Photography & criminology

My recent visit to the Wellcome Collection to see Forensics: The anatomy of Crime sparked an idea for this post. The exhibits range from archival materials, film footages, crime scene photographs, forensic equipment to artworks, such as that of Bosnian artist Šejla Kamerić. All exhibits are classified into one of five themes and presented in five separate rooms: the crime scene, morgue, laboratory, search and courtroom. While the aim of the first four is to mirror the undercurrent to the exhibition that ‘every contact leaves a trace’, the fifth perspective is that, especially in the adversarial system, the evidence is frequently played out in the courtroom. Photography in general and this exhibition in particular, brings the criminal world closer to the public and below is one of my exhibition favourites – the picture of a French police officer, Alphonse Bertillon, who invented the mugshot in 1913.

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The power of crime visualisation made me think that there are at least three interesting interconnections between photography and criminology. The very first thought that comes to my mind is that photography plays a crucial part in evidencing the crime scene as the aforementioned exhibition reflects on in a very stimulating way. Here the role of crime scene photography, or better defined as forensic photography, is first and foremost to document the crime scene and deliver accurate, scrupulous visual evidence. Once the evidence is collected it is frequently used and discussed in courts. A great example of such early days of forensic photography is Arthur Fellig’s work (known under the pseudonym of Weegee) – an American photographer who brilliantly photographed the criminal side of New York in the 1930/40s.

Much to my disappointment there is no court photography as taking pictures in courts is strictly forbidden in the UK. However, there is something that I would characterize as ‘outside-court-photography’ produced by photojournalists. There are two courts in London that in particular attract this sort of activity: Southwark Crown Court and Westminster Magistrates Court and my fellow court interpreters are well aware of this. The role of this kind of photography is to capture people as they come and go from the courts (or remain outside and protest). It goes without saying that not all people are of interest. This sort of photography is selective and plays a major role in supporting the creation of news, too frequently to feed sensational media stories.

And there is the third link that I appreciate the most – when the role of photography is to capture the crime issues unaccounted for and to fill a void. I like when photography is used in an artistic way to reflect on miscarriages of justice or people who are left unheard. A great example of photography of this kind is Taryn Simon’s collection of images depicting the individuals who were wrongfully convicted of serious offences (see The Innocents at http://tarynsimon.com/works_innocents.php). While the purpose of forensic photography is to visualise crime scene evidence, and court photojournalism aims at making a picture of the news, such contemplative photo-storytelling is a powerful tool to discuss criminology and criminal justice matters.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, Wellcome Collection, until 21st June 2015. More information can be found here: http://wellcomecollection.org/forensics.

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