‘A photograph’, wrote Salman Rushdie, ‘is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second.’ As soon as you press your finger to the shutter, the story begins — everything that falls outside the frame matters as much as what you include. I’ve never been more acutely aware of this than in the timely ‘Burden of Proof’ photography exhibition, currently running at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. Presenting a history of forensic photography from the early 1900s to the present day, the exhibition throws into sharp relief the vital role of the photographer in the justice process. In one corner, we see an image of a group of young men, talking as they share cigarettes. In the next picture along, the cameraman’s perspective has changed. The group now face away from the viewer; it becomes apparent that they are smoking before a pile of corpses. Are these men friends? Murderers? Soldiers? Liberators? A jury’s decision rests on the evidence they are presented with. And if the camera never lies, it certainly omits, shapes, and interprets.
An exhibition of forensic photography has the potential to fall into being a spectacle of the macabre, relying on the shocking nature of its subject matter for its impact. Thankfully, this was avoided firstly by choosing a range of cases, from bombing sites to Le Saint Suaire du Turin. Secondly, it was constantly emphasised that if the images have an intense psychological impact on you, the exhibition viewer, then they certainly have the same effect on a jury and judge. The distant photographs of cities wiped out by bombs were impersonal, accompanied only by numbers, statistics. The invisible lives implied within these photographs were collateral damage only. Next to them, however, hung pictures of murder scenes. The hollow eyes of individuals stared out from the prints, the scenes they depicted sometimes stomach-churning. Their explanatory texts left little to the imagination, graphically illustrating the exact nature of the death and wounds inflicted. In the way the material was presented, it became impossible to ignore the human impact of the crime under consideration. The severity of the perpetrators’ guilt is immediately altered by the perspective of the image in question. I was reminded of Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of a young Syrian refugee, drowned on a Turkish beach. It was not just the young boy’s death that altered public discourse about this humanitarian crisis, but the perspective of the photograph itself.
Exhibition director Diane Dufour stated that the aim of the show was to put the viewer in the mindset of ‘an expert who has to deal with the very difficult task of turning an image into evidence.’ For the most part, the curators had found imaginative ways of doing so, not least by incorporating an interactive ‘crime scene’ alongside the historical overview of developments in forensic photography. You were invited to take photographs of the staged crime scene, to try and untangle evidence from coincidence, and use your images as justification for deciding whether the subject had been murdered, kidnapped, or faked their own death. A little GCSE ‘learning by doing’, perhaps, but it was nonetheless entertaining and made it clear that the organisers had considered a (social media-savvy) generational cross-section when putting together the exhibition. The only piece which seemed out of place was the film of the Nuremberg trials, boxed off from the rest of the exhibition on the third floor. In some ways, it was obvious why it had been included — film is an obvious extension of photography, and in many ways the same issues of framing and perspective apply to both. However, it is a different medium, and seemed to raise more questions than allowed for in the space allocated for it. The exhibition left unchallenged the journalists’ palpable excitement at turning mass murder into a new story, and the ability to build a narrative in a way that is difficult with photography’s disjointed freeze-framing. Really, forensic film needed an entire floor to itself, or another exhibition entirely, to be able to treat it with the same sensitivity as the photographs.
Of course, one might question the decision to aestheticise any of this material by placing it within a gallery context. But the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition was not, in a way, the images themselves. Besides the various photographic techniques developed over the years, the show also explored the way in which these images become evidence in the courtroom. Their status is always validated by words, they never exist in isolation. Alphonse Bertillon’s “metric photographs”, invented to give a survey of a murder scene, were transformed from perverse voyeurism to evidence by merit of their attendant captions. On a different scale, for the Nuremberg trials the photos themselves were in some sense less important than the introduction of neon lights to the dock. For the first time, the faces of the accused were illuminated, so the jury could search their faces for any show of remorse or, conversely, indifference, as the photos were shown. By the time of the trials, everybody involved had seen the photographic evidence in advance, and was familiar with the horrific images that came back from the concentration camps. The photographs therefore became props in this theatricalised spectacle of legal retribution.
‘Burden of Proof’ reminded me strongly of last year’s ‘Time, Conflict, Photography’ exhibition at the Tate Modern, which examined the role of the conflict photographer in modern warfare. Both tackled unsettling subjects with the same quiet but firm conviction, probing the assumptions and judgements that underpin some of the most important and contentious modern photography. In unexpected ways, photography can change the way we see the world — it assists in the course of justice and in the formation of public policy. ‘Burden of Proof’ throws light on the darkest corners of the courtroom, showing just how much our moral decisions can rely on the lens of a single camera.
‘Burden of Proof‘ runs at the Photographers’ Gallery until January 10th 2016.