June 29th, 2015
Images of Conviction at Le Bal, Paris
By Carole Naggar
Built on the site of a popular 1920s ballroom in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris, Le Bal is an innovative space dedicated to documentary photography and video. Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence, which opened on June 4, presents ten case studies that demonstrate how photography and video have functioned in the evidence of death: how were these protocols invented? How did they become legitimate? How were they applied in legal settings? This exhibition, conceived by Le Bal director Diane Dufour, offers viewers access to documents that had until now been either lost or overlooked. The following are a few examples of the ten case studies that appear in the exhibition.
Bertillon’s Metric Photography
Ten years after Alphonse Bertillon was appointed head of the Paris Préfecture de Police Photography Department in 1882, he developed a scientific means of recording crime scenes: metric photography. The photographs were taken using a wide-angle lens fitted on a camera that stood on a two-meter-high tripod, giving a precise representation of the crime scene that was not only useful for the police enquiry, but also for the judge and jurors during the trial. Bertillon thought that such photographs could be a powerful tool in the justice system: they would have an emotional effect on the accused, inciting him to confess his crime, and on the judges, giving them a sense of the atmosphere and all the details in a way that words alone could not address. All the elements of the scene were recorded: position of the body, situation of the weapons, of the objects and traces. Bertillon’s photographs form the base of modern criminal proceedings, which still use his methods, and are ancestors to contemporary 3-D reconstructions of crime scenes.
The Shroud of Turin
Secondo Pia, an amateur photographer, was the author of the first photographs of the Shroud of Turin as it was displayed in 1898. As he developed his photographs, he discovered on the picture negative an imprint of a face and body, which he thought were those of Christ. Strangely enough, face and body were positive imprints, as if the shroud itself, which has been dubbed “the first photograph of crime,” was the negative. This was the start of a long-lasting debate on the authenticity of the relic. In 1902, the biologist Paul Vignon published a detailed study of the photographs. In 1986, the shroud was tested with carbon 14 and the test revealed that the fabric only dated back to sometime between 1260 and 1390. Today the shroud still remains an object of veneration for the faithful, fascinated by the image and unconvinced by the scientific proof.
The Great Purge in the USSR 1937–38
Twenty years after the October Revolution, Joseph Stalin initiated a large-scale campaign of terror—the first genocide in history conceived by a state leader against his own people. Approximately 1.7 million people were arrested, and from August 1937 to November 1938, 750,000 people (one adult out of 100 in the Soviet Union) were executed after being tortured into confessing to crimes they had not committed. More than 700,000 were condemned to the gulag and would die in the following years. Le Bal’s exhibition includes portraits of those sentenced to death taken by the NKVD, the Soviet law enforcement agency, just moments before their execution. The mug shots followed the style inherited from Bertillon’s identification system. The same system was later used by the Khmer Rouge to photograph victims.
In 2008, Polish photographer Tomasz Kizny obtained permission to rephotograph 250 portraits directly from the NKVD files. These haunting photographs give back a face and a memory to innocent people that have been annihilated by a dictatorial regime.
Images of Conviction is on view at Le Bal, Paris, through August 30.
Carole Naggar has been a regular contributor to Aperture magazine since 1988.