Broader Picture: Scenes of the crimes?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
We all think we know what crime looks like. Blood on the carpet, the chalk outline of the body, the drugs in a plastic bag, the car smashed into a tree... we've seen it on television. Whether it's live ram-raiders and rioters on the News, or the macabre dramatisations of Crimewatch, or the fly's-eye-view of Law Woman, or the more stylised celebrations of Morse, Cracker and The Bill, crime of one kind or another makes up a big slice of our viewing diet.

The trouble is, programme-makers have little interest in presenting an accurate picture of everyday crime. They - and we - require drama. You would feel robbed if after two hours of Morse it turned out that nobody did it and nothing really happened. What we all want - potential jurors all - is a result; the nil-nil draws and abandoned matches of real life are too big a disappointment.

And so, after decades of televised malfeasance, the way we look at crime has undergone a crucial change. The images we are exposed to, lawyers believe, have conditioned us to expect the dramatic result, a conviction. Just as, thanks to television, juries will find much of the scenery in the courtroom familiar, so they will recognise the dramatic narrative of the prosecution script. They start out with the mindset of the armchair detective. Every piece of evidence, like every scene of a drama, is charged with menace - and, by implication, with guilt. A basic premise of our legal system, the assumption of innocence, has thus been reversed in our minds, because it's boring. "Someone must have done it," we think, "and that fellow isn't in the dock for nothing." Except that he might be. In real life, there are two possible scripts, two endings.

Photography might seem an unlikely way of correcting the balance, but many lawyers believe in it. Just as visual images have encouraged our prejudices, so they can be used to correct them. I took the photographs shown here between 1990 and 1996; they were commissioned by solicitors acting for the defence of persons charged with criminal offences in south London. They show the locus in quo, the legal term for the scene of the alleged crime, for various cases. They have been produced in crown and magistrates' courts as evidence to support the case for the defence.

Cameras can lie, of course, and proof in court is no science. It is what the jury believes to be true. What we believe we are seeing in a photograph depends on the context it is put in. This may be what we are told, or what we assume, the attitude we bring with us, dramatic or analytical. For the defence, a dramatic picture is rarely helpful. Focusing on the mundane but factual aspects of a crime scene can help dispel the illusion of drama.

A successful defence image is one that encourages the viewer to take a step off the path of the dramatic narrative to the dramatic conclusion, the conviction, and take another, oblique view of a witness's testimony. "Could you really identify someone that far away at night in those lighting conditions? Isn't that tree getting in the way of a clear view? Were you wearing glasses? When were your eyes last tested?" Perhaps someone else did it. Perhaps nobody did it. Did anything really happen here? Did the police just make it all up? A photograph can ask a question, quietly. It can say "Look at it another way." It can raise doubts about the dramatic narrative; and a reasonable doubt is reason enough to acquit.

Illuminated by these and other images, many juries have written the last scenes of dramas which began with accusations of burglary, rape, murder. In many cases, the pictures may have helped to acquit. Of course, the pictures don't prove one way or the other whether a crime occurred. And, seeing them here, you can infer nothing from them - except what they teach you about yourself. They show ordinary places. You know nothing of the circumstances; you haven't read the script. They are mundane, boring - innocent. Or do they strike you as sinister? If so, you are already on your way to convicting someone. Perhaps you have been watching too much television. !