A photograph doesn’t necessarily document the truth, it captures a brief moment in time. What happened in that moment, not to mention before and after it, is always subject to some debate. Nowhere is this more true than in crime scene photography and its role in criminal investigations.

That’s one of the most interesting themes explored in Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence at the Photographer’s Gallery. Its curator presents 11 fascinating examples of photographs offered as evidence of a crime. They span the history of the medium, from Alphonse Bertillon’s early 20th century photographs of homicide victim in France to recent footage of a drone strike in Pakistan.

Crime photography dates soon after the birth of photography, and Alphonse Bertillon developed the first methodical system for documenting a crime scene in 1903. Bertillon fitted his large format camera with a wide angle lens and placed it on a tripod directly over the body. Then he pasted the high-resolution images on a grid that allowed prosecutors to replicate the scene in court. “[The photographs] look almost surrealistic, because you’ve got these bodies almost floating in the middle of this image with a crime scene around them,” says Clare Grafik head of exhibitions at the gallery.

His contemporary, Rodolphe A. Reiss, broke things down even further. He started with an establishing shot of the building or location where the crime occurred. Then he’d move in closer and closer, eventually capturing fingerprints, footprints and blood. His intense scrutiny foreshadowed the intense scrutiny and methodical observation now common in criminal investigations.

But people soon realized a photograph is not, in and of itself, evidence and needed validation by an expert who could interpret what was seen. During World War I, for example, France used aerial photographs to map and document bombing campaigns. But it took some skill to determine viable targets—machine gun nests, bunkers, that sort of thing—from harmless landmarks like tree stumps and caves.

There also was the question of how to present those photographs. During the Nuremberg trials, prosecutor Robert H. Jackson offered the hour-long film Nazi Concentration Camps to support the indictment of 21 Nazi officials. He had bailiffs arrange the courtroom like a cinema, placing the screen at the center of the wall and illuminating the defendants’ faces with soft lighting so jurors might observe their reactions. “The emphasis was almost as much on how the perpetrators looked at the film as much as the film itself,” Grafik says.

It’s a paradox that many of the show’s images are strangely striking even if the crimes they represent are horrifying. Joseph Stalin had at least 750,000 executed between 1937 and 1938. A photographer made a portrait before each execution, shooting the condemned from the front and the side—something the Khmer Rouge did, too. The images are a chilling catalog of a dictator’s brutality, and are still powerful photographs all these years later. “They have an incredible intensity to them,” Grafik says, “and they also feel incredibly contemporary, because a lot of contemporary portraiture also uses that very spare, front-facing format.”

Grafik hopes the exhibit prompts deeper thought about the role of photography and filmmaking in revealing the truth. “[The show] is very much about work that is attempting to rid itself of an author and be an instrument, rather than an end in itself, and that’s what’s very interesting about photography as a medium,” she says. “There is this kind of utility to the image, which doesn’t exist in other artforms.”

Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence runs at the Photographers’ Gallery in London through Jan. 10, 2016.


The Grisly, Fascinating History of Crime Photography