Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, by Eyal Weizman, founder of Forensic Architecture, founding member of the architectural collective DAAR in Beit Sahour/Palestine, Professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London and a Global Scholar at Princeton University.
Publisher Zone Books and distributor by The MIT Press say: In recent years, the group Forensic Architecture began using novel research methods to undertake a series of investigations into human rights abuses. Today, the group provides crucial evidence for international courts and works with a wide range of activist groups, NGOs, Amnesty International, and the UN. Forensic Architecture has not only shed new light on human rights violations and state crimes across the globe, but has also created a new form of investigative practice that bears its name.
The group uses architecture as an optical device to investigate armed conflicts and environmental destruction, as well as to cross-reference a variety of evidence sources, such as new media, remote sensing, material analysis, witness testimony, and crowd-sourcing.
In Forensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman, the group’s founder, provides, for the first time, an in-depth introduction to the history, practice, assumptions, potentials, and double binds of this practice.
Forensic Architecture, Guatemala: Operación Sofia (The DNA identification room at Laboratorio Clyde Snow, Guatemala City, November 2011. Photo: Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman)
Forensic Architecture is a multidisciplinary research agency composed of artists, filmmakers, writers and architectural researchers who use architectural methods and repurpose new sensing technologies to investigate and expose state or corporate violence, especially when it bears upon the territory.
The group analyzes WW1 aerial photographs, inspects satellite images, deploys kites for land surveys, investigates material traces left on the ground, builds 3D models to re-create atrocities, creates interactive cartography and countercartography, collects testimonies of survivors, scrutinizes user-generated media made by citizens on the ground and uploaded on the internet, etc. Forensic Architecture uses any mean and media necessary to reconstruct evidences of violence that are inscribed onto the land and built environment. Their meticulous work is then turned into evidence that can be used in legal settings to challenge the official narrative of critical events. Sometimes, some form of justice is eventually reached. Other times, miscarriages of justice or even complete absence of justice prevail.
The case studies detailed in the book involve the reconstruction of a contested shooting in the West Bank, the architectural recreation of a secret Syrian detention center from the memory of its survivors, an investigation into the environmental violence and climate change in Guatemala, the 3D modelling of bomb clouds that are then used as fingerprints for locating Israeli strikes on the Gaza dense urban environment, patterns of Western drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc.
Along the pages, you get to learn a lot about the challenges that the members of Forensic Architecture encounter in their work: satellite imagery is more affordable than ever but its photographic resolution is degraded for privacy and secrecy reasons, at least when it comes to the ones available to the public (as Weizman notes, high resolution is used for killing and low resolution for investigating the killing); a commitment to helping the victims leaves the group exposed to criticisms, even though their method is rigorously scientific; legal system itself can be part of a state’s mechanism of domination and denial; evidence from sources derived from new media video analysis, interactive cartography, or animation almost always encounter objection in court because they are too new, etc.
Rafah: Black Friday. Report on the war operations of 1-4 August 2014, in Rafah, Gaza. Image complex: Forensic Architecture
Forensic Architecture, Drone Strikes (Digital reconstruction of the scene of a drone strike in a 3D-mode. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013)
The book is fascinating. It is dense in information, images, maps and documentation that record the way the organization is re-appropriating and re-purposing a broad number of skills and technologies in the context of activism and justice. Their method is characterized by a remarkable amount of scientific accuracy, but also by a surprisingly high percentage of flexibility, empathy and creativity.
The book is often disheartening too. State-sponsored violence makes for very uncomfortable read: tales of ruthless dispossession, of Bedouin villages bulldozed time and time again, brutal colonization of landscape, destruction of life-sustaining resources, arbitrary killings made acceptable by the cultural and legal system, erasure of culture, etc.
Forensic Architecture. Violence at the Threshold of Detectability is a publication i’d recommend to anyone interested in human rights, activism, geopolitics, urban planning, architecture, and in the creative and social-engaged uses of technologies.
Valerio Spada, Serena Uccello and Marzia Sabella at Camera in Turin
Last Thursday i spent the evening at the Camera photo center in Turin for a round table that bore the very intriguing title Fotografare l’invisibile: la mafia tra latitanza e latenza (“Photographing the Invisible: the Mafia between being on the run and latency”, yes, that’s my miserable translation and it definitely sounds more laborious than the original.) The event was a discussion between photographer Valerio Spada, famous in Italy for the way he documents the Mafia in Naples and in Sicily; Marzia Sabella, a magistrate who is a consultant for the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission; and Serena Uccello, a journalist who wrote several books about the Mafia.
I don’t know a lot about the Sicilian Mafia. But there was one name that kept popping up in the conversation that i had heard of: Bernardo Provenzano. Provenzano was nicknamed Binnu u tratturi (Sicilian for “Binnie the tractor”) because of the way “he mows people down.” And of course he was capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) of the entire Cosa Nostra until his arrest in 2006.
Most of his criminal career was spent on the run. From the moment he was indicted for murder in 1963 until the police finally found him, he spent 43 years hiding in Sicily. It was his land, his territory and he needed to maintain a physical presence if he wanted to keep a tight grip on the reins of power.
During all those years as a fugitive, he communicated with his lieutenants by word of mouth or by pizzini – neatly folded pieces of paper that replaced phone conversations. Provenzano was a deeply religious man. He would methodically highlight verses from the Bible and thread relevant passages in his pizzini through otherwise routine instructions regarding business matters.
A photofit of Matteo Messina Denaro whom everyone but me in the room recognised
I did however spent the whole evening wondering “who the hell is this Denaro they keep talking about?” Matteo Messina Denaro, it turns out, is the other very famous Sicilian boss. According to Forbes, he is among the ten most wanted criminals in the world. He too has a nickname. They call him Diabolik. Provenzano named him as his successor in one of his pizzini. He has spent many years in hiding as well (14 years so far) but hasn’t been found yet.
Photographer Valerio Spada is interested in this existence spent on the run. What do you carry with you when you decide to disappear? What do you take along when you are forced to move from one place to another?
The other thing that fascinates the photographer is how much these men sacrifice to stay on top and remain on the territory where they do business. As prominent members of the mafia, they believe that they are ‘on a mission’ and they are ready to give up anything as long as they remain in power: love, family, luxury, comfort. Which explains why Provenzano last hiding place was decidedly decidedly lackluster. As for Messina Denaro, he has probably never met his daughter. In a “pizzino” sent to the former mayor of Castelvetrano (a town in the province of Trapani), he writes: “You don’t know what pain is; living my life without ever having met my daughter.” These men enjoy power and social prestige but not much else.
Matteo Messina Denaro graphological examination of the very few traces he left behind him before disappearing in 1993
Spada managed to get access to and record many of Provenzano’s possessions in his photos. The focus of the series however goes beyond the tangible objects. It meticulously investigates the absence of men who are invisible yet dominate the territory through a complex system of dissimulation, silence and obliteration.
I’m copy/pasting below some of Spada’s photos, with a few comments about them:
Valerio Spada, Olivetti Lettera 35
Typewriter machine used by Provenzano to send messages that ranged from death orders to instructions to move money around. The messages are called “pizzini”, they are A4 paper size coded messages, folded multiple times and wrapped in transparent tape with a number on it that indicates the final recipient. The order will reach its destination after it has passed through 7 different intermediaries.
Matteo Messina Denaro has been known to use Skype for urgent matters.
Valerio Spada, Aula Bunker, Milano, 2013
Giovanni Brusca‘s deposition in the bunker of the Court of Milan on 11 December 2013. Brusca used to be a member of the Sicilian Mafia until he was arrested and became an informant of the police. The deposition is one of the very few instances when the invisible becomes visible.
Note that the policemen have to wear a balaclava to keep the anonymity necessary for their own protection.
Valerio Spada, A Concert by Bartolomeo Manfredi, The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, 2013
Bartolomeo Manfredi’s painting was severely damaged after the bomb explosion in Via dei Georgofili, Florence in the early hours of 27 May 1993. The bombing was part of a campaign of terror orchestrated by the Corleonesi clan in response to the application of the article 41-bis law, by which mafiosi are imprisoned in particularly harsh conditions, which greatly restricts their contact with other inmates and non-prisoners in an attempt to stop them continuing to orchestrate crime from the inside.
Catania, Librino, Teatro Moncada
The photo series is called “I Am Nothing”, a title inspired by words like the ones Matteo Messina Denaro wrote in one of his pizzini:
“You see, I have known pure desperation and I have been alone, I have experienced hell and I have been alone, I have fallen many many times and I have got back up again on my own; I have witnessed pure ingratitude on the part of everyone and anyone and I have been alone, I have known the taste of dust and in my solitude I have been nourished by it […] I am nothing, a loser, but if you need this nothing, I am always here for you, for anything. That is not rhetoric, I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I really love you.
With lasting esteem and love, as always
When you have read this letter,
Valerio Spada, Girls at palazzo di cemento, Catania, 2012
Joana Moll is a young artist and researcher whose work critically explores the way post-capitalist narratives affect the alphabetization of machines, humans and ecosystems. Her main research topics include Internet materiality, surveillance, online tracking, critical interfaces and language.
I first encountered Joana’s work a couple of years ago when i read about her online works such as Texas Border, AZ: Move and Get Shot and Virtual Watchers which look into the crowdsourcing of the surveillance of the US/Mexico border by civilians.
These projects expose two rising features of contemporary culture: the insidious militarization of civil society but also the dilution of individual responsibility enabled by technology. I would really recommend that you check out the talkSurveillance through social networks along the US-Mexico Border that she gave a couple of years ago at AntiAtlas of Borders conference because today’s interview is not going to focus specifically on these works.
This ongoing research project investigates the complex physical structure of the Internet and in particular the many actors, (infra)structures, systems and materials that have a direct but often covert impact on every aspect of our daily lives: submarine and underground cables that perpetuate colonialist heritage, companies and countries that have access to our data, ecological costs of online habits, commodification of data, cultural biases within user interface design, etc.
Joana Moll not only probes into these questions in her own artistic works but she has also started to develop a series of workshops, strategies and tools that enable other people, no matter how tech savvy they are, to delve into these issues but also to subvert the material and computational architectures of the internet.
Hi Joana! The Tracking Forensics workshops, which you organised together with Andrea Noni and Vladan Joler, looked at the material impact of the so-called digital immateriality on the ecosystems. The word ‘forensics’ suggests the collection of criminal evidences. Why did you chose this title for the workshops?
Maybe i should start with the background of the workshop?
You know what? That’s a good idea!
Hangar in Barcelona was at the origin of this workshop. They invited me over a year ago to lead an investigation for IMAGIT, a European project that deals with criticism of interfaces. They asked me to develop some actions that would flesh out some of the more abstract concepts that they explored in the Manifesto for a critical approach to the user interface.
I ended up developing 3 workshops that lasted each for 12 hours. Over the course of these workshops, we explored topics such as the materiality of the internet, code, cognition, power and then interface, intervention governance, bias in the interfaces, etc. We were trying to cover everything that goes beyond the interface.
And then while working with another colleague at Hangar, we started to talk a lot about forensics, tracking forensics, online tracking and surveillance, I have been exploring these topics for many years. So we came up with this idea of doing the same workshops that we had done already but the difference would be that we’d focus much more on tracking.
We invited Vladan to give a talk in the workshop because he was already at Hangar doing a residency i had curated on the topic of tracking forensics and ethical uses of collected data.
The term “forensics” refers to cyber forensics (or computer forensics), the official term used when you follow the path of crime where evidence is stored digitally. You thus approach the online traces as if you were in front of a crime scene.
As for “tracking”, it refers to the action of monitoring people’s activity on the internet. Basically the workshop was about showing how you can understand the dynamics, the mechanisms that corporations, agencies and governments use to collect your data. Share Lab in Serbia did a massive research on that topic.
During the workshops, we used various software but the most important thing lays in the tangible approach to these digital infrastructures and issues because the way you acknowledge things is totally different whether you just work with screens or you experience them physically. For example, we used maps to draw out a forensic analysis of the paths of information.
As an individual who didn’t get the chance to participate to the workshop, how can i become better informed about the infrastructures hidden behind our dependency on the digital?
Together with the Share Lab, we are doing some Do It Yourself Tracking Forensics that we hope to publish soon. It’s basically what his residency at Hangar was about. It’s a project that Andrea and I proposed to do and Hangar is helping us develop it with group of Cyber Forensic people. This DIY is going to be for everyone because it has been very important for me right from the start to engage in critical pedagogic strategy. I want to not only help people with no technical skills understand all these things that are actually responsible for sculpting our reality but also i want this DIY to help them intervene autonomously in these systems.
Aren’t there other groups working on the same issues and putting resources out there just like what you’re trying to do? Or do you have to do all that research from scratch?
There are other people working on similar issues but because we do things in a different way, we still have to do all the research. For example, the Share Lab in Serbia is looking at similar issues but they only cover a part of it. Also Tactical Tech Collective, with whom I’ve collaborated on two projects, developed many pedagogical manuals on the issue. And then of course there is Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev but they don’t cover the physical part as in depth as we do, they are mostly looking at the architecture of information and that’s something that we, on the other hand, only cover very briefly. Our focus is on internet infrastructure and tracking. The pedagogy aspect is also very important for us. I also discovered a group in Austria that did a massive research in tracking. The output was a great paper that’s almost a book actually. There are other people in Amsterdam also but again, it’s different.
Your work DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST explores the tangible and devastating impact of the most mundane habit: the use of google.com. The project visualises the amount of trees needed to absorb the amount of CO2 generated by the global visits to the search engine every second. The website is very simple yet so powerful that it makes me very anxious. I close DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST almost as soon as i’ve opened it. It makes me feel helpless. Once we are more aware of the consequences of our daily internet gestures, is there anything we can do apart from despair?
It’s an ongoing debate. Because of course it’s easy to put all the weight on the shoulders of the end user and make them feel guilty for everything. However, i think it’s very important that we visualize the physical and ecological impact of our online actions. It needs to be embedded in the social imagination because it is quite unbelievable. Data generates C02, it pollutes. There are a few things we can do to help with the problem but they are very minimal. If you are a web designer, for example, you can try and put less images or just work in a more efficient way. Companies bear an even larger share of responsibility.
And in this case, policies have to be enforced from above. Change has to come from a political level and we need to take responsibility collectively if we want things to change dramatically.
A lots of people tell me exactly that! They are not sure whether there are artists behind the project or if it’s just an algorithm doing all the work.
It’s actually very simple. I did this project together with Mexican artist Eugenio Tisselli. The Institute for the Advancement of Popular Automatisms is a platform that enables us to experiment in a very fast way with code, with language, with algorithms, to talk about poetry and the absurd and how machines communicate with humans. With this project we can do all that in a very unorthodox way, by using more the instinct and the irony. The projects that Eugenio and I do aside from this one are research-based and involve long processes. So IFAPA allows us to play a bit. It’s still serious but the approach is more laid-back, more simple. It allows us to play with our ideas and implement things that are important to our work. It’s kind of escape bubble too!
Any upcoming project, field of research or event you could share with us?
I’m working on another project that talks about how different agents that exploit data. I call that ‘data slavery’, there is a lot of dating sites that sell profiles to each other in a crazy way. You can by thousand or even one million profiles for a hundred dollars….
You mean real profiles?
Some of them are real, some are fake. But that doesn’t even matter because the pictures they use are pictures of real people.
I’m about to buy massive amounts of profiles and then try and understand where else these profile, these pictures, these names, or emails can be found. And from there, i want to explore the data of these slavery markets. In a previous research I did on the topic I’ve seen that one single profile was being exploited by more than 50 online services.
Together with Vladan we are writing a text that explores and exposes the ecological footprint of surveillance capitalism and we hope to release these before the summer.
Besides, and that’s very recent news, the next phase of the Critical Interface Politics Research Group will focus on deeply analizying the environmental impacts of internet infrastructures, data flows and interfaces through different interdisciplinary initatives. The plan is to gather a transdisicplinary resesarch team and design serveral interventions that will be able to both, expose the termendous material impact of communication technologies, create mechanisms and tools to reduce such footprint and make them available to the general public. We are in the process of writing the project and looking for partners right now.
The blockbuster exhibition in London right now is The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London. I went on a Tuesday early afternoon, it was packed and it was fascinating. First of all, you learn a lot about crime in the capital and that’s as grisly, weird and demoralizing as you can hope for. But you learn just as much about crime-fighting methods and the challenges facing modern policing.
The main exhibition space presents objects and evidence collected from 24 real-life case files. Some of them relate to the capital’s most notorious crimes. From the Great Train Robbery to the Kray twins. Other cases might be less infamous but they earned their place in the show because of the important role they’ve played in the the development of forensics, because they’ve changed the law or because of the impact they had on society.
The cases described date as far back as 1905 and, apart from the section about terrorism, none of them are more recent than 1975 in an attempt to protect the families of the victims.
The Crime Museum was established in the mid-1870s when the Police started to store the belongings of prisoners while they were being detained. Property left unclaimed was soon joined by the items that the Police had seized during their investigations. The collection was used as a teaching tool for newly trained officers and had never been open to the public before.
The first section of the exhibition recreates the Crime Museum as it appeared in the illustration of the 1880s and early 1900s, a time when the collection was called the Police Museum. It looks like a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, with its collection of old weapons, shelves of death masks, mugshots with hand-written notes detailing the size of the head of offenders as young as 12 years old, nooses used in hangings, evidence collected during the investigations, courtroom sketches, etc. That and the Jack the Ripper material!
The last part of the exhibition is a video room where experts debate questions that range from “Should such an exhibit be allowed and why?” to “Why does society have such a lurid fascination for crime?”
Now i have a passion for crime stories. Fabricated rather than real ones. This predilection for fiction didn’t prevent me from enjoying the show. I felt that The Crime Museum Uncovered talked more about society, its vices and curiosities, about forensics and history than about the criminals themselves. Something which i think was important to the curators: they wanted to tell horrible stories without ever glamourizing crime and crooks.
What follows is an almost endless accumulation of images related to the show. Some will get a few lines of explanations, others won’t.
I’ll start with a photo i took of the object i found most abominable:
It’s a bit dispiriting to see how often women are the victims of crimes. I was particularly horrified by this pair of spring-loaded spiked binoculars. A man gave them as a gift to his former fiancée after she left him. They inspired a scene in the 1959 film Horrors of the Black Museum.
Annie Parker appeared over 400 times before Greenwich Police Court on charges of drunkenness. She made this small sampler cushion, decorating it with hand-crocheted lace and embroidering it using her own hair instead of thread. She presented it to the prison chaplain who later gave it to the museum. Parker died of consumption in 1885, aged 35. At least two other examples of her work are known to exist.
In early April 1905, Alfred and Albert Stratton, two brothers in their early twenties, were arrested for the murder of Thomas and Ann Farrow. At the crime scene, detectives discovered three stocking masks and an empty cash box which had contained the previous week’s takings. At the trial, the most damning evidence was a fingerprint of Alfred’s right thumb found on the cash box.
This was the first criminal case in British history where fingerprint evidence secured a conviction for murder.
On 18 February 1949, John Haigh shot Olive Durand-Deacon, a wealthy widow, at his workshop in Crawley, Sussex. He removed anything of value and dissolved her body in a drum of sulphuric acid, believing that the police would not be able to convict him of murder without a body. The investigation of the sludge at the workshop by pathologist Keith Simpson revealed three human gallstones and part of Mrs Durand-Deacon’s false teeth which had not dissolved.
A firearm and criminal record belonging to Ronnie Kray
Ronnie and Reggie Kray were twin brothers and gang leaders in 1960’s London. They were responsible for robberies, assaults, protection rackets, fraud and murder. Due to intimidation and witnesses refusing to come forward, they were almost untouchable. However, in 1968 the police arrested Paul Elvey who admitted involvement in a number of attempted murders. Other witnesses started talking. In 1969 the twins were found guilty of the murders of George Cornell in 1966 and Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie in 1967. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.
On display at the Museum of London is a briefcase hiding a spring-loaded syringe and bottle of hydrogen cyanide that was made to kill a witness about to testify against the Krays, the handgun used by Reggie Kray to try to kill Jack McVitie, the crossbow intended for use against an enemy of the Krays and a scrapbook from the late 1960s containing newspaper cuttings on the case.
The Richardsons Electrical generator used to administer electric shocks by the Richardson gang, 1960s Museum of London
In the 1960s, the Richardson gang were Krays rivals. They had a reputation as some of London’s most sadistic gangsters. They were said to enjoy pulling teeth using pliers, cutting off toes using bolt cutters, and nailing victims to the floor with nails. As for the electric generator, it was allegedly used to give potent shocks to the toes, nipples and genitals of their enemies. If the victim didn’t seem to suffer enough, water would be poured over them, the wired attached and shocks administered again.
Large crowds would gather to watch public hangings in London, and those who could afford to do so rented rooms overlooking the scene. In 1868 public hangings ended and executions were moved to within the prison walls.
Execution box no. 9 from Wandsworth Prison, which was sent around the Britain to be used as required. Photo AP Photo/Alastair Grant via Seattle Time
The box contains two ropes, allowing the hangman to choose the most appropriate one. To test the rope, a canvas bag was filled with sand to make it the same weight as the condemned person. It was attached to the rope, dropped through the trapdoors and left overnight to stretch it fully before the execution. The straps and buckles were used to restrain the person’s wrists and ankles and the hood to cover their head.
In September 1975, three armed and masked men burst into the Knightsbridge Spaghetti House, to steal the week’s takings. The robbery went wrong and the gunmen took the staff hostage in the basement.
The gunmen demanded safe passage to Jamaica. This was refused, but they were given a radio, coffee and cigarettes. As the siege progressed, journalists were asked to demoralise the gunmen by broadcasting reports saying there was no chance that their demands would ever be met. Meanwhile, the police squeezed fibre-optic surveillance equipment through a hole in the cellar to monitor conditions inside. A psychiatrist advised police on the group’s mental state. On the sixth day the gunmen surrendered and hostages were released unharmed.
This was the first time police had used psychological strategies to end a siege, had enlisted the help of the media in this way and used real-time surveillance. It was also the Firearms Wing’s first deployment in a major incident.
Handwritten criminal record card for Arthur James Woodbine, aged 12, 1896. Museum of London
Legitimate baby farmers provided a service for pregnant unmarried women who were forced to ‘farm’ out their illegitimate child in order to avoid scandal or to keep their jobs. Baby farmers tried to find a family to adopt or foster the child in exchange for a fee. Others like Sach and Walters would abandon or murder the babies and keep the money.
The Smith & Wesson .38 revolver used by Ruth Ellis to murder David Blakely, 1955. Museum of London
Ruth Ellis was London nightclub hostess and the last woman to be executed in the UK, after being convicted of the murder of her lover, David Blakely.
Patrick Mahon Miniature furniture used to reconstruct the murder scene of Emily Kaye, 1924. Museum of London
The butchered remains of Emily Kaye and her unborn foetus were found mostly in a beach house in Sussex (England), which she had shared with her married lover Patrick Mahon. When the police visited the bungalow, they found pieces of boiled flesh in a saucepan; sawn-up chunks of a corpse in a hat box, a trunk and a biscuit tin; and ashes in the fire containing bone fragments. Sir Bernard Spilsbury pieced together the body of the pregnant Emily Kaye, but no head was ever found.
Mathers Arsenical Flypaper, exhibit in the Seddons trial for the poisoning of Eliza Barrow, 1912. Museum of London
Death mask of Franz Muller, a German tailor who committed the first British railway murder, 1864. Museum of London
In July 1864, Franz Muller, 24 year-old German tailor living in London attacked Thomas Briggs, 69, in the first-class compartment of a North London railway train. He robbed him, beat him and threw him from the train, committing the first British railway murder. Muller was tracked down through a gold chain he had stolen from Briggs. The case highlighted fears about railway travel and led to the introduction a few years later of the communication cord to stop the train in case of emergency.
Death masks, made from plaster, were created after executions at Newgate Prison. Some were produced for phrenological purposes, to study the shape of a convict’s head, others were made as curios to record the faces of notorious criminals.
Leslie Stone shoe prints recovered by police from murder scene of Ruby Keen, 1937. Museum of London
Between April 1888 and February 1891, eleven women were brutally murdered in the East End of London by an unknown murderer. These murders sparked Britain’s largest ever murder investigation. The Whitechapel murderer became known as Jack the Ripper. He or she has never been identified.
The nickname of this serial killer has its origin in the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, which was sent to the Central News Agency supposedly by the murderer himself on 25 September 1888 and asked anyone recognising the handwriting to contact the police. It was signed “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.”
Death mask of murderer Frederick Deeming, a Jack the Ripper suspect, 1892. Museum of London
Medicine case belonging to poisoner and Jack the Ripper suspect Dr Neil Cream, c.1892. Museum of London
I have a predilection for the morbid, the criminal and the distressing. When i’m not reading art/activism/architecture books for the blog, i’m reading crime books. And when i’m not watching video artworks, i spend my evenings with crime TV series (not American ones, eh!) Burden of Proof brought me the best of both world. The thrill of being surrounded by images of corpses, the pretense of visiting a cultural show.
Richard Helmer, superimposition of Joseph Mengele’s photo portrait and of the skull, 1985. Photograph: Richard Helmer. Photo courtesy of Maja Helmer
The exhibition presents eleven case studies spanning the period from the invention of ‘metric’ photography of crime scenes in the 19th century to the reconstruction of a drone attack in Pakistan in 2012 using digital and satellite technologies. These offer an analysis of the historical and geopolitical contexts in which the images appeared, as well as their purpose, production process and dissemination.
While charting some of the most salient historical instances in which photography has been used as evidence of criminal activity or violent acts, Burden of Proof investigates the reliability of the images and interrogates its role in truth-seeking scientific and historical discourse.
The ambiguity of photography has been much debated. Photography, as we know well, is an instrument for revealing, documenting and exposing. But it can also be used to hide, stage or doctor evidence. It is a medium of transparency and opacity, at the service of both truth and propaganda. The exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery reminds us that, despite its evidential limitations, photography plays a role too important in society and in the service of justice to be unequivocally dismissed.
But let’s look at the cases studies, i’ve selected only a few of them and will, for once, follow the curators’ decision to present them chronologically. Almost none of the photos were made by artists but their (unintentionally) aesthetic qualities are nevertheless indisputable. I, for one, was amazed by the way the bodies in Bertillon’s photos laid on the ground like cut flowers:
Alphonse Bertillon, Murder of Monsieur Canon, boulevard de Clichy, 9 December 1914. Archives de la Préfecture de police de Paris
Alphonse Bertillon’s Murder of Madame Langlois, 5 April 1905. Photograph: Archives de la Prefecture de po/Archives de la préfecture de police
Alphonse Bertillon was a French police officer and and biometrics researcher who invented or perfected several methods of identifying criminals and solving crimes. The most famous and widely-used today is the mug shot. Sherlock Holmes, apparently, was a fan of the French criminologist.
In the early 20th century, Bertillon developed metric photography, a scientific protocol to document crime scenes. He used an overhead camera with a high tripod and wide angel-lenses that captured an ‘objective’ diving, bird’s-eye view of victims at the places of their deaths. The images were then mounted on cardboard featuring precise measurements. The final document records succinctly and visually all the material elements present at the scene of the crime: the position of the corpse and of any weapon, objects and clues nearby, foot prints, etc.
Metric photography was important not only for police work but it also played a part during trials where the images were used to make an impact on the judges but could also incite the accused to confess.
Rodolphe A. Reiss, Demonstration of the Bertillon metric photography system. Copyright and courtesy of R.A. Reiss.
Rodolphe A. Reiss, 25 novembre 1915. Fingerprints on oil cloth, Jost Grand-Chêne robbery case in Lausanne, Vaud, on November 25, 1915
Rodolphe A. Reiss was one of Bertillon’s disciples. He wasn’t a policeman but a chemist and photographer and his work led him to be appointed to the world’s first chair of forensic science in Lausanne in 1906. Reiss was more interested in objects than in people. His method consisted in taking a general view of the crime scene, then in gradually would zooming in and producing photographic close ups that revealed marks, prints and other details that could then be used in forensic analysis.
Just like Bertillon, Reiss had faith in photography, he wrote that ‘A good photograph will often advantageously replace the longest of prosecution speeches.’
The photos shown at the Photographers’ Gallery sometimes look so abstract that i first took them for contemporary artworks.
From August 1937 to November 1938, nearly 750,000 Soviet citizens were sentenced and shot in the neck, that’s almost 50,000 executions per month. The executions constitute the largest massacre ever committed by a state against its own people and were part of a regime of repression that historians call the Great Terror.
The Politburo of the Communist Party headed by Stalin made official records of the victims before their execution. They were photographed in front and side view against a neutral background, in conformity with the mugshot norms laid down by Bertillon. Ironically, the shots are now used as evidence not of the crimes of the accused, but of those committed by the Stalinist regime.
The defendants before the screenings of the film Nazi Concentration and Prison Camps, 29 November 1945
Courtroom during the screening of Nazi Concentration and Prison Camps, 29 November 1945
On November 29th, 1945, at the hearing of 21 Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, the prosecution screened a film showing the horrific scenes encountered inside German concentration camps at the liberation. To ensure that the footage would be seen as proof against the Nazis, the Allied cameramen were issued highly specific instructions about how they were to film.
During the trial in Nuremberg, the courtroom was rearranged as a cinema theater, with the screen taking the position normally occupied by the judges, and lighting illuminating the defendants’ faces so that jurors could observe their reactions.
Nicknamed the “Angel of Death”, Josef Mengele was a doctor in Auschwitz famous for his role in performing experiments on twins and on selecting who among the arriving prisoners would be sent to the gas chambers and who to the camp. He left Auschwitz shortly before the arrival of the liberating Red Army troops and fled to South America, where he managed to elude capture for the rest of his life.
He drowned while swimming off the Brazilian coast in 1979 and was buried under a false name in the cemetery of a small town outside São Paulo. It is only in 1985 that his remains were found, disinterred and analysed for identification.
The technology to extract DNA from bones wasn’t fully developed until the early 1990s so, as part of the investigation to ascertain that these were indeed the remains of the war criminal, German photographer and pathologist Richard Helmer developed a technique which superimposed archive photos of the Nazi over a video feed of the exhumed skull. In the resulting images Mengele’s face emerges out of and dissolves back into his skull, like a ghost, a spectral presence haunting the living. A few years later, DNA testing confirmed that the remains found in Brazil were indeed Mengele’s.
Susan Meiselas, Grace A-South, Koreme, North of Iraq, June 1992
Topographic survey with scale and orientation of the grave A South, level 2, established by James Briscoe, and member of the team Middle East Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, May-June 1992
In 1988, the Iraqi government and army proceeded to destroy thousands of Kurdish villages located in Iraqi Kurdistan. Using a similar pattern throughout the campaign, the Iraqi army first attacked a village then captured its inhabitants and set to systematically demolish their dwellings. The Kurdish village of Koreme serves as a case study of this campaign, showing how the destruction strategies were implemented. In 1992, Middle East Watch and a team of forensic experts exhumed the four mass graves in Koreme.
The images and drawings shown in the exhibition document the forensic archaeological and anthropological investigations used to identify the mass graves. Susan Meiselas, from Magnum Photos, documented the exhumation work. Meanwhile, the content and disposition of the graves were detailed by drawings made by James Briscoe. On the basis of these images and of the experts report, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights concluded that these executions constite, at a minimum, crimes against humanity and may even form the basis for a case of genocide.
Fazal Sheikh, al-Türi cemetery, al-‘Araqïb, 9 October 2011. The graves at the center of the cemetery are the oldest ones, they were there before the creation of the State of Israel
al-Türi cemetery, detail n°14 enlarged 5033, RAF series Palestine Survey, 5 janvier 1945. A British Survey of Palestine, 1947
Forensic Architecture was involved in several of the case studies presented in the exhibition. This research laboratory uses various disciplines such as archaeology, engineering and media analysis to investigate the consequences of societal conflicts and human rights violations.
Between December 1944 and May 1945, the UK Royal Air Force surveyed and photographed Palestine from the air. These aerial images provide a precise mapping of the Palestinian territory before the creation of the State of Israel and document the violences against Bedouins. Forensic Architecture examined the archive images and looked for historical evidence of ancient cemeteries which would lend legitimacy to the claims of Palestinian Bedouin families whose ancestors lived in the Negev prior to the existence of the State of Israel and were expelled from their lands in the wake of the 1947 partition plan. Given the low resolution of the images, the graves are little more than tiny, blurry evidence that lie at what Weizman calls the threshold of detectability. By reading such traces out of the image, state representatives and the authors of the Regavim report showed themselves to be committed to an active form of ‘not seeing,’ writes Eyal Weizman.
Le Saint Suaire de Turin, negative image. Enlargements by Paul Vignon from photographs taken by Giuseppe Enrie (1931-1933)
If there are photos i was not expecting to ever see at The Photographers’ Gallery it was those of the Shroud of Turin. Even though it has been long established that the piece of linen cloth is not the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, catholics still pack coaches and fly in droves to admire the ‘image of Christ after crucifixion’ when it is exhibited once every few years in Turin.
The shroud is little more than a historical curiosity but it still deserves a place in the gallery as being perhaps the first forensic photograph, even though it was later revealed to be a fake dating back to the 13th or 14th Century.