Leiden Law Blog

Guilty by reason of imagery

Guilty by reason of imagery Source: Volkskrant
Imagery produced and presented in the criminal justice system contains information of what has happened; when, where, why, how and with what means it happened; to whom it happened and who made it happen. A diagram illustrates how a car crash (probably) happened. A photograph of a victim’s injuries provides evidence. A 3D-animation persuades a jury (or judge) that the scenario shown represents reality.

Imagery can suggest that someone is guilty. For example: a suspect is identified when his face is compared to the stills of a surveillance camera. Or an expert witness shows the DNA profiles of the DNA of a suspect and the DNA found on the murder weapon.

All these kinds of images are produced, collected and presented in different stages of forensic investigation and the administration of criminal justice. Also, these kind of images are published in other media. Similar codes and conventions are used in fiction, or in journalism.

Content and format

When analyzing images, the content and form or format are often distinguished. The content, what the image shows and what it communicates, monitors the various elements of the image: what there is to see. For the format of an image, how the image is produced and presented, the equipment, production techniques and technological aspects are important. The format bares a reflection on the way in which the content is presented and determines the boundaries for the content. A drawing of a suspect does not show exactly the same as a photograph of the same suspect. Let’s look at an example of how the format itself relates to our ideas of authenticity and guilt. The format itself may be even incriminating.

One example: four stills

Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published four stills taken from the screening of a television show. This Peter R. de Vries show presented the confession of Joran van der Sloot, who tells about the death of Natalee Holloway to a confederate of de Vries. The conversation was filmed with a hidden camera.

The four stills cover a large part of the front page, implicating the significance, together with the big headline that reads “Joran: suddenly she didn’t do anything anymore”. Due to the layout, the four stills are read from left to right, starting with the upper two. Like when reading a cartoon, these four images are read as if they are placed in chronological order and nothing has happened in between.
All stills show “hidden camera” in the top right left corner. Also, Dutch subtitles are shown, suggesting that what is being said at that particular moment is accurately represented by the verbal text.

The “hidden camera”, the technical quality of the images, its somewhat grainy, smudgy look play with the codes and conventions of a handheld camera documentary style. Like images from surveillance and amateur (mobile phone) cameras do as well. All this suggests these images are authentic and true. The non-esthetical features suggest that the visuals are the result of the simple (spontaneous) filming of reality, without any professional montage and image manipulation. The sheer format, the technical quality represent the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Guilty by reason of imagery

And what about the photograph of yours truly, the author? Has blocking the eyes with a black rectangular, as is common in Dutch media, made me a suspect? If not (possibly) guilty, why else would the eyes be covered? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. I am guilty by reason of imagery.

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