Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence

‘Photographs may indeed be evidence, but evidence of what exactly? That is a question that cannot be answered by the photograph alone”

Jennifer L. Mnookin, Professor Of Law

At ArtAttack‘s most recent exhibition visit, the subject of photographic evidence was put to the challenge. Exhibiting at The Photographer’s Gallery in London is a collection of eleven cases displaying photographic evidence spanning the period from the invention of metric photography of crime scenes through to the reconstruction of a drone attack in Pakistan in 2012.

The reason this topic fascinates me is due to a previous personal project on the Evidence of Human Presence, as I have always felt a photograph is the only permanent remains of a person. Half of this exhibition is focusing on the forensic evidence of land destruction with before and after photographs of buildings and aerial views. The other part focuses on the development of criminal evidence showing us what a photograph reveals or implies, whether these images are close ups of fine details by chemist and photographer Rodolphe A. Reiss, or scenic photographs which give an image-by-image account of the state of the victims and the circumstances of their deaths by cameraman John Ford. Both are thought-provoking and demonstrate how far the medium of photography has come over a century.

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An expert has to reconstruct a scene and look for the inner truth. In a series by photographer Alphonse Bertillon called the ‘Metric Photography of Crime Scenes, 1903’ he portrays how in the early 1900’s investigation moved to use more detailed facts instead of memory. At this time photographic evidence, measurements and calculations were used to make a more educated assessment of a crime. Bertillon took photographs with an overhead camera with a wide-angle lens, which was set on a tripod more than two metres tall. These images were then mounted on cards and using scale and measurements gave a unified representation of the crime scene. However, in my opinion these photographs reinforced Mnookin’s statement that, during this period photographs alone gave limited information.

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My preferred series on display is that of Richard Helmer who overlays the images of the skull and the faces of Josef Mengele during ‘The Trial of the Bones’ in 1985. A corpse was found in Brazil believed to be that of the hunted Auschwitz executer. With the expertise of forensic Clyde Snow using elements of Mengele’s biography, medical records and photographs, in a process he called ‘osteobiography’, he was able to scale down the probability that the remains were most likely Mengele. But with a pioneering method called face-skull superimposition, German pathologist and photographer Richard Helmer layered the video images over photographs and was able to determine it was in fact Mengele. In this series of juxtaposed images we are privileged to see first hand how such intricate detail down to the very last millimetre is able to solve such an enormous crime.

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– Charlotte Webber

Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence’ is on view at The Photographers Gallery however it has just finished; Open Monday-Saturday 10AM-6PM, Thursday 10AM-8PM during exhibitions, Sunday 11AM-6PM; Admission: Free entry before 12:00, Exhibition Day Pass – £3/£2.50 Concs, Advance Booking Online – £2.50/£2.00 Concs. 

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