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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 have seen 4 seconds of it. I heard my son begging for his life. I cannot watch. I know it is very disturbing,” said Janetta Brown to Democracy Now! about a 17-minute video which documents the death of her son Sergeant James Brown in a jail in El Paso.

Sgt. James Brown voluntarily checked himself in to the Texas jail on a Friday night in 2012 to serve a two night sentence for a 2011 DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) charge. The only reason Brown’s death has been in the news recently is because a video of the incident was recently acquired by an El Paso TV station. Brown’s family, including his mother did not know of a video of his death until it was mentioned, in passing, by a lawyer. That led to the request and release of the disturbing footage.

The video has been widespread across the news this past week. I have had the YouTube window open in my browser for days, knowing I should respond, but not quite knowing how to. This is my beat — imagery emerging from a state-administered locked facility, made by the state authority being used and interpreted against itself. My anger, sadness and outrage were immediate and obvious. I felt those negative emotions but they did not fully describe my experience. I was paralysed from writing because of guilt. I feel guilty that I am viewing a video of a man’s death that his mother has not. I feel guilty that I am so far removed from the subject I can move on from its devastating truth on a whim. The browser reamined open because I couldn not close it; to do so would be to, likely, never return.

“It’s devastating. It’s inhumane,” said mother, Janetta Brown. She was describing the events leading up to her son’s death, but she could as easily have been described the videoing of events. “It’s inexplicable what happened to him,” she added.

It is inexplicable that we are able to view a death online. Centuries ago, people witnessed death in war, workplace accidents, hate crimes, in person. Decades ago, people began to witness death (not the aftermath of death, but the actual drawing of final breath) in sequenced still news imagery and some TV footage. Years ago, we became accustomed to seeing deaths online. It’s almost inexplicable that once people mostly encountered death at the bedside of a loved one, and now children can watch snuff-movie-equivalents on the internet, at will.


Authorities claimed Sgt. James Brown died due to a Sickle Cell Crisis which prevented oxygen getting to his brain and organs, but the family say he had no prior record of Sickle Cell Disease. Brown repeatedly says he can’t breathe and appears not to resist. By the end of the video, he is shown naked, not blinking or responding, his breathing shallow. Attorneys say an ambulance was never called. Brown was eventually brought to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Unfortunately, Brown’s filmed death is the latest in a series of high profile videos to hit the news channels. The deaths of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York, Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles, James M. Boyd in Albuquerque, John Crawford III in Ohio, and Walter Scott in North Charleston have all been consumed by the public. As challenging as these videos are, we would not want them to not exist. The judicial system, as it currently operates, serves to protect law enforcement officers with their fingers on the trigger more than it does those who are victim to cops’ bullets. We know that video evidence is one of the few things that can sway legal decisions in a direction favourable to the victims and their advocates.

I suspect that if videos of the murders of Akai Gurley, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown had existed prosecutions for the assailants may have stood a chance in court. (I fully acknowledge the murder of Eric Garner taped from start to finish resulted in no indictment of the officers.)

Given the calls for more police body cams — from the White House to Michael Brown’s family — it might be that our future will hold more videos of death. And so we have news and evidence to be analysed; the use of video as witness versus the circulation of video as internet fodder; and the empowerment of knowing versus the guilt of knowing at a distance. The multiple roles these types of video play created my long hesitation to write this post.

My paralysis was broken when I read Teju Cole’s well-pitched Death In The Browser. Cole also grapples with the discomfort of being a consumer but he manages to reconcile his emotions and untangle their confusion. He admits to writing about many things related to the issue of Walter Scott’s videoed death before arriving at his main point about Scott’s death. But Cole’s words are not wasted.

“If you set enough tangents around a circle, you begin to recreate the shape of the circle itself,” writes Cole.

Cole brings us gently to a point at which we all must stand if we’re to function in a culture now unhesitant to circulate images of fellow humans’ deaths. Rather elegantly, Cole draws a parallel between the person killing and the person watching the killing.

We need to adapt to the new type of life and death data to which we are exposed. Cole points out that watching a time bar creep across the bottom of our screen is a conscious action. Just as raising a gun and pulling a trigger is a conscious action. As individuals, we are not able to change decisions made by others, but we can consider deeply the decisions we make before the screens of our devices.

Have we comprehended that there are profound differences to the material we see on the internet? All things are not the same. And yet it’s pretty easy to open or close a browser window, regardless. Find something else to hold our attentions.

I’m not talking about being desensitized per se (arguments that photos of death and disaster numb us are largely discredited). I am not talking about a psychological or evolutionary shift; I’m talking about a structural fact of our internet browsers. It’s all too easy to click the next tab, the next news story, the next or previous image in a gallery. We remain appalled by (videoed) injustices but will we be moved to political action because of them? Do we see the urgency in a video, the same way we see the urgency in a burning building or baby on the tracks? A lot of my concern feeds into a larger worry that we’re living a step apart anyway, making the harder work of political organising more of a challenge. We need to ensure footage of violence emboldens us against violence.

Is the seriousness of death and murder, repeated, on our screens enough of a spur for us to enact equally serious discretion over our online consumption? I left my browser open all week, Cole closed his before the shots ended. There’s no right or wrong answer, but there is a right or wrong decorum.

My thoughts return to Janetta Brown. And they will every time I have the option to press play on an internet vid. She made a conscious choice not to watch the video of her son’s death; she did so to avoid further trauma. Yet, Janetta Brown understands the role the video will play for educating hundreds of thousands of people on the injustices behind bars in America. Killing videos are not for entertainment. Imagine meeting a victim’s mother or family or loved ones and imagine telling them that you watched the video in any other spirit than sympathy and solidarity.


Aug 12 – dbtvcampaign: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown which pic would they use? Thank you @underserverillance for Helping @dbtv13 shine light on the tragic shooting of 18yr old UNARMED Mike Brown, shot and killed by a St. Louis County police officer, show support by posting your photos! | Join in this movement. #DBTV #JPA #JusticeforMikeBrown #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN (Instagram)

“America. How do you think we look when the world can see you can’t come up with a police report, but you can find a video?”

— Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking at Michael Brown’s funeral, Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, August 25th, 2014.


In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer, the United States has been asked to look at itself in a grave and deep way, once more.

The Brown family, the Ferguson community and America generally must figure out how to turn a tragedy into a movement. The Brown family shouldn’t have to do this; they should be living normal lives, but once that police officer shot six bullets into Michael, their lives took an uncontrollable turn. Strength to them and to their ability to carry a movement born of circumstances no parent would want to endure.

Racial profiling is a national problem — the New York Police Department’s Stop & Frisk policy being the most overt example. Police abuse exists and minorities suffer the brunt of that abuse. The extent to which reports of mistreatment have declined among forces who adopted lapel-cameras for their officers is eye-opening. In Rialto, California — the city widely cited as the earliest pilot program of police officer body cams — had all 70 of it’s officer wear one. Between February 2012 and February 2013, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60%.


Aug 14 – djuantrent: #ForThoseWhoHaveBeenGunnedDown “…because our souls cannot rest at the hands of injustice.” More on Djuan Trent’s blog)

Following Ferguson, a renewed call to look at policing rings loud. The figures from Rialto and other pilots like it prove problems exist. We must remember that these figures are merely late confirmation of what poor communities have known and experienced for decades — that they receive a particular and disproportionate amount of scrutiny.

[Ferguson police have started to wear body cameras, albeit 50 cameras donated by two private companies.]

Thinking about these convergences of issues, it’s surprising how much of the conversation comes back to sight: What is the nature of watching a police search? How do we see our society? How do we see class and race? How do people see the police force? How does the state see, monitor and discipline the citizenry? How are images and imaging technologies used to put forth a case when accounts conflict and versions stand to convict or acquit?

How bad does it look when police roll in military armored vehicles in the face of peaceful protest?

These preoccupations over perceptions and narrative were never more in evidence than when the Ferguson police, who unable and/or unwilling to present an officer’s name or autopsy report to the enraged public, were able to publish a corner-store CCTV camera showing Michael Brown push the store owner. Quite how some unrelated grainy footage impacts the facts of a cold-blooded murder is beyond any of us. In the early scramble to win over the public during what quickly developed as a cops v. community narrative, the police turned to video. Desperate and insulting.


Aug 13 – phoenixpsyd: If I were killed by police today, which picture would they use? #IfTheyGunnedMeDown #WhichPictureWouldTheyUse #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN (Instagram)


As awkward and insulting the police’s use of imagery was in the wake of Brown’s murder, the visual strategies employed by protestors was subtle, simple, subversive and hard hitting. On the streets, protestors walked with their arms in the air. Across the nation, the Tumblr Which Picture Would They Use gave young black Americans the opportunity to simultaneously show their support for the Ferguson protestors, skewer the media, and critique the duplicitous versions of character cast open them by wider society.

I am so impressed by Which Picture Would They Use. Its question is so simple and its rhetorical strategy so strong.

People of colour are subtly vilified daily, and young people of colour more so. Selfies are the snap of choice for many youngsters and Which Picture Would They Use is populated with dozens. This Tumblr shows that young millennials are savvy, canny, funny and more visually literate than us older folk. It shows that they’re totally hip to the media’s rating games. It’s a political engaged use of selfies and Tumblr’s “Like-culture.”

Which Picture Would They Use is a off-the-cuff (off-the-camera) stick in the eye to an ambivalent media. It doesn’t take much time, but the crowdsourced results are striking. Some might say youth might have been primed for this discussion (and controlled anger) following the politics surrounding the images of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman used in the media. But that would be glib. I would say each of the Which Picture Would They Use contributors are responding to years of experience and observations.

Which Picture Would They Use puts to bed the “conversations” about hoodies and the associated issues — race; presentation of the self; perceived dis/respect for adult America; generation gaps; and popular culture.

Hoodie or not, sports team colours or not, cross-dressing, swimwear or military fatigues, it doesn’t matter. Which Picture Would They Use demonstrates that we’re all combinations of many different traits and our personalities are not fixed. It is ludicrous to reduce a person to a single reading based upon the appearance of a dominant (most widely-circulated) image.

The young black Americans submitting to Which Picture Would They Use know Michael Brown had already been judged by a portion of America and know the remainder would judge (even if unconsciously) based upon the media’s choice of images.


Aug 12 – dbtvcampaign: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown which pic would they use? Thank you @labeledmisfit_ for Helping @dbtv13 shine light on the tragic shooting of 18yr old UNARMED Mike Brown, shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. (Instagram)


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