The exhibition ‘Burden of Proof: The construction of visual evidence’ sought to:-
‘Through the presentation of eleven case studies……examine the way experts, researchers and historians use images as evidence in instances of crimes or acts of violence suffered by individuals or groups.’. (Photographers Gallery, 2015).
Of the 11 studies, I was particularly drawn to the series of photographs created by Alphonse Bertillon (1853 – 1914). His photographs were taken using…’an overhead camera, equipped with a wide-angle lens, set on a tripod more than 2 metres tall. The images were then mounted on special cards offering graduations in centimetres, perspectometric framing and indications of scale.’ The exhibition supporting commentary explained ‘This elaborate representation system provided a unified, overall view of the event’s material elements: the position of the body and of any weapons, other objects and traces’. (Photographer’s Gallery, 2015).
Below are three examples of Bertillon’s mounted images:-
Above left:- Corpse of Emilie Japy, Steinhal case, 6a Impasse Ronsin case, Paris, 31 May 1908
Above right:- Murder of Madame Gilles, 11 October 1904
Left:- Murder of Madame Lack, Porte Saint-Denis, Paris, 10 June 1912
I found the images quite shocking, in particular the 3 above were murders of frail, elderly victims. The existence of bed clothes around two of the bodies seem to heighten the vulnerability with people being murdered as they slept. Bed is generally the place we all go to feel safe – it is a place of sanctuary and warmth, and Emile Japy’s choice of bedwear is almost childlike which accentuates the photograph presenting him as a helpless victim. Further the lighting in the ‘Murder of Madam Lack’ image is dramatic and focussed like a spotlight on the corpse tethered and bound among the bedsheets.
Conversely I found that while the images themselves evoked strong emotions and sympathy in me, the mounts with their ‘ruler-like’ measurements encouraged you to be more detached from the photographs – symbolising the necessary scientific and perhaps ‘cold-hearted’ approach to solving the crime. Combining the image in the mount somehow accentuates the heinous nature of the crimes.
The exhibition commentary also points out that Bertillon himself realised ‘the photographs themselves could have a psychological influence, either on the accused, by inducing a confession, or on the judges’. (Photographer’s Gallery, 2015).
For me the most dramatic element of the images is the overhead perspective. This renders the corpse almost as a ‘sacrificial’ subject. Is it God looking down at the victim? Is it the victim himself looking down on his corpse as he descends into the afterlife?
I have noticed other images which use the same perspective for a similar dramatic impact:-
This first image of a mountain gorilla being carried through the jungle was taken by journalist photographer Brent Stirton in 2007. The photograph was taken in Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Park rangers had been trying to protect the gorillas but it was a war zone and in the conflict seven gorillas had been shot. The image shows the rangers and villagers carrying the dead animal to the park HQ.
This similar aerial perspective evokes the same response from me, that of witnessing a sacrifice, of a God looking down on the subject as the villages carry the corpse to its final resting place. It seems to almost depict a funeral procession: the vast number of villagers as pall-bearers juxtaposed against the slaughtered beast simply accentuates the size of the main subject.
The next image Bertillon’s photographs reminded me of was one I had saved at the beginning of my TAOP studies last year as I found it similarly immensely powerful and this is again all down to the aerial perspective. I had visited Israel a few years ago and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always interested me, although I can’t claim to be very educated in it – it is way too complex! The photograph by Reuters is of mourners carrying the body of a Palestinian militant at his funeral in the Central Gaza Strip.
The overhead perspective again reinforces for me the sense of ‘sacrifice’. The sheer number of mourners carrying this man’s corpse and the perspective from above really only able to show the tops of their heads and their arms, places the corpse again at the very centre of this image and your eyes are drawn to it. I also really like the lines in this image, the 2 lines of the stretcher and all the lines created by the arms of the stretcher-bearers. It is an extremely powerful and emotive composition.
A clear learning point from me is that perspective can add serious impact to photographs and I should seek to look to vary these perspective, or at least consider my options for doing so, every time I go to take a series of images.
Burden of Proof: The Photographers Gallery, 2015