Perspectives Daily

Colorizing Photos from the Past

The Ethics of Making History

Tara Tran | May 20, 2021

“How did they pick the colors?” I asked Aunt Daly. “They know what Asian hair and skin look like,” she said. I asked, “How did they pick the color for grandma’s clothes?” “I told them blue,” she explained. “I remember she wore this blue.”

In the 1980s, Tara Tran’s aunt asked a photo lab technician to colorize images of her parents, Cambodian refugees Vouch Khim Bout and Khour Tek Pa.

In the 1980s, Tara Tran’s aunt asked a photo lab technician to colorize images of her parents, Cambodian refugees Vouch Khim Bout and Khour Tek Pa. Courtesy Tara Tran.

My Cambodian family has two photographs that survived the Khmer Rouge genocide—one of my grandmother Vouch Khim Bout, and one of my grandfather Khour Tek Pa. My mother Vaty and her sisters Rany, Yara, and Daly survived the regime. Their parents and four other siblings died. While they lost most of their possessions, they had saved a photo album until they fled to Thailand. In the border crossing’s chaos, the album was lost, except for these two black and white photos. In the early 1980s, the photos made it to California, where the sisters immigrated as refugees. Daly took the images to a photo shop. The technician made negatives, hand painted them, and printed color photos. Copies, in color and black and white, occupy the homes of each Pa sister.

I recently asked Aunt Daly about the photos because of an international scandal that touched on the ethics of history, art, technology, and consent: a professional colorizer who altered photographs from the Cambodian genocide. On Friday, April 9, Vice published an interview by writer Eliza McPhail with Irish artist Matt Loughrey. He talked about his project colorizing black and white mugshots of people whom the Khmer Rouge incarcerated, tortured, and murdered at the S-21 Prison. Loughrey explained that a Cambodian asked if he could restore the prison photo of a family member killed at S-21. “The more images I saw,” Loughrey said, “I thought . . . this has to be done.” He colorized more than 100 mugshots. On a select number, he modified facial expressions, adding smiles where there were none.

One of those mugshots belonged to Khva Leang. Khva was not among those manipulated to smile, but Senyint Chim did not expect to see a photo of his late brother Khva on the internet, colorized and captioned, “Bora, frozen in time glancing to his right for unknown reasons.” Loughrey did not obtain consent from the Chim family. He also misidentified “Bora” as a “simple farmer.” Khva was a teacher, Senyint told Southeast Asia Globe, with a complicated past. Senyint’s daughter Lydia tweeted her uncle’s story. Other Cambodians in diaspora organized petitions, demanding the article’s removal and a public apology.

Cambodians in diaspora organized petitions, demanding the Vice article’s removal and a public apology.

Official rebukes followed. The Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts called Loughrey’s “manipulation” a violation to the “dignity of the victims” and the “reality of Cambodia’s history.” The government asserted Loughrey never communicated with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the site of S-21 and owners of the original photographs), threatening legal action should the images remain online. In solidarity, the Auschwitz Memorial criticized Loughrey and asked him to delete a photo of Holocaust victim Czeslawa Kwoka from his Instagram account. He had applied animation effects to her face. The scandal extended beyond the world of archives and monuments; media outlets around the world—from the New York Times and Le Figaro, to Czech tabloids and Khmer newspapers—covered the story. 

Cambodian cultural organizations criticized Loughrey’s understanding of the Khmer Rouge and its memory. Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, made clear that “the Khmer Rouge is NOT about the past,” he told the Associated Press. As Chhang explained to Southeast Asia Globe, “it’s still a living history with five million survivors around you.” The National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial stressed the “continual generational healing” among genocide survivors and the families of victims.

On Sunday, April 11, Vice removed the article. Editors issued a statement explaining that they found the photographs had been “manipulated beyond colorization.” Vice also removed a March 2021 interview with McPhail about altered mugshots of Australian women from the 1920s

What made it okay for the technician to colorize my grandparents, but not okay for Loughrey to colorize the S-21 prisoners?

As a historian of empire, I read Loughrey’s colorizing as a colonial act of blasphemy, the work of a white, privileged man, moved to rescue Cambodians from black and white. Moreover, as an Asian woman, I reject his Western, orientalist desire for a smile, especially in Southeast Asia, where the Western guest has romanticized the Cambodian host, ever-resilient to trauma. From childhood into adulthood, people have read my face as “sad,” asking me to smile. 

On April 22, visual historian Jordan Lloyd released a “Colorizer’s Code of Conduct”in response to the scandal. The code seeks to provide an ethical framework for professional colorizers. Colorization, Lloyd explained, has been a “craft” since the 19th century. Now artificial intelligence has changed the industry, for better or for worse. In a personal conversation, Lloyd emphasized that practitioners must use digital technology prudently, approach colorization as a “genuine line of historical inquiry,” and distinguish between work of “sentimental” versus “commercial” value. Loughrey’s unethical conduct, Lloyd argued, was the result of promoting his business, while claiming to serve Cambodian families. He “cheated” by automating his workflow in order to post online content at high frequency. The algorithms of social media aggregators reward this behavior, said Lloyd, and it produced the “stripping away of context.”

Over the course of the scandal, I moved from a place of anger to deliberation. What made it okay for the technician to colorize my grandparents, but not okay for Loughrey to colorize the S-21 prisoners? The differences are vast and intricate, opening what could be a prickly but productive conversation about the shared values of professional historians and making history in the public realm. To me, there is one key difference. The technician had the consent of the Pa sisters; Loughrey did not. Instead, he remade history for personal profit while distorting a nation’s trauma. When I showed the S-21 photos to Aunt Daly, her response was, “ឆ្កួត ឆ្កួត [crazy crazy].” In Khmer, we practice speaking adjectives in pairs, for color.


Tara Tran is a PhD candidate in the history department at Johns Hopkins University. She tweets @terreaimee.


Tags: Perspectives Daily Current Events in Historical Context Asia/Pacific Public History


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