictator Pol Pot and the communist Khmer Rouge attempted to create a classless agrarian society. At least 1.7 million people were executed or died of starvation, disease or overwork.
Vice did not immediately respond to a request for further comment, nor did Loughrey.
In the story, the artist is questioned about the portraits where victims appear smiling.
“One of the classic things is to try to be friendly with your captor. So a smile would seem natural. I’m sure it’s very easy for the oppressor to smile, because they have all the power, and when you see a smile, you may try to mirror it in order to become synchronized with your captor. To make yourself feel like you have some control,” he said, the Khmer Times reported.
Loughrey also claimed that the colorized portraits “humanize" that tragedy.
Last month, Vice published mug shots of women arrested in Australia also modified by Loughrey, both by adding color and changing facial expressions to show some of them smiling.
The images elicited strong expressions of outrage on social media.
“Matt Loughrey in Vice is not colourising S21 photographs. He is falsifying history,” tweeted John Vink, a photographer who spent more than a decade working in Cambodia.
Clarification note: A previous version of this story stated that artist Matt Loughrey had expounded in the Vice Article on his decision to digitally alter the victims’ photos, when he was only asked about his opinion on the photos where victims appear smiling.