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Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Crime, Nazis and the Fabulous Mugshot

images from My German Family Album

Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the date for this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within them.


A solitary image cannot testify to what is revealed through it, but must be attached to another image, another piece of information, another assertion or description, another grievance or piece of evidence, another broadcast, another transmitter. An image is only ever another statement in a regime of statements.

So said Ariella Azoulay (and many others in varying ways) in The Civil Contract of Photography. It's the idea that an image does not stand alone as a discrete piece of information but is subject to a flux of images, ideas and associations that have little to do with the image in and of itself; mostly because you cannot have an image in and of itself. That's not the way things work. 

Laurence Binet had this as the central dilemma in his brilliant novel/diary of a novel, HHhH. This started out as a novel that attempted to tell the story of the assassination of Heinrich Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. The only problem was the story had been told so many times, the conventions of dialogue and narrative voices so worn out and infected by tropes from war movies, histories and comic books, that it was impossible to tell the story as a novel. So instead it became a meta-novel, the story of how it was impossible to write the novel. 

The same thing happens with images. My mother is German and I have a series of German family albums that run from the 1920s through to the 1940s, in film terms from White Ribbon through to The Tin Drum, why not.

In these albums, there are personal family stories; there is unrequited love, there is heartbreak, there is poverty, there is neglect, there is suicide. Mixed in with that there are the symbols of Nazism; swastikas, Sieg Heils, and the Hitler Youth. There is Nazism. It's Germany in the 1930s! Throw a few of those symbols in and nothing is what it seems anymore, concealed meanings are brought to the surface so that an oak tree is not an oak tree anymore, a goods train not a goods train. Group gymnastics becomes something sinister (which isn't too difficult) and reading a book becomes a symbol of resistance. 

I simply cannot avoid this. An image does not stand alone, it's not an isolated item in a visual lexicon, it's far more fluid than that. Different images have different social, psychological and political significances and these combine together in multiple ways. The dilemma is how to combine them in a manner that recognises interferences that are more physical than lingual, that are more like patterns of interference, ripples on the water's surface with undercurrents that run below, than patterns of language. Images are first and foremost emotional and unconscious, that is their power base. The question is how to recognise this, and how understand it, and then how to use it.

The emotional unconscious power of images is apparent in the most formal forms of photography. It's central in the work of people like Liz Orton or Jo Spence who work with themes connecting to the medical gaze. It's also there in forensic and crime scene photography. 

In the current issue of Photographies, Lourdes Delgado writes about this in her piece on the bias of mugshots, and the way in which the functionality of the mugshot imposes a pre-supposed guilt onto the person photographed; the very act of photographing somebody in a mugshot makes them guilty in other words. As a result photography is responsible for a huge number of innocent people imprisoned in the USA each year (a very conservative 2.3% - 5% according to the Innocence Project organisation). 

 Image of Thomas Byrnes, the man with the third-degree

This is something that really matters in other words, this is where photography (just as with medical photography) is a matter of life, death, and freedom. 

Delgado writes about how mugshots and 'Rogues Galleries' developed in New York as a flipside to the celebrity portraiture of photographers like Matthew Brady.

She also traces the mugshot back to the standardised portraiture of Bertillon (which in turn you can trace back to medical illustration, emphasising the links between the medical and the criminal), concluding that while in the Rogues Gallery, it is the context of the gallery that provides the criminal element (remove the image from the gallery and the stigma is no longer there), with the mugshot it is the standardisation that creates the stigma. 

The question is how to remove this stigma, and the Innocence Project has come up with various models which involve removing information and mixing up the standardised format of the Bertillon and sub-Bertillon models. 

But for mugshots that subvert the mugshot form, I wonder if the Sydney Police Archive model isn't the way to go. They are still mugshots of course, but they are Fabulous Mugshots. Here they are again.

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