Framing reality - Spotlight on police forensic photographers
Two forensic photographers – a newcomer and an old hand – tell Kelly Quill about police work behind the lens.
Swallowing her fears, Constable Jane Gowans (pictured) steps carefully into the middle of a crime scene. There’s blood pooled on the floor and more splattered on the walls. It’s the result of a man being viciously attacked with a vodka bottle. She takes a breath, focuses and starts to photograph the room. Click. Click. Click.
A relative newcomer to Wellington’s forensic photography section, Jane recalls her first proper photographic job with a tinge of embarrassment. Having pestered the section sergeant for a relieving position, when she finally got one, she was called out to the scene of the nasty assault on just her third day.
“I was so nervous I’d miss something, and wanted to be thorough, so I ended up taking 800 photos.” Laughing, she adds: “The crime scene was just one bedroom.” Now, she says, she would take maybe only a quarter of that number.
Having started just over a year ago, Jane has already been to many homicides, serious crashes and violent assaults and has spent a lot of time in the mortuary taking photos of post-mortem examinations.
Fortunately, she already had some idea of what might be involved in that side of things, having worked on victim identification after the 2012 Carterton balloon crash that killed 11 people.
That scene took a long time to process, she says, and she learnt then that forensic photographers have to be extremely patient. They may be the first past the police cordon, but they can also be among the last to leave. In evidential cases, especially, she says, the photographers must work methodically and be extremely detail-oriented. Being a bit obsessive-compulsive, as she is, is a plus in this job.
Unlike other areas of photography, where the camera might be used to create artistic compositions that appeal to people’s emotions, forensic photographers must record only the physical evidence and as authentically as possible.
They must consider the angle, lighting, composition and perspective of what they’re shooting, aware of any factors that might misrepresent the subject and potentially affect the outcome of a court case. In many instances, such as working with luminol (a chemical that detects traces of blood) at a homicide, you only get one opportunity, Jane says.
Creative approaches are required, however, for some jobs, such as having to climb into the ceiling to take a photo looking down on a scene or finding a way to accurately photograph an item lodged under a seat.
Above: Jane Gowans, centre, takes part in ESR training for photographing footprints with fellow photographers Ivan Penrose, left, and Chris Thompson, second left, and ESR's Mark Connor.
“We learn on every job, even those that may seem boring and basic,” says Sergeant Rob Walker, a Palmerston North-based Police photographer with 25 years’ experience.
Although most of their work comes through the Criminal Investigation Branch, the photographers provide a service for everyone, Jane says, photographing exhibits (eg, drugs and stolen property), recording identifying features on offenders, such as tattoos, and photographing the injuries of assault victims.
Then there is the computer work that comes with the digital age: enhancing, but not manipulating, photos; editing video footage from scene walk-throughs and interviews; converting CCTV footage so it can be played in court; preparing proof books for court; and downloading cellphone data.
The advent of iPhones on the frontline has been a mixed blessing from the photographers’ viewpoint. Jane concedes that there is a time and place for using phone cameras, but says they can’t replace the expertise and equipment of a trained photographer. For example, evidential pictures shouldn’t be taken on an iPhone. Rob agrees: “It’s a matter of people knowing their limits and the limits of phone technology. I wouldn’t take a statement from someone if I didn’t know what I was doing.”
As resources become stretched, however, standards are sometimes compromised. Recently, Rob’s department’s on-call hours have been cut, meaning some fatal road accidents aren’t being recorded the way they should be, he says. “It’s tricky enough getting good night-time photos when you’ve got the experience and equipment, so there’s no way it’s going to happen with a point-and-shoot camera or phone,” he says.
Forensic photographers can attend several death scenes each month, far more than a frontline officer will usually experience, as well as making frequent trips to the mortuary. Rob says the crime scenes themselves are usually fine, but it’s the repeated exposure that can be unsettling.
From the initial photographing of a scene and processing the images, to preparing proof books and court books, a photographer might be exposed to one scene several times over months, or even – as was the case with the Lundy murders – years.
It can take a toll, emotionally, so photographers are required to meet a Police- appointed psychologist every three months.
Rob says he knows he’s had a good three months if he’s on his way to his appointment and finds himself racking his brain for something to talk about. “On the other hand, if I’m bursting to tell her stuff, I must’ve had a really intense three months.”
The photographers talk among themselves too, supporting each other day to day. Jane says that during the rough times she keeps things in perspective by reminding herself that she’s there to get the best photos and evidence for the victims and their families.
“By taking the best photos I can, I’m looking after their wellbeing going forward.”
For Rob, it’s important to compartmentalise and, in cases where he is identifying victims, such as after the Christchurch earthquakes, to remember that it’s about getting people back to their families.
Despite the solemn nature of the work, there’s low staff turnover in the photography section and openings don’t come up that often. Rob says it’s an area where people find their niche. “There’s a huge amount of variety, allowing you to get your hand in the pie of all the major stuff without carrying all the files and paperwork a detective does.”
Jane loves the people side of it. “You get to meet and work alongside different people from around the district and get a glimpse into people’s personal lives, so it’s the perfect job for a people person. You have to be able to handle death, though. If you can’t deal with death, forensic photography’s not for you.”
For officers considering joining the team, Rob recommends fully experiencing everything they want to as a frontline officer before taking the leap. There are fewer than 50 positions nationwide and, chances are, once you get in, you won’t go back.
“There’s a trade-off for being able to get involved in all these cases. So make sure you do all those car chases first – that’s what I miss,” he says.
Above: Police photographer Tracey McCarthy during disaster victim identification work after the Christchurch earthquakes.
Top photo: Constable Jane Gowans of the Wellington Central Police forensic photography team. Photo: FIONA FOXALL/NZ POLICE