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Body Worn Video Steering Group

Why Do We Distrust Photographic Evidence?

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“We can never really claim to have seen anything unless it has been photographed.” — Émile Zola, c. 1901, Minutes of the Camera Club of Paris

Tichborne, Body Camera,

Roger Tichborne was sick of the rural English country life in Hampshire, and like many well-to-do young men of his day decided to fill this void through travel. Heir to the Tichborne family fortune, he was presumed to have died in a shipwreck in 1854.

What follows is one of the most captivating and longest recorded criminal legal cases in British history and often referred to as a cause célèbre, defined by it’s use of a new technology – photography.

In a time where the workings and processes of photography was knowledge limited to only a few, it was entirely possible to fool an unwitting individual as to what an image depicts. Famous pictures from séances featuring ectoplasm coming from clairvoyants seemed like a very real phenomena, and as we’ve been told: “the camera never lies”.

Janet Vertesi is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, and referred to the Tichborne case, which is the focus of Historian Jennifer Tucker‘s study ‘Identity after Photography: The Great Tichborne Trial in the Victorian Visual Imagination’, in order to draw attention to the point “cameras were impassive observers and therefore trustworthy recorders of objective evidence”, although “everyone also knew that photographs could lie”; specifically arguing the same to be true of body cameras.

In 1866 a butcher known as Thomas Castro from Wagga Wagga, Australia, came forward claiming to be Roger Tichborne. Although his manners and bearing were unrefined, he gathered support and travelled to England. He was instantly accepted by Lady Tichborne as her son, although other family members were dismissive and sought to expose him as an impostor.

The Tichborne trial judges, left to right: Sir John Mellor; Sir Alexander Cockburn; Sir Robert Lush

In an age when forensic science was in its infancy, passports were not always required, and very few people owned any form of personal documentation, the case hinged on the difficulty of proving identity in a court of law, and was pivotal in the debate surrounding the value of photographic evidence in such proceedings.

The country was divided, with the Establishment opposing the Claimant but many ordinary people supporting a man who they regarded as being deprived of his rightful inheritance; at one point it was feared that the case might even cause a revolution or civil war.

Vertesi is concerned that body camera footage does not “speak for itself”, and is open to interpretation depending on which side of the argument you represent. Protests which have sprung up in America through 2014/2015 reflect this idea, with citizens opposed to secret grand juries taking place when death is the result of a police interaction.

For example, Vertesi nods to UCLA professor Charles Goodwin, who describes how “lawyers for and against King’s case interpreted the video for the jury in very different ways. When King jerked on the ground in apparent response to the beating, the LAPD expert witnesses described his movements as continued aggression and resisting arrest. It was no longer a slam-dunk case.”

Tucker writes in her book-length study on the Tichborne case “…Although photographs were ready to be comprehended, the reality was far from different. Witnesses ranging from jurors to judges to photographic experts frequently disagreed over what the photographs showed, and in the middle of the trial a judge impugned the ethics of a photographer hired by the defence.”

After the trial, a supporter for the claimant tried to show how Roger Tichborne and Castro were one and the same -based on the belief that the diameter of an individuals eye remained the same over the course of an adult lifetime, using a grid to illustrate this point.

Roger Tichborne Hampshire Photography Body Camera

The blended image (centre) was said by the Claimant’s supporters to prove that Roger Tichborne (left, in 1853) and the Claimant (right, in 1874) were one and the same person.

“This is problematic when images are supposed to provide evidence that speaks for itself” says Vertesi,  “further, when there are power differences between the groups who offer these competing interpretations, there are real-world implications for justice.” Nobody is quite sure whether Castro really was Roger Tichborne, and to many the above seemed to indicate he was, and also he wasn’t.

In today’s day and age it is easy to look back and laugh at something as ‘scientific’ as the image comparison above, and our appreciation of photography and the ability to capture images of people has advanced incredibly in just the last 10 years alone. Body cameras may not be perfect, but do exactly as they are intended – to assist and enhance the work men and women around the world, and provide evidence.

If you can imagine  Jennifer Tucker‘s book ‘Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science’ if written 100 years from now, how would body-worn video cameras fare when looked at through the scope of a century of technological development?

Ferguson et al show a demand for police to have body cameras and that although images are open to interpretation, and when coupled with training on best methods to enhance the value of using a body camera they are invaluable.

So what happened with the Tichborne case?  Lord Bellew, who had known Roger Tichborne during schooling days at Stonyhurst, testified that Roger had distinctive body tattoos which the Claimant did not possess.

Soon after the jury notified the judge that they had heard enough and were ready to reject the Claimant’s suit. Having ascertained that this decision was based on the evidence as a whole and not solely on the missing tattoos.

Strangely enough the county home to the Tichborne case seems to be just as involved with photographic evidence, with Hampshire now being home to one of the largest body-camera programs in the UK, paving the way for many constabularies up and down the country.

As one Victorian photographic expert said: “No art is so frequently treated with contempt and contumely”, yet “none more blindly and unreasoningly admired or trusted.”

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