The infamous photographs of people, numbered and prepared for extermination by the Khmer Rouge at the S-21 death camp, in much the same way as the Nazis processed the Jews, are revered and commemorated as a monument to the two million people who perished under Pol Pot.
Importantly, those photographs – black and white, one face after another – still constitute evidence before the United Nations-backed court responsible for trying surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity committed here between 1975 and 1979.
And they remain on semi-permanent display at the former high school where S-21 was once housed.
What survived the ultra-Maoists, along with the bones of the dead, remain an intrinsic part of this country’s history and their final resting place will be handled once the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) has done its work.
They also command almost universal respect but there’s always an exception, including the quasi-news outlet VICE Asia.
VICE has an industry-wide reputation for shocking. That backfired diabolically over the weekend when it copied, heavily altered, and published a number of victims’ portraits from S-21 – colorized and smiling, in the name of art.
Imagine the outcry if the same technique was applied to the victims of lynch mobs in the United States. Scan some old photos of African Americans, shackled and ready for the noose, add a splash of color and turn the horrible grimace that comes with knowing one’s fate into a smile.
It sounds preposterous. Imagine the response from groups like Black Lives Matter which would be justified. But if you believe VICE Asia it was okay to do that in Cambodia. It’s not.
Adding insult to injury was the Irish photographer Matt Loughrey, who was behind the “project.” He was a bit annoyed by the anger and abuse, all well-earned, that followed. On Twitter, he insisted: “The response to this project has been so positive.”
Seriously? Vice-Asia announced it was reviewing the story, adding to the outrage, before removing “the project” from online, but ratings were great and job done – despite a typo in the first paragraph: “… the Cambodian capital of Phnom Phen [sic].”
VICE could also snatch ownership of the adulterated photos, which is legal under international copyright law. When substantial changes are made to an existing image, copyright of the new image can be claimed by the person who made those changes.
Still, a formal letter of complaint from the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and other relevant departments provided a convenient distraction for the ECCC, which made its final deliberation of whether or not to proceed with an indictment against the Khmer Rouge former naval commander Meas Muth.
The decision was widely touted but the announcement, in a press release, was made with confusing legalese gobbledygook requiring further opinions from more lawyers about what they were trying to say.
Those opinions went something like: “International prosecutors want to proceed with the indictment known as Case 003 while the local prosecutors do not. This simply perpetuates the disputes between the two sides.”
Thus Case 003 hangs in legal limbo. It cannot proceed and will probably be formally dismissed by a higher authority because Cambodian and international prosecutors – who are supposed to be working on the same side – can’t agree.
The ECCC’s days are numbered. One more case is being considered for indictment while the sole surviving leader who remains alive and behind bars, Khieu Samphan, is still to have his last avenue of appeal heard and ruled upon following his conviction for genocide.
Once that happens the ECCC will begin wrapping-up and a final resting place can be found for the remains of those who perished and Cambodians can find some closure for one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Perhaps then, artists can consider the past.
In the meantime, the editors at VICE Asia need to offer an apology.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt