First published on April 19, 2021
People often make the mistake of thinking history is just old news, water under the bridge – before something comes along to blow that concept out of the water. And it’s a danger Vice found out the hard way last week, after it came under fire for publishing photos showing genocide victims edited to look like they were smiling.
The article in question, which Vice has since removed from its website, purported to feature colourised and enhanced photos of people who were imprisoned under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that devastated Cambodia in the 1970s. The problem? It failed to make clear that the imagery’s creator, Irish artist Matt Loughrey, had also altered some of the subjects’ expressions to show them smiling.
This isn’t the first time Vice has featured Loughrey’s handiwork. Just last month, the site ran an article showcasing colourised photographs he’d made using mugshots of women from 1920s Australia. Scattered among the collection, and completely indiscernible, were faces that had been expertly edited to look as if they were grinning down the lens.
Again, Vice has since removed the photographs in question, releasing a statement to say they “did not meet editorial standards” – but not before they sparked an uproar across social media. In a world where every woman has been told “Give us a smile!” or been told they have ‘resting bitch face’ – heaven forbid we walk around not sporting a manic grin at all times – it’s easy to see why these images triggered such a reaction. Even in death, are women not safe from men demanding that we “cheer up, love”?
Among those leading the charge online are cultural historian Dr Fern Riddell and Dr Kate Lister, founder of the research project Whores of Yore, which this week revealed the true women behind these mugshots. There’s Matilda Devine, accused of slashing a man’s face with a razor; Muriel Goldsmith, convicted of stealing; and Fay Watson, believed to have been found in possession of cocaine.
These are the women to whom Loughrey chose to add smiles and glowing skin. In the original photos, which can be found on the Sydney Living Museum online archive, the women look… well, they look how you’d expect in a mugshot. There’s no one shared expression, but they’re certainly not grinning.
“These women were photographed at what would have been one of the worst moments of their lives,” says Riddell. “Adding a smile destroys their agency, it corrupts their memory and, as many have pointed out, the misogyny of a male artist doing this to women from history who have no way to stop him is horrific.”
So, is misogyny at play here? If not misogyny, then certainly some kind of power play. Of course, criminals are not the same as genocide victims – but whether consciously done or not, in both sets of photos under scrutiny Loughrey slapped smiles onto people from history who were in vulnerable situations.
Service with a smile
It’s worth noting that through his company, My Colorful Past, Loughrey offers a service where he restores and edits smiles onto the photos of people’s old relatives, on commission – a package he refers to as ‘service with a smile’. But while it’s easy to see how that could bring joy and comfort to those actively purchasing such a service, the difference when it comes to these editorial projects is that he had the choice, and he chose to manipulate photographs of genocide victims and women in prison.
The women in these mugshots didn’t volunteer to sit for these photos. They were made to by the powers above them and their original expressions reveal the myriad of emotions – fear, desperation, terror, defiance – they would have been feeling. However, with glowing skin and warm smiles, these edited females look more like they’re posing for a family portrait.
By adding smiles, Loughrey has changed the entire meaning of these photographs. What’s more, by not clearly indicating the changes he’s made, and by dotting them throughout images with unedited expressions, these fake smiling women are presented as factual history when they are in fact, (forgive me), fake news.
“It’s tantamount to fraud”, says Riddell. “This total corruption of the past was presented as fact. It’s grotesque, and an utter dereliction of the duty we have to people whose lives have been conserved in our archives.”
History or art?
The reason this furore is so concerning is that photographs are a historical source, not just for academics sitting in their ivory towers, but for us commoners below too. Just like letters, diaries and census records, photos are a fantastic way for us to engage with and discover the past, whether that’s broader history or uncovering our own family tree.
Like all historical sources, photographs need to be respected – and ideally not edited to the point of changing facial expressions and not telling anyone. After all, you wouldn’t secretly chisel a frown onto the Sphinx at Giza or dot hearts above the ‘I’s in the US Declaration of Independence and claim they’d always been there. These smiling mugshots are essentially lying to all those people who will inevitably believe them, and even use them to make some sense of the past.
Loughrey has built a business on restoring and colourising old photographs, telling Vice: “We can bring people to life, we can bring this material to all corners of education and get young people interested in history.” And he’s not wrong.
In fact, while colourised photos aren’t problem-free, many historians will tell you they’re a fantastic and emotive way of getting people excited about history. “Colourisation and colourists play a really important role in helping people to connect to the past,” Riddell explains, adding that “Colourists have had to work really hard to be taken seriously. This artist has absolutely destroyed that hard-won trust.”
Perhaps there’s a debate to be had around whether Loughrey’s smiling women are in fact art. Arguably yes, they are – I’d argue distasteful and disrespectful art with questionable copyright issues and even more questionable morals, but still art. The crux of the issue, whichever side of the fence you land on, is that this ‘art’ has been dished up and served as historical truth.
It’s hard to decide what’s more upsetting: the chauvinism of slapping smiles on women’s faces or the complete disregard for history. But one thing’s for sure, history is far from being water under the bridge. It deserves respect. And so, too, do the women who, even in death, can’t escape being told to “Give us a smile, love!”