“If the military chose to, they could zoom in and read what you’re writing now,” says Diane Dufour as I scribble in my notebook. The curator of a new exhibition on photographic evidence is explaining the precision of satellite images. Yet, she says, what the rest of us see is much blurrier.
Just opened at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, the exhibition Burden of Proof explores how forensic experts have used photographs and video to investigate crimes and acts of violence. One project is particularly chilling, making visible a form of warfare that often remains hidden. In March 2012, the aftermath of a drone strike in a Pakistani frontier region was filmed for just 22 seconds. The footage was smuggled out of Miranshah to Islamabad, and was broadcast on MSNBC in June that year.
The video – rare in documenting a site destroyed by a drone strike – offers more than just images of rubble. What appears in the clip as a hole in the roof, possibly made by a missile, is too small to be seen on publically available satellite imagery. “When satellite images are used for military purposes, they are incredibly precise,” Dufour tells me. “But when they are released to Google Earth and used for civilian purposes, they are degraded. A pixel represents half a metre by half a metre of ground. So that hole in the roof is nothing more than a darkened pixel.”
Eye in the sky
“Drone strikes are executed at a significantly higher resolution than that of satellite photographs of the kind the NGOs or the UN use to monitor attacks,” writes Weizman. “This inverts one of the foundational principles of forensics since the 19th Century, namely that to resolve a crime the police should be able to see more, using better optics, than the perpetrator of the crime.”
Burden of Proof reveals the techniques that investigators have used to see crime scenes more clearly since the early 20th Century. “From the moment the first daguerreotypes were made, photography entered the courtroom,” says Dufour. “Those early judges, evaluating it as evidence, were asking the same questions that are being asked now.”
The exhibition ranges from photos of crime scenes taken in 1903 to the video of drone strike damage more than a century later. Some of the images are shocking – showing the corpses of murder victims from what Dufour calls a “divine point of view”, a technique developed by Alphonse Bertillon – while others, on the surface, are more banal.
A keen photographer, Reiss applied his knowledge of cameras to the recording of fingerprints, footprints and traces of blood. He discovered that clues imperceptible to the naked eye – such as bloodstains on a washed handkerchief – could appear during the printing process. Reiss called it “the photography of the invisible”. Aiming to create “a permanent reconstruction of the scene” long after it had been cleaned up, he believed his images could reveal details overlooked during the investigation. He described photography as “humanity’s artificial memory”. Photography’s ability to expose crimes years after they occurred is a theme in Burden of Proof. Polish photographer Tomasz Kizny has collected mug shots of prisoners executed under Stalin between 1937 and 1938, during what has become known as ‘the Great Terror’. They appear in the exhibition as a slide show, the faces of students, factory workers and nurses – some frowning, some defiant, some half-smiling. Many of the photographs were taken on the day of execution.
One of the exhibits at Burden of Proof shows perpetrators directly confronting their crimes. At the Nuremberg hearing on 29 November 1945, 21 Nazi war criminals watched a film projected onto a screen in the centre of a courtroom. In the footage – labelled ‘Nazi Concentration Camps’ – Hollywood director John Ford and a team of cameramen documented what Allied forces found at Dachau under a strict set of protocols aimed at proving their veracity.