On today's episode of “which episode of Black Mirror are we living in today,” Brooklyn-based news outlet, Vice Media has found itself in hot water after publishing a series of altered images depicting victims of the Cambodian Genocide donning big, photoshopped grins before their deaths as a part of a recent interview. The article, which first hit the outlet's site on Friday, centered around photo restorer, Matt Loughrey, who recently colorized and smile-ized several pictures of some of the genocide's victims before they were tortured and killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The individuals photographed represent only a handful of the approximately 1.7 million Cambodians put to death between 1975 and 1979, the New York Times reported.
Instead of merely colorizing the photos, taken at the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison where roughly 14,000 Cambodians were killed, Loughrey apparently thought it'd be a great idea to take his retouching a step further, superimposing big smiles on the victims' faces, in an attempt to "humanize the tragedy.”
However the artist's shot at fostering an empathetic audience quickly and spectacularly backfired among some Cambodians -- shortly after the article's publication, the nation's Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts called for the images to be taken down, saying they have the potential to “to seriously affect the dignity of the victims” with survivors decrying the retouched photos.
“How can you change hell to happiness?” said Youk Chhang, a survivor of the genocide and the director of Cambodia's Documentation Center per The Guardian. “It was a grave injustice to the victims to alter such a piece of history, which is still a living history.”
Theary Seng, another survivor who penned a book about her experiences seemingly echoed these sentiments, noting how the superimposed smiles, too, are “inexplicable” and “mock their suffering.” “The colors do not add humanity to these faces,” she said, per the New York Times. “Their humanity is already captured and expressed in their haunting eyes, listless resignation, defiant looks.”
In light of this blowback, Vice has since removed the article and issued an apology on their site. “On Friday April 9th, VICE Asia published an interview with Matt Loughrey, an artist working to restore and colorize images from Security Prison 21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which was used by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 until its fall in 1979," the statement read. “The article included photographs of Khmer Rouge victims that Loughrey manipulated beyond colorization. The story did not meet the editorial standards of VICE and has been removed. We regret the error and will investigate how this failure of the editorial process occurred.”
So folks, remember, when teaching about atrocities of the past, maybe refrain from retroactively demanding victims ‘say cheese.' Dystopia – it's here!