Can a photograph demonstrate, reveal or prove what really happened? Certainly a photograph shows something that once existed. But does that mean that it is always ‘the truth’? Crime Scenes | A Hundred Years of Photographic Evidence is the first exhibition ever to show how photography has been used as visual evidence. From Alphonse Bertillon’s metrical photographs, used in early twentieth-century murder cases, right through to the reconstruction of drone attacks in Pakistan in 2012, Crime Scenes presents eleven case studies illustrating the use of photography as legal evidence over the past century.
The case studies relate to legal cases dating from between 1900 and the present day. They concern matters such as crime, war, political history and present-day conflicts and feature issues of major humanitarian importance and/or relevance to international law. Together, they illustrate the attempts made to use photographs as legal evidence. Police photographs, records of mass graves, aerial photographs and satellite images: all have been used to identify the perpetrators or victims of crime.
Crime Scenes offers fascinating insights into the way the courts have viewed photography over time. First used by the justice system in the late 19th century, almost as soon as the medium became available, photography was seen as an objective means of establishing the truth. Fairly soon, however, it became clear that photographs could not be regarded as conclusive proof, but must always be viewed in the context of witness statements and other oral or written evidence. The rise of digital technologies has made it even harder to assess the value of photography as evidence in legal cases.
Each of the eleven case studies has been curated by a specialist researcher or forensic expert and features a wide range of historical material. The exhibition starts with the metrical photography of French police photographer Alphonse Bertillon, used in the early twentieth century to record crime scenes and presented in court as supporting evidence for the prosecution. It goes on to examine the controversial photographic history of the Turin Shroud, portraits of citizens condemned to death during Stalin’s Great Purge, and the research done by Richard Helmer, who superimposed photographs of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele over those of an unidentified skull to demonstrate that the remains concerned were indeed those of Mengele. The exhibition ends with the 2012 drone attacks in the inaccessible Pakistani region of Waziristan, a case in which the circumstances of the attacks were successfully established through an analysis of satellite images and video material.
Crime Scenes is the result of collaboration between the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Rotterdam), Le Bal (Paris), the Photographers’ Gallery (London) and Camera, Centro italiano per la Fotografia (Turin).
The exhibition is accompanied by prize-winning catalogue Images of Conviction – The Construction of Visual Evidence (Paris Photo-Aperture Photography Catalogue of the Year for 2015), published by Éditions Xavier Barral and edited by Diane Dufour. The book features major contributions both by a range of experts, including Thomas Keenan, Luce Lebart, Jennifer Mnookin, Eric Stover and Eyal Weizman, and by photographers such as Susan Meiselas and Fazal Sheikh.