AES joins Southeast Asia Center in condemning altered images of prisoners

Submitted by Ellen Palms on

The Southeast Asia Center and the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington joins Cambodian and Cambodian diaspora communities in condemnation of VICE Magazine for its promotion of altered images of prisoners in S-21, a major Khmer Rouge prison. The images depict people who had been blindfolded and handcuffed, the mug shots taken just before death. As Rithy Panh writes,“Years later, the forger asks him to smile.”

 On 9 April 2021 VICE News published an article by Eliza McPhail about the work of photographer Matt Loughrey, “These people were arrested by the Khmer Rouge and never seen again.” The byline parroted Loughrey’s claim that colorization and adding smiles to the mug shots “humanized” the victims. On 11 April, after protest online, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts demanded VICE remove the images, and stated that they consider “this work of Matt Loughrey to seriously affect the dignity of the victims, the reality of Cambodia’s history, and be in violation of the rights of the Museum as the lawful owners and custodians of these photographs.” VICE removed the article, but this is not enough.

 This article is a convergence of different lineages that erase, sensationalize, and simplify Cambodian suffering for profit. The black and white mug shots from S-21 have a long history of exploitation by North Atlantic individuals and institutions in the name of “art” and “humanity.” As the Southeast Asian Freedom Network notes, VICE has a history of “amplifying trauma porn” from and about Cambodia. Intentional or not, these representational practices maintain white supremacy: the power to humanize.

 Representational and archival practices by artists, foreign media, and academics must consider the communities and histories they represent, or risk promoting caricatures of Cambodian people and distortions of history. These momentary engagements with shocking images obscure enduring histories of loss that community members contend with on a daily basis.

 As Chea Sopheap of the Bophana Center said, “I think that most Cambodian survivors are direct victims while young people are indirect victims. All of this documentation is their legacy or heritage.” Stories on social media and in news media show the re-wounding of survivors and victim’s families in Cambodia and around the world. Our community members have expressed personal messages of sadness, nausea, and terror upon seeing these forged images.

 On this Cambodian New Year, a time for family and regeneration, we want to center ethical and creative practices of working with archival images, including images from the Khmer Rouge period. The Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center is at the forefront of public archive practices that promotes free access to their materials, training in media production, and support for younger generations of artists, archivists, and documentarians. We are working in collaboration with Bophana, the Center for Khmer Studies, and the Yangon Film School to develop research and teaching practices that make institutions accountable to communities for the production of community-driven histories and care.

 Finally, we raise our hands up for local groups building community health and power. Khmer Community of Seattle–King County (KCSKC) and the Khmer Health Board: read about their work piloting community-based COVID-19 vaccine clinics here. Khmer Anti-deportation Advocacy Group (KhAAG): support their efforts to end the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. The UW Khmer Student Association (KhSA): join us at their New Year celebration on 1 May 2021.

 Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year, សួ​ស្តី​ឆ្នាំ​ថ្មី!



 Reading and viewing

  • Ali, Anida Yoeu. 2010. Palimpsest for Generation 1.5. Multimedia performance.
  • French, Lindsay. 2002. “Exhibiting Terror.” In Truth Claims: Representation and Human Rights. Mark Bradley and Patrice Petro, eds. Rutgers University Press.
  • Ly, Boreth. 2020. Traces of Trauma: Cambodian Visual Culture and National Identity in the Aftermath of Genocide. University of Hawai’i Press
  • Panh, Rithy. 2002. S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Film, 101 minutes. First Run/Icarus.
  • Panh, Rithy. 2013. The Missing Picture. Film, 96 minutes. Strand Releasing.
  • Phay-Vakalis, Soko. 2010. Cambodia: Memory Workshop. Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.
  • SEAFN, 2021, holding space after the VICE publication:
  • Um, Khatharya. 2015. From the Land of Shadows:​​ War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora. New York University Press.