• Damien Williams

The Crime Scene: Its relationship to how photographs are considered legal documents…



As Susan Sontag said:
"A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what's in the picture." - Susan Sontag - on Photography

Whilst spending this week debating "What is photography?... What is a photograph? Is a photograph an object?..." and discussing the valid and ethical uses and functions as photography. An event happened that provided me with a dilemma in real time.



This young man gained entry to my house and stood staring at my wife as she worked. Now, in Singapore the society is built upon leaving doors and windows open in order to use fans rather than air conditioning wherever possible. Also, we are currently on a lockdown as a CoVid 19 precaution. He walked through the house and stood there. Nothing else. My children were doing their home schooling work. He is a total stranger. As we found out later, he lives in the West of the island, which we don't. He left very quietly when he was asked to. Walked back out past security and sat on the kerb and smoked a cigarette.


We called the police, as we had a stranger in our house and needed to enable them to contact trace him just in case there are any links to him or us to the virus. The Police took statements and a set of photos for evidence to substantiate the written statement. It got me thinking about the role of photography in what happens next.


"Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates... In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. - Susan Sontag - on Photography

These photographs are reconstructions of the images taken by the police.




What do they tell us? What truth is revealed? How is it revealed?

It shows what he may have seen from where he stood. It gives us a clue of what he could have been looking for/at.


I can tell what they don't reveal is the age, mental state and reasoning for the misdemeanour. The language barrier, the events that lead up to his entry into our house.


They do form a narrative of some sort, but incontrovertible truth? Objective truth? What evidence do they give over and above the testimony of the witness. So why are they more legal than simple description. Does an image have a 1000 word potential?


In another case from...

In the New York Times article "When photographs become evidence" (Koppel, N.,:2015) the discussion of the legality of taking images is discussed. There are currently no crimes for taking images of a crime taking place, hence the insistence of civilians using their camera phones to video interactions with police, but this landmark case where Robert Stolarik was initially arrested for interfering with an arrest had that arrest overturned as the images became evidence,


"The decision to drop charges against Robert Stolarik for interfering with an arrest he had been photographing in the Bronx in 2012 and instead to prosecute an arresting officer came after prosecutors scrutinized the physical evidence: Mr. Stolarik’s digital images."

The reversal was complete when in the case to prove the photographer's innocence the attorney Mr Yacoub said

“In my closing arguments, I told the judge to forget about witness testimony and look at the photos and compare them to the document that he signed,”

Which resulted in the arrest being overturned and the arresting officer being charged for falsifying his statement.


More power than 1000 words?

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