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A 1916 American Mug Shot

For anyone who thinks photography has only recently been abducted by state and corporate power for the purposes of control, think again. For anyone who thinks that high-tech-surveillance was the birth of photography being used to discipline and order humans, think again. Cyborgology recently had a great piece by Liam French lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John, about the historical connects between image-making and criminal justice. French writes:

The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.

One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens.

Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision argues that the breadth of surveilling techniques and technologies has extended to the Internet.

Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.

French references both a 2006 article about Mark Michaelson’s book and collection of mugshots and last years viral pic of Jeremy Meeks‘ mugshot to raise the idea that law enforcement photography (mugshots included) have transcended their forensic roots.

Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.

Furthermore, French argues, that John Fiske’s theory that dominant power uses system to segregate and dominate apply here. Fiske says that authority will rely upon systems and “improve” them all the while facing resistance from the lesser power. Crucially, the lesser power uses the same systems to subvert and counter dominate. Sometimes the lesser power is successful and sometimes the larger power replaces old systems with new ones of greater efficiency or new tactics. In any case there is always a push and pull.

Jeremy Meeks

Booking photo of Jeremy Meeks, 30. (June 18, 2014). Credit: Stockton Police Department


So in the case of mugshots, there has always been inherent control attached to state-dominate manufacture and exchange of mugshots. Until social media found a way to interrupt that exchange.

Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s mugshot of the day website and the countless mugshot magazines like Busted were examples of larger authorities using the mugshot to their own ends. Arpaio’s use served not the general fraternity of law enforcement but his own ego. Busted wanted to bend the use of mugshots to its own profitable ends but interestingly did so without inconveniencing the state’s power; to the contrary dollar-mugshot magazines enhance the states criminalisation of individuals.

Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation.

It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.

From dusty archives, to venerable vernacular objects, to art-world comedy-fetish, to online consumable, we need to consider deeply our relationship to mugshots. And to the criminal justice systems from which they emerge. Especially as one week we’re approaching them as shallow entertainment and the next we’re demanding a right to them in order to confirm or dispel controversy and conspiracy surrounding in-custody death.

Read French’s full piece Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision here


I’ve seen Martin Luther King’s mugshot many times (last year, on MLK Day I posted this same mugshot), but I had not noticed the scrawls upon it. Robert Gumpert pointed them out to me.

Someone accessed the police archive following MLK’s death to struggle with a biro pen in writing the date of his assassination.


We all know the famous photograph by Charles Moore of MLK’s arrest in Montgomery, Alabama and perhaps one or two photographs of MLK imprisoned in Birmingham Jail; MLK’s letters and the civil rights education have made the narrative and context for MLK’s arrests well known.

That is why I think an intimate tale into the biography of this mugshot would be fascinating. Through whose hands has it passed? How has it’s meaning changed? Is the copy with the scrawls the only original copy? Where are the original prints now archived?

The answers are probably easy to find and I’m just thinking out loud here.


This blog-post is just yet another seedling to a potential chapter of a potential book on mugshots.

I don’t think I’m the one to write a book about mugshots but a few trends make it a visual territory in rapid flux. The current racket and sleazy business opportunities they afford; the mugshot as ubiquitous as Facebook profile pics; their role as photobook Objet d’art; and mugshots’ new-found glory as consumer items, all point toward changing ideas toward – and uses of – this old photographic form.


Cartoon of prison photographers from the Illustrated London News, 1873 in The Mechanical Eye in Australia (OUP, Davies & Stanbury, 1985). Via (Source)

Cartoon of prison photographers from the Illustrated London News, 1873 in The Mechanical Eye in Australia (OUP, Davies & Stanbury, 1985).

Over on the high-class Threat Level blog, David Kravets has penned Mug-Shot Industry Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again a scary piece about America’s “mug shot industry racket”:

Exploiting Florida’s liberal public-records laws and Google’s search algorithms, a handful of entrepreneurs are making real money by publicly shaming people who’ve run afoul of Florida law., the biggest player, now hosts more than 4 million mugs. On the other side of the equation are firms like, and others that sometimes charge hundreds of dollars to get a mugshot removed. On the surface, the mug-shot sites and the reputation firms are mortal enemies. But behind the scenes, they have a symbiotic relationship that wrings cash out of the people exposed.

I’ve written before about rolling galleries of the recently arrested in place of stories on online “news” sites. It is a practice particularly prevalent across southern states. These galleries are the digital version of mugshot papers like Just Busted.

Unlike these galleries that feature the latest bookings, FloridaArrests has raked the archives. But I would still criticise both for an amount of coercion; they induct, at some level, users into the visual language of law enforcement. By the act of looking we are perversely interacting with portraits threaded with menace; they are, after all, the outcome of some type of confrontation. But the visibility of these images (and thus confrontations) far outweighs the impact these contained confrontations have on the everyday life of the majority.

Kravets’ article demonstrates that beyond the dubious exchange of digital imagery for news informational purposes fear, a business model has been found to monetise the shame that goes along with being booked and photoed.

“The business model seems to be to generate embarrassment and then remove the source of the embarrassment for a fee,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, and one of the nation’s leading open-records advocates.

Now you are manipulated as much as prey of the mugshot industry as much as you were as a consumer!

Have you made one mistake in the Sunshine State? If so, you’re probably up there among the other 4 million mugshots. That is until you fork out $400 to a specialist firm to process a $20 take-down request. The take-down is a “URL for an automated takedown script on [a] site” that is activated by PayPal payment. have provided the URL in advance for multiple companies.

Reads like a racket.


I rewrote the original title. It was Mug Shot Racket Industry: Exposing Your Shame and Charging You to Purge it from Google!

I removed the exclamation mark. My mood changed. I removed the words ‘Racket’, ‘Your’ and ‘You’. Even though the definition of racket is “a dishonest business or practice,” which this sounds like, FloridaArrests actions and the actions of mugshot removal providers are legal. They’re just cynical. And obviously not everyone has been arrested by Florida’s law enforcement, so ‘your’ and ‘you’ was hyperbole. I also changed the photo and went all 19th century.

Time is of the essence today, so why not a quick look at a mugshot archive?


“The people grouped here may have had nothing in common except that their lives intersected with the municipality at least once. This exhibit brings them together in part to show how the city classified them. The documents and photographs here are therefore not representative of those New Orleanians who lived their lives quietly and within the law; they are necessarily skewed toward those who erred or strayed, who got caught or got in trouble, or, conversely, those who actively sought assistance from the city.”

The images were selected from the Louisiana Division/City Archives. My favourites here are those photographs in which intriguing, strong(?) communication persists.

– – –

The exhibit was curated by Emily Epstein Landau and funded in part by the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (1999), a program of the Social Science Research Council, with funding from the Ford Foundation. Dr. Landau received her doctorate from Yale University in 2005. Her dissertation, “Spectacular Wickedness”: New Orleans, Prostitution, and the Politics of Sex, 1897-1917, is a history of Storyville, the famous red-light district. She will be teaching New Orleans history this Spring, as a visiting lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Washington, DC.

No one owns the rights on a mugshot. Mugshots are in the public domain.

This might be a problem for Patrick Tribett (now 8 weeks clean) who is trying to stop the use of his likeness on commercial t-shirts. has the full scoop.

Tribett’s best hope is the sanction against the use of names or portraits for commercial gain. We will see if this law can be applied to existing mugshots.

Blake Andrews says, “Together with the mugshot, the passport snapshot was the earliest application of photography as purely personal identifier.” It’s a good read and you should check it out. My favourite observation was the 1920s transition, “Photos were glued instead of stapled.” Also, is that Indiana Jones?…

"One Million Finnish Passports", 1995. One million replicated Finnish passports, glass, 800 x 800 x 80 cm. Installation view: Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Artist: Alfredo Jaar, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

“One Million Finnish Passports”, 1995. One million replicated Finnish passports, glass, 800 x 800 x 80 cm. Installation view: Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Artist: Alfredo Jaar, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mugshots recently and how prison photography is one little orbit of many about the deathstar of dark-photography. Other orbits include Weegee, Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel (defining the cross over between documentary and fine art) forensic photography, police blotter, thanatourism, civil war hangings, Salgado’s “Beautiful Deathscapes”, lynching photography, Danny Lyon (the most appropriated of artists) and fetishism to name a few.

All of these, by method or subject, relate to the state, and thus more orbits of homeland and foreign surveillance, torture slideshows, death suites, electric chairs, driving licenses, mafia movies, Jenny Holzer and genocide.

The most everyday instance of a photographic collaboration with the state is the passport photo. No more than that. Just thoughts.

TYWKIWDBI is garish and off putting to anyone who judges sites on appearance alone. Fortunately for it, and us, it is also one of the best aggregators of online content. It is a one man operation to compete with Digg!

Roy Brown

Roy Brown

I picked up this story and had to relay it. While Christian Milton, former AIG executive, got 4 years for his involvement in $500million fraud, Roy Brown was sentenced to 15 years in Louisiana for stealing $100 from a bank. Brown only took $100 dollars from thousands the cashier handed him and subsequently surrendered himself the next day, ashamed of his actions stating “My mother didn’t raise me that way.”

I don’t know how tied the judges hands were by Louisiana law, but I would resign in disgust if I was a cog in such an abusive system. Fucking disgrace.

Christian Milton

Christian Milton

Searching for images didn’t come up with much (admittedly, it didn’t spend too long) but it occurred to me that the mugshot is the aesthetic of the poor and the street “trialshot” is the aesthetic of the rich. I understand they are captured at different moments in the judicial process, but the qualities and circumstances of the Mugshot vs Trialshot make interesting comparison.

MUGSHOT: Regimented, Artificial light, Institutional, Accompanied by booking information, Less likely recipient of bail, Controlled & private space, Everyday clothes.

TRIALSHOT: Unrestricted, Natural light, Public, Accompanied by caption and news article, Certain recipient of bail, Public space, Selected wardrobe.

These comparisons go some length to describe the influence money and status can have in the legal process and how the procedures accommodate those with money and resources to work with/within the system vs. those who are simply subject to its machinations. Just to drive the point home, when charges were first brought against Milton in February 2008, the probation office recommended a 14 to 17 year sentence. An absolute disgrace. A mockery.

Screenshot of fate. The rise and fall of individuals.

Screenshot of fate. The rise and fall of individuals.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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