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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Writers Prize - Smile Though Your Heart is Aching - Forensic Identification, Death and Smiling for a Photograph - by Xaver Könneker. Posted: Fri 21 Jul 2023.

WRITERS PRIZE: 21 / JUL / 2023
Forensic Identification, Death and Smiling for a Photograph
by Xaver Könneker

Before Carole’s smile became an object of study to be forensically examined in a mortuary, she lay dead in her English council estate apartment for over two years. Her body was slowly withering away in front of the flickering lights of a television that was left running the whole time. It was an automated payment system that, on behalf of benefit agencies, transferred half of her rent every month to the Metropolitan Housing Trust, leading officials to believe that she was still alive.(1) It reminds me of the life support you find at hospitals, the algorithmic mechanics of the automated payment system taking the role of the tubes and machines that are hooked up to a dying patient to artificially keep them alive, but in this scenario, the patient is already dead and what is being maintained is merely the illusion of life, the vital signs of the body no longer the pulsations of a beating heart nor the inhalations and exhalations of a breathing lung but instead the periodic payment of rent due. But the payment systems were only paying half of her rent and therefore, the passing of time also meant the accumulation of debt and so over two years £2,400£ in unpaid rent accrued. She was eventually discovered by bailiffs sent by the housing trust to repossess her belongings. Her remains were too badly decomposed to conduct a full post-mortem and thus, in order to identify her body a forensic odontologist had to consult a holiday photograph of her smiling.(2)

Forensic odontology, a forensic practice that revolves around the identification of deceased persons, radically reconfigures our conception of the smile. In cases where human bodies are found carbonized, skeletonized, or in the process of decomposition, a forensic odontologist will request the dental records of the deceased person to be identified. However, when no dental records can be provided, the odontologist seeks from the deceased person's friends and family members photographs of them smiling.(3) These photographs are then compared to the dental remains of the unidentified body But why do odontologists seek the photographed smiles of missing loved ones? This is because the smile hints at what lies beneath our skin. Foreshadowing the way of all flesh, the act of smiling uncovers "that what remains"; our teeth. The siblings of bones. Our material trace once flesh fades. Smiling reveals the only visible part of the skeleton while we are alive. A photograph of a smile is simultaneously documentation of our skeleton. It is this fact that turns the expression of joy into forensic evidence. From photographs of smiles, the forensic odontologist derives dental angulations, dental positions, teeth size, and dental anomalies. This information is then compared to the dental remains of the unidentified body. If the dentition in the photograph matches the dental remains, the identity of the body is confirmed. Like fingerprints, our smiles uncover our identity. To view a smile forensically is to see death in its details. With this, the smiles in our family archives contort from expressions of life into markers of death.

With DNA identification, a sample is extracted from the deceased person’s body and compared to the DNA of a biological relative, if they match, the identity of the body is confirmed. In the context of forensic odontology, the photographed smile takes the role akin to that of the biological relative. The identity of the body is completely contingent on the photograph. Only if the dental structures of the body matches with the smile depicted on the photograph does the deceased person gain an identity. The photograph resurrects the deceased person from obscurity. It is through the photograph that they re-acquire their name and their biography, shedding the status as an ‘unidentified body’ and are once again designated a self. In photographic discourse, it is often stated that the self is continuously being mediated by photographs in the sense that they are a procedure for self-knowledge, enabling and framing the ways in which we reflect on ourselves and our relationship to the world. Forensic odontology brings the argument of the photograph as a procedure of self-knowledge to its most literal conclusion. The knowledge of whose self a body belongs to depends completely on the photograph. Without it the body can not be designated an identity and thus, merely remains a body; without a name, without a history, without a self. The photographed smile turns the body into somebody.

1. Woman's body in bedsit for years. (2006, April 14). Retrieved from:

2. Body of woman left to rot in her flat for two years. (2006, April 14). Retrieved from:

3. Silva, R., & Prado, F. (2008). Forensic Odontology Identification Using Smile Photograph Analysis - Case Reports.

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