Forensic photographers extract and interpret ‘the truth’

If someone tells you they’re a forensic photographer, the classic image that pops to mind would be the monochrome, Film Noir-styled photography of Arthur ‘Weegee’ Fellig and his trusty Speed Graphix. Or perhaps a photographer working in a dimly lit laboratory with forensic investigators to magnify and photograph blood stains on a victim’s jacket.

A classic Weegee photo titled 'Street Accident', New York, 1941. Source: Museum of Modern Art/Weegee

A classic Weegee photo titled ‘Street Accident’, New York, 1941. Source: Museum of Modern Art/Weegee

Both of these scenarios are correct, Gale Spring, professor of Forensic Photography at RMIT explains to Pro Counter, but it’s only a tiny part of a job which requires those practising it to totally rethink photography and their surroundings.

‘Forensic photography is sort of a bizarre and quirky subset of scientific photography, medical photography, technical photography, industrial… all of that,’ he said. ‘And not necessarily of high demand. In Australia there’s only a few forensic photographers.

‘I separate forensic photography from something like police photography – even though police photography is similar – but they are always doing images for the police and the prosecution.’

Gale Spring

Gale Spring

While unlikely, you may have even unwittingly captured forensic photographs. A few landscape photos laying dormant on a hard drive may one day be used as forensic photographs, as Gale explains that any photo which winds up in court is forensic photography.

‘It can be of anything: a weapon, a body, a stash of drugs, a beautiful landscape of marijuana plants in Queensland. All of those are considered forensic because they will interface with the courts.’

He’s deliberately ambiguous when defining forensic photography because all visual content entering a courtroom qualifies as forensic evidence – especially nowadays. Examples include, but are not exclusive, to CCTV stills; iPhone snaps taken by a eyewitness of a crime taking place; photographic evidence captured by a police photographer coupled with a slightly different photo of the same piece of evidence from a forensic photographer.

Gale says that last example happens to him periodically because a police photographer’s main aim is to collect evidence to compile a case for the prosecutor. This means the photo may not be an honest interpretation of the subject, despite the police photographer believing so, and a secondary expert interpretation can assist a courtroom with understanding the environment or intricacies of a crime.

So when Gale fronts up to a crime scene after a police photographer has done the rounds he has to think what may have been missed, or what might be of importance down the track. He adds that in the majority of cases, it doesn’t end up being important.

While a fine art photographer may approach a project with a similar set of skills as Gale, the two would view photography and photographs in an entirely different light.

‘It’s a matter of thinking about it,’ he explains. ‘If we compare this (forensic photography) to portrait photography, (portrait photographers) use lighting; use focal length; use camera-to-subject distances. They use those to enhance the appearance of a person – to make them look theoretically better than they do. Thinner than they are, taller, or whatever. We typically use those principles to mislead the viewer into thinking that person is gorgeous.

‘Whereas a forensic photographer will say “I know all of that – I know how to make lighting obscure detail, I know how to compress perspective or enhance perspective”, but my job is to make a technically accurate photograph. I have to know how to do it as commercial people would do it, but I have to ensure I do it as a scientific, technical forensic photographer to make sure the information is correct.

‘A knowledge of lighting, optics, technical aspects of a camera, and angle is a start. Then you link that into the fact that you need to create the image which actually represents, as close to the truth, for interpretation purposes.’

A forensic photographer at work. Source: David Beazley/Vimeo

A forensic photographer at work. Source: David Beazley/Vimeo

When it comes to the courtroom it is often Gale’s job to assist with interpreting photos, explaining in detail to a judge and jury what factors need to be considered when looking at a photo. He says when a wide-angle or zoom lens is used to photograph evidence, the image is immediately distorted and becomes problematic as forensic evidence. Most forensic photographers would view such photos as ‘false evidence’.

‘Then you’re going to be showing people a picture and they’re going to draw conclusions on how far certain objects were from each other. Like how far away a gun was laying from a body, or how tall the building that the person jumped off was,’ he said.

‘We’re dealing with factual material and you mislead more times than not. There’s about one percent of being able to do it correctly and about 99 percent of being able to do it in an incorrect manner than misleads the viewer.’

Gale has been involved with forensic and scientific photography in Australia since he moved here in 1988. Prior to that he worked as the director of Photographic Services in the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas in Dallas, USA.

When digital technology gained traction and advanced, new challenges emerged from the woodwork for forensic photographers. Things like CCTV became a huge part of the job, and that technology is frustrating to interpret because the they are installed ‘cheap and nasty’ in places they don’t work well.

A quick case study
murdochMany may recall back in 2005 in Darwin, Bradley Murdoch (right) was convicted of murdering British backpacker Peter Falconio. He received a life sentence for the crime committed in 2001. The court relied partially on security camera footage taken of Murdoch at a Shell service station. A witness who was kidnapped alongside Falconio but escaped said the man shown in the footage was ‘too old’. The footage was then ‘enhanced’, to which the witness responded ‘he’s somewhat of the man I described’, with a similar ‘black cap with a motif’ Murdoch wore linking him to the crime. While Gale says the interpretation of this footage ‘proved important, maybe not super critical’, he said most of those in the forensic community believe there wasn’t enough evidence for a guilty verdict. There was ‘a lot of misinformation about the interpretation of photographs’, and he offered his expert opinion as to why simply ‘enhancing’ grainy security footage is problematic but failed to persuade the courtroom.

Given digital images can be easily tampered with, there’s now a lot more questioning about the authenticity of photographs. In the good ol’ days of film a negative could easily resolve any questions regarding manipulation.

However it’s not all bad. Gale says forensic photographers can read ‘the 1’s and 0s’ and metadata of a digital image to easily determine what post-processing and in-camera processing has been done. But a certain disdain in his voice indicates a nostalgia for the less labyrinthine analog days.

The modern tendency to take the path of least resistance has also led to a lot more reliance on the telephoto zoom lens.

‘If you now rely on a zoom lens, you begin to misrepresent normal perspective,’ Gale began. ‘If we are dealing with human beings in an environment, we are generally dealing with situations where their eyes are dealing with an environment. But when I photograph that environment to maybe show a relationship between objects – a tree and a fence, or where somebody was standing when they were shot – I’m much more likely to just zoom in and out until I get the frame that I want without thinking about how a human being, with their eyes, actually sees that.

‘I fight an incredibly losing battle of talking to law enforcement, and people in the medical profession, to get them to get rid of zoom lenses and use fixed focal lenses that more match what your eye is going to see. But nobody does that.’

forensic_2

British forensic photographer, Nick Marsh, was part of a short video called ‘The Forensic Photographer’. He agrees a that wide-angle lens distorts perspective. Source: David Beazley/Vimeo

And why? Because using a fixed focal lens would make things more difficult!

Gale’s scientific mind fundamentally approaches photos as data. And his job is to extract and interpret this data. He says he doesn’t ‘take’ a photo, but ‘creates’ it. What he means is when you ‘create’ a photo, you’re controlling all the factors that make the photograph, whereas ‘taking’ a photo implies that it was already there – the image existed but was taken by a photographer.

That being said, he still views some forensic photography as artistic. There’s been times when Gale found himself appreciating the composition and design of forensic photographs or finding interest in certain pictures, like a bullet hole in fabric.

The future of the forensic photographer still has a big question mark over it and Gale thinks that in the discipline’s current form, they are a ‘dying breed’.

Those qualified must have a masterful understanding photography and ideally a background in a scientific field, and as the demand for such a craft decreases, so do the numbers in university classrooms.

As the numbers of forensic photography students shrink, the number of courses available follow suit. To Gale’s knowledge there are now only a few courses around the world that focus solely on the ‘raw data’ of photography.

– Some stills in this article were taken from a video directed by David Beazley about British forensic photographer, Nick Marsh. Click here to watch.


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