A Discussion of the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Scene of the Crime Photographic Archive
by Siún Hanrahan
Issue 18 Spring 1999
View Contents ▸
View photographs from: Assault - H3963 / 96 ▸
View photographs from: Armed Robbery - H2208 / 93 ▸
Despite its absence from view, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) scene-of-the-crime photographic archive is hugely significant. This significance is threefold. The archive is massive; although the photographs from the scene of a crime are destroyed after five years, the negatives are kept. The archive is a profound historical record; it depicts three decades of violent conflict - our 'troubles' - in horrific detail. The archive is a container for this trouble; it holds in store for us that which cannot yet be admitted as central to our community.
All told, this archive warrants attention. It seldom occurs to us that this archive exists and yet - if we stop to think - we know that it must be there. I was given permission to spend time looking through the RUC's scene-of-the-crime photographic archive and to speak to the officers responsible for it. In this archive nearly every violent incident attributable to the conflict of the last three decades is recorded in meticulous detail. Looking at these photographs offers the possibility of bearing witness to these atrocities. What is gained is an intense and forceful understanding of the horrors 'the troubles' have inflicted physically and emotionally on our community. And yet it is photographs that are remarkable in their matter-of-fact coldness that bring about this intense understanding. The photographs in this archive are not taken to prompt empathy. They are taken as part of a process of redress.
The scene of a crime is witness to a story. Equipped with the investigating officer's hypothesis as to how that story might have unfolded the police photographer takes photographs that will record and tell that story. To be persuasive the photographic narratives of the police must be detailed and, crucially, 'objective'. Cultivating this aura of objectivity makes particular compositional and 'production value' demands. The prints should look professional but not too expensive. They should be sharply focused, relatively evenly lit, free of distractions (such as police officers), and 'all vertical lines of the picture should be upright and not converge in the print'. They should not look expensive because 'neutrality' may be compromised if jurors believe that the presentation is being over done.
The photographs of the scene are arranged one after another in books in such a way as to 'walk you through the scene'. That is, supported by a detailed plan to scale of the scene, the books seek to convey to the viewer the same information and impression they would have received if they had directly observed the scene. Although the series of photographs published here are edited versions of the evidence books they came from the format and continuity of those books has been maintained. The H3963/96 photographs, for example, conduct the viewer through a small semi-detached house following in the wake of the devastation wreaked upon the house by the assault of at least one of its occupants. Individually, none of the photographs conveys the full nature of the incident it is their concatenation that implies a sustained and violent beating.
The police do not claim that their photographs show the scene as it was at the time of the incident; rather, that they show the scene as found by those investigating the crime. (Indeed, the police are required to testify to this effect.) This caution is due to the period of time unaccounted for between the incident and the sealing of the scene. Nonetheless, the photographs are presented as a faithful representation of the scene found by the police. A one-to-one correspondence is supposed to hold between objects and photograph so that, as an aid to evidence, the photograph is treated as if it were identical with reality.
As has been widely argued, however, the indexical nature of the photograph its one-to-one correspondence with the object represented guarantees 'nothing at the level of meaning'. The way a photograph is read depends on conventions of interpretation and on the authority of those using it and guaranteeing its authenticity. It is only within the institutional framework of the judicial system that scene-of-the-crime photographs - photographs that impose a particular coherence upon a scene - can stand as evidence. The photographs alone are not sufficient. The judicial discourse in which they are embedded designates the correct approach to the photographs so as to quicken and constrain the viewer's understanding of them.
The image of leaves reproduced here is an interesting example of the tension regarding the meaning of a photograph that is overcome by being embedded in judicial discourse. This image is from a glass slide that was found in a box along with a host of other slides whose reference is no longer clear. At first sight it could be a kind of surrealist collage in which leaves and a picture of a woman's legs are stuck on some kind of trellis. Closer examination reveals that it is a photograph of wallpaper and that the woman's legs are actually stalks. Such a close-up view of common wallpaper could belong to an established tradition of 'making strange'. Understood in these terms, the fingerprint discernible on the image would most probably be due to careless handling of the glass slide. However the judicial context short-circuits these possibilities. The point can hardly be the wallpaper it must be the fingerprint.
As legal photographs, scene-of-the-crime pictures are used to inform or persuade people in a courtroom about a sequence of events. In looking at these photographs the intended viewers - the police, legal representatives and a jury - seek to pass judgement on a crime. Our looking does not do likewise. Looking through the photographic scene-of-the-crime archive we 'outsiders' simply bear witness to the photographs themselves. But, any photograph has multiple meanings. A photograph is an invitation to deduction, speculation and fantasy, and no matter how specific the meaning constructed for a photograph in its original context, a 'final closure' cannot be imposed. Given this, our looking at, and displacement of, police scene-of-the-crime photographs means that their meaning is destabilised.
Take the 48th photograph of the H2208 series, for example. In the context of judicial discourse, and the series of images of which it is a part, this gun is the weapon of an armed robber. If it was fired it may be definitively linked with other photographs in the series. However, this image easily eludes these constraints upon its meaning. It is a seductive image. Given the uniform colour of the photograph, the tarmac upon which the gun rests functions as a textured backdrop for the steel of its barrel and chamber, and the shininess of its hammer and trigger. The way in which the gun is centred in the photograph gives us no sense of it as having been thrown away. This could be an advertisement for a Quentin Tarantino film - signalling a complex, perverse and glamorous violence.
There was considerable wariness on the part of a senior RUC photographer in response to this destabilisation. Against the possibility that looking through this record of 'the troubles' could bear witness to its victims was set the possibility that any changes in meaning effected by our looking might constitute a betrayal of 'permission', particularly where the crime involved someone's death. Although the dead body is often portrayed in the media, the photojournalist's distance generally complies with society's boundaries regarding public and private. The closeness reflected in the police record falls into the realm of the private. The police get to be alone with the person, to witness fully the exposure, vulnerability and, frequently, the humiliation of the person's death. Their presence even takes precedence over that of the person's family in the first few hours following death. This intimacy is, in a way, permitted by society (and tolerated by the family) on behalf of its dead member because its purpose is to help. The police photographic record is thus a private transaction between the state and the individual; intended to bear witness to the crime and to aid redress.
Griselda Pollock has observed in relation to representation in general that what is at stake in the 'look' we bring to bear is 'not so much a matter of what is shown as it is of who is authorised to look at whom with what effects'. In a similar vein, anxiety over our looking at the RUC's scene-of-the-crime photographs arises primarily in relation to murder inquiries and rests on the effect of that look. On whether it exposes the photographs (and the people therein) to a kind of 'crude voyeurism' or to a reasonable desire to understand and bear witness.
As presented in a scene-of-the-crime photograph book, the body is not differentiated from other key aspects of the scene. It is not dwelt on more than is necessary to record its situation, a fact that lessens the violence of the photographic intrusion. In a book of over 29 photographs presenting the scene of a murder, for example, only two of these depicted the victim's body. Outside of this context, however, a viewer may choose 'to foreground gruesome spectacle over plot' and so dwell voyeuristically on the sight of another's death.
Properly used, the term 'voyeurism' designates a specific type of sexual behaviour but the term is also used more loosely to refer to a prurient or distasteful kind of curiosity. Loosely speaking to be a voyeur is to be excited or attracted by what are generally considered to be unacceptable stimulating conditions. Unabashed gazing at the misery of others is socially unacceptable, even where that misery is accessed through photographs, and thus implicates the viewer in a voyeurism of sorts.
Indeed, the simple fact of our intrusion upon private transactions between the state and particular individuals raises the question of voyeurism. The excitement of the voyeur depends upon the observed person not being aware of their being observed. Thus the fact that the voyeur does not have permission to look is central to the experience of excitement. In relation to a crime scene, taking and looking at intimate images of a person's death is permitted as part of the process of legal redress. But our looking at these images does not belong to this context and thus is not simply permitted and consequently is not simply immune to the charge of voyeurism.
Issues of control arising in relation to looking at photographs of another person's pain also raise the question of voyeurism. Some psychoanalytic theories identify the fantasy of control over what is viewed as an important aspect of this behaviour. Firstly, just as the dead subjects were powerless against the intrusion of the police photographer's camera, so they cannot refuse our look. Once we lay our hands on a photograph we can look at it as much as we like and in whatever way we like. Secondly, as Michael Lesy writes, 'the - mixed - pleasure of looking at all this suffering is that none of it is ours'. Instead, empathising with the sufferer and imagining ourselves into the scene, we can experience a little of the fear of death, and then experience anew the joy of being alive and unafraid. Thus 'death' is experienced in a way that - being neither dead nor grieving - allows us to feel in control. It is on grounds such as these that the RUC and indeed the people whose suffering is represented might be uneasy about who is looking through this archive. But, seeking control in relation to events is not inherently unhealthy; it is only when a person seeks total control not only over the self but also over others that it qualifies as injurious.
In Poetics, Aristotle suggests that we look at the most exact portrayals of things we do not like to see in real life - for instance corpses - because we want to understand. To seek to understand death - by looking, by touching - is to be human. We live in the knowledge of our ultimate death; in the knowledge that 'dust we are and unto dust we shall return' or that 'in the midst of life we are in death'. Our innate interest in death and the dead body is evident in the elaborate construction of many prehistoric graves and in our endless elaboration of fertility myths seeking to make sense of the cycle of life and death - to reveal their interdependence. Thus, photographs of death are compelling; they help us to explore what death will mean.
On another level, it is important to explore what it means for our society that this photographic archive exists, given that the horrific crimes against humanity that have marked the conflict in Northern Ireland are such a significant part of it. Many people in Northern Ireland (and indeed in The Republic of Ireland and Great Britain) have coped with the terror of what has happened and is happening here by closing their eyes and refusing to acknowledge that it has anything to do with them. This defence mechanism seems to involve both 'splitting' and 'projection'; that is, it entails dividing one's experience into differentiated elements and then locating unwanted elements in others rather than in oneself. Looking through the RUC's photographic archive it seemed that in Northern Ireland a large part of the responsibility for carrying or holding our unwanted experiences is located in the archive and in those who compile it. We have lived through many brutal murders but it is another and more difficult thing to live with this horror - to look at it and know that it is ours. For the violence to have continued for so long it must, at some level, reflect the wishes of the community. The combatants on all sides are not abnormal people - they are the same as 'us' - and on some level they are acting in our name and with our collusion. This is unpalatable and yet to be truly 'civilised' - to move away from barbarity - we need to confront it. Looking at and reflecting on the police photographic archive can play a part in this process.
Other articles by Siún Hanrahan:
Issue 23: The Place of Photography in (an Irish) Commercial Art Gallery [Feature] ▸