“Researchers are bringing the image to the status of evidence,” curator Diane Dufour tells us at the start of this hard-hitting exhibition, Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence. Across 100 years of war, murder and other similarly pleasant human activities, these photographs investigate how forensic experts capture and display visual evidence, while honing in on an all-important factor: how that imagery retains an air of reliability, even today.

“We are not questioning historical context of the case, nor whether the case was judged in a good or bad way, and we are not judging whether the person convicted was guilty. We are questioning the role of the forensic expert to present images as evidence.”

Throughout the eleven case studies of forensic visual evidence, the question is clear: what is the actual objectivity and precision of forensic photography? The Burden of Proof delves into the subject over its historical development and in diverse forms.

For example, Alphonse Bertillon’s metric photography from the early 20th century shows the innovation of the forensic photographer [image 3 above]. His “overhead” representations of crime scenes arrived after the wider recognition of witness bias and would foreshadow today’s 3-D recreations. Similarly, the chemist Rodolphe A. Reiss’ “Traces, Marks and Prints” show the scientific approach to forensic photography. By capturing the minute details of a crime scene, Reiss looked to uncover all which might otherwise go unnoticed. “The camera sees and records everything,” was his undying interpretation.

In the realm of war, we see both new and old methods in a fresh light. Historically, in ”War Seen From Above,” the value of pioneering birds-eye-view photography is established for reviewing bomb-sites after attacks in 1914 Britain. The “Gaza Book of Destruction” and the “Drone Strike in Miransah” reveal the role of evidence in modern warfare. The former explains the importance of information behind imagery, with each entry containing data on the size of building and damaging artillery used. The latter showcases the invention of satellite-image stitching, which is used to produce proof of drone strikes in otherwise media-lacking areas.

But even photographic evidence—so cut and dry, seemingly—can prove ambiguous. InGreat Terror in the USSR,” we are presented with the portraits of executed Soviets. These highlight the changing nature of visual interpretation: while the images were once used to sentence convicted “wrongdoers” to death, they now capture evidence of a sickening crime against humanity.

In an era where images are circulated en masse and with endlessly varied ramifications, Burden of Proof provides an enlightening insight into the various functions of photography in its almost antiquated, but still widely held documentary role. Perhaps in the world of art, photography has long passed on from debates about truth, but in many realms, we are reminded that photography has played and will continue to serve a powerfully applied role in the questions of what “really” happened out in the world.

—Ben Dickenson Bampton


Editors’ Note: The exhibition ”Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence” will be showing at The Photographers’ Gallery in London until January 10, 2016. The exhibition was co-produced by LE BAL, in Paris, The Photographers’ Gallery, in London and the Nederlands Fotomuseum, in Rotterdam.