In the age of Instagram, iPhone cameras and those ubiquitous Nikon cameras everyone has hanging around their necks, each one of us is pretty certain that we’ve got the makings of the next Ansel Adams or Mario Testino. Forensic photography, however, is a more rigorous and methodical matter: it’s producing an accurate reproduction of a crime or accident scene using a roll of film to aid an investigation. A little bit more pressing than the snapshot you took of your breakfast this morning, right?
It’s not simply about taking a picture that looks quite a bit like the room you’re standing in, though — it’s about considering how the elements in the room have a broader relationship to the crime in question. The right shot doesn’t just collect evidence on film by picturing broken machinery, victims, places and various items — it indicates various viewpoints and perspectives, and might even capture associations between things that help analysts and investigators work out a precise and accurate event sequence.
It’s certain that every crime scene is different — some may require specialised photography, after all — but here’s the starter’s list to the three, general types of photographers an investigator might take.
You get the idea: the “overall” scene.
Thumbing through a forensic photographers digital camera might reveal a series of location shots: the outside of a Tesco or Safeway (depending on which side of the pond you’re on); a series of parking spots in an empty car lot; a vast, green field without a tree in sight. It’s easy to dismiss these without even bothering to ask why they’re of any tangible importance — but you’d be missing out.
These photographs show a jury where a crime was committed, or where evidence (or even a series of items) was located. It might show what the average eye might consider to be secondary objects: security barriers, incidental damage, or general weather conditions. In actual fact, any one of those scenarios or situations can be immensely significant when placed in a broader context.
Close to center-stage: the mid-range shot.
Inclined to believe that the middle-of-the-line shot is just a bit closer? You’d have to guess again, if that’s the case. Even though a mid-range shot might document the same areas, they have an entirely different purpose. The point of these snaps is to describe, through documentation on film, the relationships between items of evidence or particular areas of importance. The clever forensic photographer might, for instance, want to indicate how close the murder weapon (say, a gun) is to the victim.
Displayed to a jury, these photographs tend to support theories from either the defense or the prosecution or those reconstructed sequences you’re always seeing unfold on TV.
Ready for your close-up? The “identification” print.
The closest shot are often called “identification” photos because they pinpoint an individual, a place, or an item to the jury (or other people who weren’t at the scene). If you picked up one of these polaroids, you might be looking at the victim’s face, a muddy car-mat from the inside of a vehicle, or even a fingerprint.
Aside from revealing a certain level of detail, they’re often used to establish that the item being presented in court is the same as the one depicted at the crime scene — it helps establish the chain of custody, or that the evidence has moved along in the right way, to the right people. It might also depict the condition of the item when it was encountered by a criminal investigator.
Your Turn: Can you help us add to this list of the most common types of crime scene photographs taken? Whether you’re a forensic photography junkie or a bona fide expert, we’d love to hear from you.