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Colorizing Photos From the Past: The Ethics of Making History

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tags: photography, technology, primary sources, Research Ethics



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

“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.”

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.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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