Lara Prendergast Lara Prendergast

Unreliable evidence

Photography was once considered an impartial device to investigate crime. Now it’s being used to commit it, as this deliciously macabre Photographers’ Gallery exhibition shows

I hadn’t really thought much about pixels before, despite spending a large portion of my day looking at them. After all, a pixel is just a tiny unit in a digital image, and we all tend to look at the bigger picture. But how about this: this humble unit has now become a key feature of drone warfare. Drone-fired missiles have reportedly been developed that can burrow through targeted buildings, and leave a hole that appears smaller than a pixel on publicly available satellite images. This means that drone strikes are often invisible to groups who try to monitor attacks, such as NGOs or the UN.

As Eyal Weizman, an expert in ‘forensic architecture’, puts it: ‘One of the foundational principles of forensics since the 19th century has been inverted: to resolve a crime the police should be able to see more, use better optics, than the perpetrator of the crime. Here, it is the state agencies that do the killing and the independent organisations the forensics. The differential in visual capacity to see is the space of denial.’

I now can’t stop thinking about pixels, and it’s all thanks to a small and intriguing exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery called Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence. It sets out to examine the ability of photographic images to document violent, criminal acts, and uses 11 diverse case studies from the past 100 years to ask questions about whether photographs can ever convey objective truth.

In the early 20th century, when photography was in its nascent state, it was considered an impartial technique for investigation. Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer and biometrics researcher, developed a protocol for its use in criminal investigations, which became known as ‘metric photography’.

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