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Petition to
Dany Pen and

Why this petition matters

Started by Dany Pen


On April 9, 2021 VICE Media Group published an article titled, “These People Were Arrested by the Khmer Rouge and Never Seen Again,” featuring photos of Tuol Sleng victims with their faces manipulated — erased and subjectively colorized — by Matt Loughrey, a “self-taught artist”. 

The photos however, have been used without the community’s consent including many of the surviving family members of those murdered at the Tuol Sleng execution site. Mr. Loughrey claims he was given state commission and permission to use the photos, which also promotes his restoration photo business, however the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts made a statement on April 11, 2021 saying: 

“MCFS does not accept this kind of manipulation, and considers this work of Matt Loughrey to seriously affect the dignity of the victims, the reality of Cambodia’s history, and in violation of the right of the Museum as the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs. MCFA will consider to take legal action (both national and international), if Matt Loughrey does not comply with the above request.”

Cambodian communities across the globe are deeply offended by the non-consented use of the photos, but furthermore with how Mr. Loughrey has since dismissed our concerns with falsified stories perpetrated by these photographic manipulations. When contacted about the sensitive nature of the publication, Mr. Loughrey’s reply was:  

“This is invaluable feedback. I will be sure to run all future projects by you for moral and technical discovery.”

Cambodian leaders, artists and advocates around the world petitioned for VICE to take down the article and undo the publication of Mr. Loughrey’s photos pertaining to Tuol Sleng. On April 11, 2021 VICE finally took down the article. 

However, Cambodian people around the globe would consider it a true good-will gesture and mark of sincere apology if all profits made from the photo manipulations be turned over to organizations working to re-educate the public about the realities of the Cambodian Genocide, including but not limited to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Bophana Center, and the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).

“We are demanding an apology from Matt Loughrey for the theft, manipulation and appropriation of these photographs; and an apology from VICE for the publication and support of Matt Loughrey’s work.”


(Hamilton, Bermuda) Dany Pen, Court Advocate and former Commissioner of Human Rights, who also lost family members at Tuol Sleng, writes, 

“Matt Loughrey’s work promotes white supremacy, cultural appropriation, cultural erasure, and victim dismissal. 

This is a VIOLATION of our community Human Rights - Article (1) The Right to Preservation of our Dignity, and Article (3): Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

At the height of this anti-Asian and violence against Asians, VICE’s post and Matt Loughrey’s work is highly inappropriate as it capitalises and profits off our trauma and my family members who were murdered during the Khmer Rouge Genocide. Furthermore, it promotes harm and brings on psychological and emotional violence towards my Cambodian community."

(Chicago, USA) Randy Kim, Board Member of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Host and Creator of The Banh Mi Chronicles Podcast, writes, 

“As a son of a Khmer Rouge survivor and relatives of those lost, I am troubled and concerned about the S21 prison photos and how it is being narrated and culturally appropriating trauma through the lens of a white person.  As our Cambodian-American community's generational trauma from that period continues after the past 45 years, it remains fresh among our survivors, and the impact that it has on those born after.  Our lived experiences are not for entertainment, nor for the purpose of benefiting those who are not connected to the trauma.  These are our stories.  These are our traumas. Our community is still processing.  We are still trying to heal. These pictures in question are chosen to present Khmer folks as being happy when there were many thousands of photos that show the fear, sadness, the result of a violent act.  These photos minimize the harm and violence that these prisoners absorbed and were later killed.   There is no celebration of these traumas.  There is no  amount of reparations and restorative justice that can bring these people back.  There is nothing to celebrate from these photos.  If anything, this artist chose to non-consensually use the violent trauma of our past that seeks to benefit his work and status, instead of allowing survivors and the Cambodian community to engage with their history, and aiding in their healing process.  Our community is still healing.  Our community is still telling their stories.  Listen to them.”    

(Ottawa, Canada) Ellen Chang-Richardson, Poet, Writer, Editor & the Founder of Little Birds Poetry, says,

“I am the daughter of a survivor of this genocide. At the height of anti-Asian and violence against Asians in the US and around the world, these photographs are inappropriate. They capitalize off trauma and taint the memory of real individuals who were murdered during the Khmer Rouge Genocide. Furthermore, they promote harm, attack, and bring on psychological and emotional trauma within the international Cambodian community.

This series of photographs does not achieve what the artist had originally intended. I implore VICE to post a secondary article acknowledging the existence of the first and re-educating their readers about the reality of the Cambodian Genocide; acknowledge the cultural erasure and victim dismissal propogated through the smiles added to these re-coloured photographs.”

(Phnom Penh, Cambodia) Jean-Sien Kin, Freelance Graphic Designer, worked for Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in 2019, writes,

“It is not debatable that the photos of the S21 prisoners are photographic documents of a huge historical significance. Those are sharp and painful proofs of the horror that occurred in S21. Does color bring anything to the truthfulness of what the victims have endured? If that ever had to happen, then the colors would need surgical scientific basis or experience to be selected and applied to each and each section of the images. Well, I don’t think that anyone would have such an indefectible memory, to carry the responsibility of this task.

In 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.

As for the smiles he added on some of the victims’ photographs, I just cannot find words to express how revolted and deeply disgusted I am.”

(Siem Reap, Cambodia) Kanha Hul, Khmer Visual Artist, says,

“I wonder why he added the smile? It seems such a strange thing to do. The idea to color them is not a bad idea, but, it’s just bizarre to add a smile, I cannot understand his motivation for doing that. The victims of the Khmer Rouge, we know were not smiling, but Matt Loughrey changed their faces to smiles. I don’t want him to try to change my history. It is painful for me when he plays with my history.”

(Los Angeles, USA) Sorany Var, Advocate, writes,

“Trauma and pain is not exclusively born from physical violence. Such is the case of the absolutely visceral, and more importantly, justified, reactions within the last 24 hours across international and local Cambodian communities in response to learning that self-taught Irish photo-colorist, Matt Loughrey has altered photos of Tuol Sleng's imprisoned Cambodians. 

What Matt Loughrey has done in the alteration and, ultimately, his work in erasing and insulting the history and memory of the genocide victims, is a violent act against our people. Personally, I am shocked and disgusted that such a blatant act of disrespect has been allowed to slip through VICE's editors to be published on an international platform. I have been in contact with at least a dozen friends and family regarding this and holding community to share with one another our triggered trauma responses and grievances in disgust and horror. Our people and our history deserve to be respected and their memories honored.”

(Phnom Penh, Cambodia) Jean-Baptiste Phou, Artist and Writer, says,

"Ever since I saw the post about the Vice article and the pictures, it triggered something in me I couldn't properly articulate. Everything seemed to be off: the person speaking - an Irish man who sounded to have little knowledge about Cambodia - the commercial emphasis of the article, but above all the pictures themselves. His subjective choice was very questionable:  they were made look more "beautiful" with some kind of special light and make-up. Some people seemed "whitened," not resembling actual Cambodian people. With a close friend, Jean-Sien Kin, we started an investigation and found out the Tuol Sleng Museum’s director had never been in touch with the "artist". An attempt to contact the “artist”  was received with disdain. It became even worse when we found the original black and white pictures. In  comparing them with the colorized ones, we saw alterations (the added smile) on four of them! 

Thanks to the help of the Cambodian community in Cambodia and around the world, things took on another dimension. It was heartbreaking to read so many messages about how these pictures had reopened the wounds of trauma. But, it was also truly heartwarming to see the solidarity, the vitality and the dignity of the community and its true allies. Together, we made our voices heard loud and clear. Vice has taken the post down. That's a first victory. There are still questions unanswered: did the colorist really obtain consent from the families to perform the modification on the pictures? If yes, did they also allow him to make them public? If not, why did he add the smiles? Was the article an infomercial to promote his work? But most importantly, we critically need to hear an official and sincere apology from both the media and the perpetrator of the "work". Until then, be aware: we won't be silent nor silenced. The Khmer Rouge did not succeed in erasing our people. Nor will you." 

(Skokie, USA) Khem Khoeun, President, National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial, Vice President, Skokie Park District, Trustee-Elect, Village of Skokie writes, 

“The manipulation of photos of Cambodian genocide victims at Tuol Sleng violates the dignity of the Cambodian people and is a revolting rewrite of history. It inflicted further pain to a community already traumatized by war and genocide. The artist Matt Loughrey has refused to give dignity to the millions of Cambodians worldwide by distorting a painful history and colorising them with digitally manipulated smiles on the victims’ faces moments before their death. I join the international community in condemning the photos and ask that the artist does right by the community by acknowledging our history and pain, and turning any profit he has made to the Tuol Sleng Museum to educate people about the Cambodian genocide.”

(Chicago, USA) The National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial writes,

We are made aware of the recent feature on VICE News on the S21 Tuol Sleng pictures that were recently colourized and re-digitize to add in “smiles” to the innocent Cambodian prisoners who were photographed by the Khmer Rouge.  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.  The Tuol Sleng / S21 prison camps imprisoned thousands of Cambodian civilians including children and elders who were subjected to torture, hunger, pain, and to their eventual violent deaths.  In 1979, four years after the prison was opened at the start of the Khmer Rouge regime, only 7 prisoners survived out of the many thousands who were killed.  As this April marks the celebration of the Khmer New Year, but also the 46 year mark of the Khmer Rouge takeover, it is an important reminder of the continual generational healing that takes place for our Cambodian community.   We do not endorse those that seek to profit and benefit from the violent and lived traumas of our past and current history, nor endorse those that seek to do the same with our joy and celebration when it comes at the expense of our Cambodian community who have so much to contribute to our rich, layered, vast and evolving history and culture.   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.  There is no amount of reparations and restorative justice that can bring those killed back to life.   Our community has survivors, children and grandchildren who are the stewards of our Cambodian / Cambodian-American history.  Our community is still processing these traumas. Our community is still healing.  Our community is still telling their stories.  Please listen to them, and most importantly, honor them.




Photo credit: Pierre Bernès 2018

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