Jordan J. Lloyd

April 11, 2021

🇰🇭 Some photographs should be left alone from manipulation

In a now deleted interview published by VICE titled, 'These People Were Arrested by the Khmer Rouge and Never Seen Again', altered photographs ostensibly showing smiling victims of the Cambodian genocide highlight the ethical predicament and the potential abuse of technology when working with original historical documentation.


At first glance, the images appear to be real colour photographs: juxtaposing smiling young Cambodians against the backdrop of the notorious S-21 prison, a former high school converted into a torture and execution centre operated by the Khmer Rouge, where over 14,000 people were incarcerated, tortured and murdered between 1976-79.

Ireland-based artist Matthew Loughrey claims the original scope of the photographs was for a professional commission, before expanding his remit into a series. Scrutiny of Mr Loughrey's colorized images, however, reveals a more curious revelation: in several photographs, the expressions of the victims have been altered using the same techniques employed in commercial image retouching, and more recently, a growing number of mobile app filters utilising AI algorithms.

These changes go far beyond sensitive restoration, removing damage from the original documentation–they engender a false narrative; a common criticism levelled at professionals in my field. Superimposing Mr Loughrey's interpretations onto the original scans revealed acutely disturbing results.

[Update: To honour the wishes of the Cambodian Government and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I have removed Mr Loughrey's colorized and altered photographs, though some examples can be found on this Twitter thread. A proxy example of the alteration process can be found at the end of the piece using a portrait of an American man from the 1940s.]

TSGM Inventory No. 01710 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archives). In Mr Loughrey's altered work, the subjext is smiling and Mr Loughrey has removed a cable to the right. Further, what appears to be a smudge from a hand to the right has been contrast adjusted and altered to resemble a bloodied hand print. The bottom left of the altered photograph also retains traces of the museum's watermark, challenging Mr Loughrey's claim that the work was undertaken with the consent of the museum.

TSGM Inventory No. 03656 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archives). In Mr Loughrey's altered work, the subject's face has been altered to be smiling. Background details such as the graffiti have been removed. Further, there is higher resolution definition in the face and clothing compared to the original, indicating AI enhancements. 

TSGM Inventory No. 05013 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archives). In Mr Loughrey's altered work, this young woman is depicted with a broad smile with her teeth showing.

TSGM Inventory No. 02964 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archives). In Mr Loughrey's altered work, definition has been added to the face and clothing. Notably, the facial expression remains the same. 

These altered facial expressions transform the context of photographs entirely, changing the demeanour of the subject. Whilst the expression of the man in the photograph above has not been altered, the victim's story may not appear to be as Mr Loughrey relates it: 

[VICE]: Do you know much about what these individuals went through?

[Loughrey]: Yeah and it’s horrific. Actually in one or two of the images, you can see what the people photographed before them might have been subjected to as well—namely some of the handprints on the walls, and drag marks on the walls. It’s despicable. Anything and everything torture. There are records to go along with the photos, but the records are scant. What remains is the location, and the location speaks for itself. I only know specifically about what happened to one person, Bora. He was electrocuted and then set on fire.

[VICE]: Do you know what Bora’s life was like, prior to his capture?

[Loughrey]: He was a farmer, a simple farmer. A father, as well. His son contacted me. His family know what happened to him through research. There's a lot of written references about things that took place on certain days, people who went to prison at certain times—you can get a good idea of what happened. 

In a Twitter thread following VICE's publication of the now deleted interview, a person named Lydia challenges Mr Loughrey's version of events (emphasis mine):

This photo of my uncle, Khva Leang, was part of the project at the center of a recent @vice article. Unlike some of the other photos, I don’t believe this smirk was photoshopped. I have seen the original. But the article tells a false story about my uncle.

In the article, the photographer, Matthew Loughrey, says that the man in the photograph is named Bora. It also states that he was a farmer, had a (presumably) living son, was electrocuted and set on fire.

We don’t know the exact way in which he died, and there may be a record of that we haven’t seen. But the rest is false: he was not a farmer, but a primary school teacher. It’s impossible for Loughrey to have been in contact with his son, because his only children also died.

Maybe my uncle told a false story when he was captured, maybe Loughrey confused his story with someone else’s. But that moment, when I read that story and imagined that I could have a cousin out there and not know it, was gut-wrenching.

Responsible journalism is crucial, especially when it concerns the retelling of stories of real victims of a terrible genocide. These people have families and loved ones.

The hurt and confusion caused is unconscionable if Lydia is indeed a relative of the victim. [Update: South East Asia Globe have confirmed the family history in this article] 

When asked about the victims' smiling expressions, Mr Loughrey offers a questionable interpretation of his own handiwork:

[VICE]: What about the images of people smiling? What do you make of those?

[Loughrey]: Out of 100 images I looked at, the data showed that the women tended to have a smile on their face more so than the men. I think a lot of that has to do with nervousness. Also—and I’m making an educated guess—whoever was taking the photographs and who was present in the room might have spoken differently to the women than they did the men. I thought about this time and time again when I was working on them. We smile when we’re nervous. We smile when we have something to hide. 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 synchronised with your captor. To make yourself feel like you have some control.

Condemnation of this bizarre brand of historical revisionism and artistic liberty has been swift. Beyond the online commentaries, the results of Mr Loughrey's alterations have earned the ire of several organisations. A petition organised by the National Cambodian Heritage and Killing Fields Museum demands Mr Loughrey 'stop using photos of Cambodian genocide victims for [his] experimentation and entertainment.'

TSGM Inventory No. 00721 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archives). In My Loughrey's altered work, the man is depicted as smiling. 

'I strongly condemn these colourised pictures because all victims at S-21 were never happy,' laments Norng Chan Phal, 52, a survivor from S-21. 'We the victims who entered S-21 never had a chance to smile. I don’t support any changes to the pictures. We were suffering.'

The Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Art considers the alterations to 'seriously affect the dignity of the victims, [and] the reality of the Cambodia's history' in a statement condemning the photographs:

Further, the ministry adds the works are a 'violation of the rights of the Museum and the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs,' contradicting Mr Laughrey's claim he is 'talking with the museum about making these photos accessible to everybody'. The museum's position, in fact, echoes the ministry's statement.

TSGM Inventory No. 03871 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archives). In Mr Loughrey's altered work, definition has been added to the clothing and face along with the colour. 

I have worked in the field of colorization for a long time. It is a craft that has existed since the camera was invented, and represents some of the earliest examples of photographic manipulation. Inevitably, the technology has changed, and the craft today is an entirely different endeavour: skilled artisans utilise sophisticated software to digitally paint colour onto a high resolution scan of the original document, adding in historical enquiry and support from subject experts, with accurate references to produce a historically authentic supplement to the original. In reality, modern colorization is besieged by rampant copyright infringement from unscrupulous hobbyists–and equally unscrupulous social media aggregator accounts–to satisfy a public appetite for nostalgia. Context offered by the colorizer in reposts is often erased along with any attribution to the original photographer and source. Despite our best efforts, the spectrum of subjectivity is considerably wide depending on the colorizer.

As Mr Loughrey's series demonstrates, such an abuse of available technology to transform facial expressions to satisfy artistic intent or historical revisionism cannot be defended in this context, nor can the confusing (and possibly fabricated) narrative in the interview publicised by VICE, a media brand that has built an enormous audience off the back of solid (and often controversial) reporting. I am dismayed by the apparent lack of editorial oversight, or basic fact-checking with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. These ill-conceived alterations have only resulted in distressing the public, with Mr Loughrey's credibility (and by extension, the colorizing community) called into question. 

In my correspondence with Jean-Sien Kin, a designer formerly employed by the museum notes that '[i]n the case of Loughrey, the only thing he can do is to select the colors right off his head, according to his own tastes. This intervention then transforms those photographic evidences into manipulated ones. But if you look at manipulated photographs, then maybe, it can also drive you to raise doubts about the reality that they are depicting. And you might even end up questioning the reality of what happened to the victims. If you touch the victims’ status, if you take a first step into the path to deny their condition, you symbolically kill them a second time. They don’t deserve that.'

For me, some photographs should be left alone from manipulation of any kind. Let the victims and the families of the Cambodian genocide rest and grieve in peace •

  • You can access a PDF version of the now deleted VICE interview with Mr Loughrey from April 9th 2021, here. 
  • VICE has now issued a brief statement regarding the interview which can be found here.
  • The BBC’s coverage can be found here. 
  • The Khmer Times’ coverage can be found here.
  • The Guardian’s coverage can be found here. 
  • The New York Times’ coverage can be found here. 


A fellow colorizer has pointed out that the AI enhancements are easily accessible using several smartphone apps. I wondered if it was possible to generate similar results to Mr Loughrey using my mobile device. I sourced a portrait from the Library of Congress taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1941 featuring an unsmiling subject on a plain backdrop, with a similar low definition to some of the portraits from the museum archives. 

The sequence from 1–5 is entirely generated via my iPhone:

The final step was a few minutes work in Adobe Photoshop, namely because I didn't want to pay for a ÂŁ29.99/year subscription to FaceApp to remove the watermark. Whilst this exercise may not be an accurate representation of Mr Loughrey's actual process, it is interesting to note some of the increased definition in step 3 is reminiscent of the details from the set published in the VICE interview.

About Jordan J. Lloyd

British author, visual historian and Creative Director of Unseen Histories, bringing the past to life for The Times, LIFE and Unsplash.