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VISUAL CRIMINOLOGY: Using Photography as an Ethnographic

Research Method in Criminal Justice Settings

NYPD officers dwarfed by Victoria’s Secret Ad.

Dr. Cecil E. Greek

School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Florida State University
634 West Call Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306-1127
Phone: 850-644-4746

Paper Last Revised March 5, 2005

Visual Criminology: Using Photography as an Ethnographic Research
Method in Criminal Justice Settings


Visual criminology can be defined broadly to include the use of photography and
videography for a number of purposes, including (1) ethnographic fieldwork and
research, (2) news media usages of visual materials (e.g., crime photojournalism
and war crimes photography) and (3) the collection of evidentiary (e.g., forensics)
and other legal materials. This essay will briefly discuss the second and third,
while focusing on academic research and related pedagogical issues. While
visual anthropology, visual sociology and the broader field of visual studies have
grown in significance in the recent past, visual criminology as a research
methodology remains an under-explored area ripe for ethnographic investigation
(data collection, analysis and theory building). This essay is based upon the
author's experiences of conducting both officially approved photography of law
enforcement activities, correctional facilities, forensic laboratories and anti-
terrorism exercises in the United States, as well as “street photography” of
police-citizen interactions in a number of countries (USA, UK, Italy, France,
Canada, Poland). Primarily these efforts focused on two related phenomenon: (1)
the criminal justice system as an everyday work experience for criminal justice
employees and (2) the nature of the communities and situations in which police
and correctional officers interact with citizens on the street and inside criminal
justice facilities. The social science issues to be discussed include (1) initial data
collection decisions, (2) entry into the field, (3) ethical and human subjects
concerns, (4) data analysis: from categorizing images to selecting specific
images that have an ethnographic “richness” for depth discussion and, finally, (5)
theory building. A theory-driven visual case study of police-citizen public
encounters is highlighted. In addition to research, the creation of visual materials
related to criminal justice has a number of pedagogical enhancement possibilities
by introducing visual materials into the classroom and electronic teaching
materials. Finally, a discussion of the role of visual imagery vis-à-vis text in
criminological ethnographic description is undertaken, and then compared to
academic criminology’s currently dominant research paradigm of combining
mathematics and text in the effort to describe behavior and the forces at play in
the social world. By combining both qualitative and quantitative methodologies a
closer verisimilitude to lived experience might be possible. Photography as a
form of visual criminology may have an important role to play in this process.

Visual Criminology: Using Photography as Research and Teaching
Tools in Criminal Justice Settings

Visual criminology is a vital but largely overlooked aspect of the discipline

of criminology and practice of criminal justice. Visual criminology can be defined

broadly to include the use of photography and videography for a number of

purposes, including (1) ethnographic fieldwork and research, (2) news media

usages of visual materials (e.g., crime photojournalism and war crimes

photography) and (3) the collection of evidentiary (e.g., forensics) and other legal

materials. This essay will briefly discuss the second and third, while focusing on

academic research and related pedagogical issues. While visual anthropology,

visual sociology and the broader field of visual studies have grown in significance

in the recent past, visual criminology as a research methodology remains an

under-explored area ripe for ethnographic investigation (data collection, analysis

and theory building).

This essay is based upon the author's experiences of conducting both

officially approved still photography of law enforcement activities, correctional

facilities, forensic laboratories and anti-terrorism exercises in the United States,

as well as “street photography” of police-citizen interactions in a number of

countries (USA, UK, Italy, France, Canada, Poland). Primarily these efforts

focused on two related phenomenon: (1) the criminal justice system as an

everyday work experience for criminal justice employees and (2) the nature of

the communities and situations in which police and correctional officers interact

with citizens on the street and inside criminal justice facilities.

The social science issues which such research raises include (1) initial

data collection decisions, (2) entry into the field, (3) ethical and human subjects

concerns, (4) data analysis: categorization, appraisal, inquiry and interpretation

of specific images that have ethnographic “richness” for depth discussion and,

finally, (5) theory building. A theory-driven visual case study of police-citizen

public encounters is highlighted.

A broader theoretical discussion of the role of visual imagery vis-à-vis text

in criminological ethnographic description builds upon the issues discussed here.

In comparison to visual research, academic criminology’s currently dominant

research paradigm is based upon a combination of mathematics and descriptive

text, used in the effort to discern the roots of deviant behavior and the forces at

play in the social world. Are qualitative and quantitative methodologies fated to

remain at odds with each other as they often are currently, or can they be used

side by side, perhaps to produce a closer verisimilitude to lived experience?

Photography as a form of visual criminology may have an important role to play

in this process.

The Varieties of Visual Criminology

As previously stated, visual criminology could cover a broad array of

topics as visual imagery plays a critical role both within the criminal justice

system itself and in the production of the mediated view of criminal justice that

citizens glimpse in newspapers, television news program, prime-time crime

dramas and documentaries and Hollywood type films. The focus here primarily

will be on still photography, as motion picture and video imagery has been

discussed previously in our efforts to analyze the Gothic aspects of many of

these depictions (Picart & Greek, 2003; Greek, forthcoming). The still camera is

one means of capturing what is seen by the human eye, and creating data which

can be used for later analysis. Before turning to ethnographic uses of

photography, two other forms of photographic documentation, crime news media

journalism and forensic photography, are discussed.

News Media Photography

There are a number of journalistic uses of photography specifically

focusing on criminological areas of concern. Much of what constitutes the news

are stories covering aspects of crime and criminal justice. These include but are

not limited to the work of traditional crime reporters and war crimes


Like crime reporting in general, photojournalists who work the crime beat

often engender less respect than those who cover other assignments. While

“crime-related stories make up as much as 35 percent of newspaper content and

50 percent of local TV news broadcasts, crime reporting itself has been viewed

as a low-status job by many of those same news organizations” (Levins, 1998).

Just as the media’s particular focus on crime has been criticized from a

number of perspectives, so has crime photojournalism. Attacked often as overly

lurid and pandering to the lowest denominator of public fascination with open

wounds (Seltzer, 1998), crime photographs nevertheless help to sell newspapers

and affix viewer interest during television news broadcasts (Hannigan & Sante,


Decisions about which crime photographs to run are the topic of frequent

conversation in newspaper and television news editors’ offices. Tabloids often

choose to display more graphic imagery while higher prestige publications

frequently opt not to publish or broadcast graphic photos (Friendly, 1990). As the

entire journalism world has shifted toward tabloidization, the more graphic

images are less subject to ethical censure by editors (Sparks and Tulloch, 2000).

Often stated as a concession to avoid over-stimulating viewer reactions to the

point of revulsion, journalism has preferred black and white photography to more

realistic color snapshots (Buckland, 2001).

Despite the negative attitudes sometimes engendered toward such

images and their creators, the worlds of journalistic and art photography

occasionally blur. Weegee (2002), one of the most famous of New York City’s

crime photographers in the 1940s, expanded beyond his journalistic beginnings

and became a major art photographer by publishing such collections as Naked

City. Such blurring of photographic categories—journalistic, documentary, art and

ethnographic—makes any attempt to discuss subject, framing, and technique

narrowly a problematic endeavor (Becker, 1998). A “good” example of

photojournalism may or may not be considered a good art photograph, while an

ethnographically rich image might or might not be considered an aesthetically

superior one, etc. However, a quality photo may have academic, journalistic and

artistic merit simultaneously, but for different reasons.

A specific subcategory of crime photojournalism is war crimes

documentation. These journalists see it as their mission to document for posterity

the atrocities of war, including genocide and ethnic cleansing. Renowned

photographers such as James Nachtwey often describe being compelled to do

this type of dangerous work (Frei, 2001). Given the inherent difficulty of getting

photo permissions while embedded in a war zone, Nachtwey described his

process of getting tacit approval from those he was about to photograph by using

a knowing nod. If the person’s body language indicated back to Nachtwey that it

was alright to take the photo, he assumed he had permission. This has become a

fairly standard practice among photojournalists (Henderson, 1988).

War crimes photography has also been featured in Hollywood films. For

example, Harrison’s Flowers (Chouraqui, 2000) depicted the atrocities that

occurred in late 1991 in Vukovar, within the former Yugoslavia. The Serbian

troops invaded the town while the Croatian people offered resistance in

protecting their town for three months until they were eventually overrun. The

film stated that over 40 photographers died during the Yugoslavian conflicts of

the 1990s.

With the growing popularity of digital cameras it should not be surprising

that images of war atrocities are now being photographed more frequently, and

quickly making there way to the Internet. These include photos of civilian

populations killed or maimed as part of the American-led invasion of Iraq

(Irregular Times, 2003) and the notorious images of Iraqi prisoners being abused

and tortured by the American military assigned to guard them at Abu Graib prison

(, 2004; Sontag, 2004). Some of these efforts are similar to those

originally undertaken by groups such as Witness (2003), which provided cameras

to allow self-documentation of human rights abuses. The unbelievable twist is

that in the Abu Graib case the images of torture were taken by the soldiers

themselves as souvenirs of their sojourn to Iraq and treated like fraternity hazing

photographs. The soldiers, in effect, documented their own crimes. It to this

topic—photos as crime documentation for legal purposes—that this essay now


Forensic and Legal Photography

Some photographic images will (or can) have legal significance, serving

both forensic and documentary functions as evidentiary, investigative,

confessional, or exculpatory materials to be considered in a court of law. Crime

scene photography done by law enforcement personnel has become a critical

part of forensics (, 2003). As Walter Benjamin


The invention of photography…is no less significant for criminology than

the invention of the printing press is for literature. Photography made

possible for the first time to preserve permanent and unmistakable traces

of a human being. (Buckland, 2001:27)

If such photos are to have evidentiary value, the scale, focus, and exposure must

be precisely calibrated or these images will be contested successfully in court

(Lester, 1996). New techniques such as the use of 360-degree imagery

(Crimescene, 2003) and using cameras that automatically include GPS data in

every shot add to the ability to contextualize the images for evidentiary purposes

(Norton, 1999).

One example of a broader use of crime scene photography can be seen in

the domestic violence response program initiated by the Largo, FL Police

Department in 1997. Crime scene responders were given cameras to take

photographs of evidence of bruising on victims at the crime scene. These photos

were then processed, scanned (unaltered), and made part of a Web page by

eleven o’clock the next morning. The page also included all officers’ reports, a

digitized version of the emergency 9-1-1 call and any other audio recorded at the

scene, plus contact information on the victim. The Web page, while password

protected, was made available to law enforcement, the state attorney’s office, the

judge who would be handling initial case processing (suspects could no longer

claim injuries were minor when photographs indicated otherwise), and a local

victim’s shelter (who could contact the victims to help them safely leave the

residence before the perpetrator was released and returned home). The results

of this program were quite remarkable, as virtually all suspects pled guilty rather

than try to contest the photographic evidence (Largo, 2003).

Similarly, juries will take evidence photos at face value rather than

question that the images might be only partial truths or limited by the perspective

and frame chosen by the photographer. As a result, lawyers on both sides fight to

have photos introduced in court or keep them out, depending upon whether they

might help or harm their client’s case.

Finally, images of arrested and incarcerated criminals (mug shots) have a

long history (Tilt Works, 1996). While used today only for identification purposes,

in the 19th century, such photos were sometimes used by prison administrators in

their efforts to read external signs of physiognomical or phrenological

degeneration (Roach, 1999).

Visual Ethnography

In the social sciences, visual ethnography aimed at populations and topics

of interest to criminologists can draw upon over a century’s work by

ethnographers, writing broadly in fields that have been identified as visual

anthropology and visual sociology (Collier & Collier, 1986). Here historical

sociological interest in visual methods will be compared to the anthropological


Within sociology the photography done by pioneers such as Jacob Riis

(1890) of poor immigrants living in squalid New York City ghettoes and Lewis

Hine’s (1908-1912) provocative child labor photos sponsored by the National

Child Labor Committee served as early examples of visual research. In 1907,

Hine had enrolled at the graduate school of Columbia University to study

sociology. His professor, Paul U. Kellogg, assigned Hine to a pioneering

sociological project, The Pittsburgh Survey, which was to be an all

Lewis Hine’s photograph of child coal miners

encompassing detailed view of a typical industrial city. In 1908, the National Child

Labor Committee hired Hine to photograph child labor practices. For the next

several years, “Hine traveled extensively, photographing children in mines,

factories, canneries, textile mills, street trades and assorted agricultural

industries” (Biography of Lewis Hine, 2003). Hine’s photographs were intended to

alert the public to the dangers of child labor. Many considered his photographs

as one of the driving forces that led to stricter child labor laws.

The use of photographs also played an important role within articles

published in the first decades of the American Journal of Sociology (Greek, 1992;

Stasz, 1979). During this era American sociology was characterized by its ties to

the social gospel movement and its efforts at social amelioration (Vidich &

Lyman, 1985). Photographs were used to document social conditions and to

encourage progressive reforms. As the discipline came to adopt the position that

it must reject all vestiges of religion if sociology was to make a claim of being

scientifically objective, the use of “subjective” methodologies lessened

considerably. Empirical “value free” research techniques required statistical

analysis, accompanied by textual description. Ethnographic field studies took

secondary status and photography declined as its accompaniment as well.

One recognized a return to the use of visual imagery similar to the social

activist agenda of early American sociology in the efforts of NGOs such as

Witness (2003) or campaigns such as Photovoice (Wang, 2000; Wang &

Redwood-Jones, 2001). The former attempted to document criminal human

rights violations worldwide, by giving cameras to civilians so that they could

themselves photograph abuses for later Internet display. Photovoice also

provided cameras to citizens so that they could document their health and work

realities. Through group critical reflection on the resulting photos, Photovoice

used “community photography” to communicate with policy makers in the hope of

bringing about social change through the recognition of social injustices in areas

such as health care and working conditions.

However, within academic sociology, photography would not make a

significant comeback within the discipline until the emergence of semiotics in the

1970s. An interesting aside during this era was Corsini’s (1959) use of

photographs to determine if physical attractiveness might be related to criminal

career choice specialty. Corsini took a number of photographs of inmates and

carried these to other prisons, asking inmates to the rate the depicted inmates

only in terms of their physical attractiveness. He then compared the findings to

the primary crimes of these offenders. He found, for example, robbers overall to

be more attractive than burglars and pedophiles as a group the least attractive of

all. He theorized that robbers like to meet people face-to-face while burglars

hope to steal while no one is home to see them, thus crime specialty is motivated

by physical attractiveness. Pedophiles were deemed too ugly to attract adult sex

partners and therefore turned to children who could be dominated and abused

easily. Unfortunately none of the photographs appear in the article itself.

In general, American sociology took a very different attitude toward

photography than anthropology. Anthropological ethnography has seen

photography as an essential feature in research since the 19th century, and the

two have parallel histories of development (Pinney, 1992). Nineteenth and early

twentieth century anthropological photographers adhered to a realist position of

the photograph as literal truth, and largely ignored issues related to the power

differential between those who employed technology (the camera) and those

captured by it (photographic subjects) (Edwards, 1992). Current visual

ethnographers have reflected on these issues, recognized the errors in being so

literal and now use photography for a number of purposes, including historical

and cultural documentation, geographical and spatial framing as well as a depth

interview technique aimed at placing photographs within their cultural settings.

Documentation of the ethnographer’s experiences while in the field

remains the predominant use of photography. However, issues of who, when and

where to photograph become critical in the historical documentation of the time

spent with the subjects. Does the researcher photograph early in his/her stay or

only after a true rapport has been established? Does one ever pose photographs

or should all shots be candids? Should specific permission to photograph be

requested before every shot? Should gender issues be considered?

Ethnographers are taught to think about these questions in advance, and be

aware that their answers to them may change over time during the period spent

with the subjects.

From visual anthropology also comes the technique of using photography

for framing purposes (Collier and Collier, 1986: 29-44). Just as a Hollywood film

frequently begins with establishing shots showing city, neighborhood, and finally

domicile or working environment, anthropological photography includes

geographic, architectural, and cultural ritual location shots that place the

photographs of subjects within a larger context of the society and community in

which individuals are embedded. Typically, these are done early in the

researcher’s stay with the subjects, but frequently are included in the final

ethnographic descriptions of the community. Schwartz (1989) further suggested

that photographing local sites often led to town members asking why, and

facilitated entry into the community.

When reviewing existing ethnographic photo collections, anthropologists

and others trained in social science recognize that the images can be seen to fall

into categories. Typically, these also are the categories that matched the

ethnographers’ interests beyond the environment or setting. Such photo

categories include those that demonstrate material culture, clothing and body

decoration, architecture, technology, weaponry, rituals and recreations

(Macintyre & MacKenzie, 1992:158). In the most frequently discussed

photographic ethnography, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s (1942) 25,000

plus images depicting Balinese character, their categories included “spatial

orientation,” “learning,” “integration and disintegration of the body,” “orifices of the

body,” “autocosmic play,” “parents and children,” “siblings,” “stages of child

development” and “rites of passage.” Whether the categories are applied to the

images by the researcher or permitted to emerge from the subjects’ discussion of

their meaning, categorization of photos is an essential step in the process of

using them as an analyzable data source (Dowdall & Golden, 1989).

Anthropologists today, more than any other group, support the position

that photography documents the cultural embeddedness of reality rather than

literal truth. Thus, visual anthropology attempted to root photographic authenticity

within the lived experience of the image subjects themselves. The photos could

be posted or candid and still considered to have ethnographic value, though

always inseparable from their cultural roots. The images therefore required

textual descriptions to be complete, so that outside observers could comprehend

their full cultural meaning. Depth description as a methodological and analytical

tool was essential.

A frequently used technique to complete photographical cultural

descriptions was to share the taken images with the subjects themselves, asking

them to more fully describe the objects, activities and persons depicted. Thus,

photographs themselves become part of a depth interview process, allowing

discussion while the photos were being taken and reflective conversation when

they were shown to the subjects (Collier and Collier, 1986:99). Thus, the

resulting images and description were not merely the result of the photographer’s

gaze or perspective. The researcher might discover that their initial

categorization of the photographs needed to be reevaluated to better fit the world

view of the subjects. According to Schwartz (1989), sharing photographs in group

discussion situations was a transformational process. On their own without such

discussion, the photographs might remain inherently ambiguous. Meaning

emerged out of the discussion of the images.

Outside of anthropology, interest in visual media as worthy of analysis

reemerged within the broader contemporary social sciences during and after the

1960s. However, specific texts on how to employ visual materials within

criminological research are lacking, so that methods are largely borrowed from

visual anthropology and sociology. Authors such as Banks (2001), Banks and

Morphy (1999), Emmison and Smith (2000), Pink (2001), Prosser (1998), Lister

et al (2003) and Rose (2001) have written in these more general areas.

Some have combined photography with the reading of cultural signs and

symbols, borrowing from semiotics (Chandler, 2001:141). Emmison and Smith

(2000), in their primer on reading and researching visual imagery, united

traditional visual ethnography with semiotics. For them, bodies, identities and

interactions were seen together as all part of the symbolic universe available for

observation and recording. To give just one related example, culture critic

Douglas Rushkoff (2004) employed techniques borrowed from visual studies to

discuss the sociological significance of our media-saturated visual culture.

Rushkoff placed particular focus on how advertisers and political campaign

strategists attempted to employ manipulation techniques to rise above the din of

visual imagery that bombarded potential purchasers at every turn. As the urban

“blasé personality” first described by Simmel (1950) has become a given of post-

modern culture, advertisers believed they must uncover, arouse and appeal to

humanity’s primal instincts in order to guarantee “brand” loyalty.

Given the current interest in visual culture studies, this essay will attempt

to provide some directions for how criminology might begin to employ

photography as a research (and teaching tool). Within criminology, the most

extensive study to date using photographic data was Jackson’s (1977)

monograph depicting an Arkansas prison. He described how he kept his study

focused on a culturally embedded interpretation rather than a more journalistic or

social reform focus:

I think it would be easy to photograph any prison and show it as a hellish

place. Probably one could photograph any complex institution and show it
as hellish. There is some truth there, but also something of a lie, for such
a representation would hide a basic fact of life: even in hell, most people
spend their time getting by, not wallowing in agony, and most of the
residents are people, not caricatures in turgid TV dramas. I’ve tried to
show some of that in these photographs (pp. 25).

This essay’s primary empirical research started as a project by the author

in a quest to get depth description photographs for use within college criminal

justice textbooks and classroom lectures, but moved in directions beyond the

standard ride-along or sponsored agency visit to include “street photography.”

The social science issues which such research raises included (1) initial data

collection decisions, (2) entry into the field, (3) ethical and human subjects

concerns, (4) data analysis and (5) theory building. Suggested ways the data

might be coded and analyzed and used in theory building are highlighted here.

Primarily the images focused on two related phenomenon: (1) the criminal justice

system as the everyday work experience for criminal justice employees and (2)

the nature of the communities and situations in which police and correctional

officers interact with citizens on the street and inside criminal justice facilities.

While the backstage elements of criminal justice agencies are under-examined

from a visual perspective, the areas in which criminal justice employees interact

with citizens might be even more critical, as interactive spaces offer a number of

opportunities for examining visual aspects of encounters which might, and

sometimes do, have negative outcomes.

Photographing Criminal Justice Agencies at Work

(1) Initial Data Collection Decisions

The data collection project began with a broad mandate. As part of

preparing an introductory criminal justice system text and teaching introduction to

criminal justice courses, the author sought to document through still photography

combined with ethnographic interviews the work experiences of criminal justice

system employees, and specifically interaction with the public that takes place in

law enforcement, the courts and corrections. Creating photographs was chosen

over just writing descriptions for existing ones, as the author would have full

knowledge of the production process and the situational and cultural contexts in

which the photos were embedded. With existing photographs these background

factors could only be guessed at by viewers.

To borrow from Goffman (1959), criminal justice employees have both

backstage and frontstage activities, and both are worthy of extensive

investigation. Backstage activities of criminal justice employees have been

frequently analyzed for their subcultural-like nature and the role this has to play in

the creation of criminal justice personality types or workgroup pragmatics

(Skolnick, 1966; Barker, 1999; Conover, 2001). Frontstage activities in which

criminal justice employees interact with the public are unique from any other

social encounters in that police and correctional staff may carry weapons and

have the legal right to use force when necessary, while attorneys and judges

help determine who gets punished for alleged wrongdoing and who does not.

Thus, citizen interaction with criminal justice system employees is fraught with

potential peril to life, limb and freedom. One only has to stop and think about

one’s first “instinctual” reaction when seeing a police officer or police car come

into view. For most it is not a positive “feel good” moment (unless one is in

immediate need of service), because we have been socialized to fear authority.

On the other side of the interaction, criminal justice employees remain

constantly aware of the fact that they make be attacked, harmed or even killed

during encounters with both free civilians and those held in total institutions.

Given these background facts, it may be all the more remarkable that police, for

example, are also called upon to interact with citizens as victims, those in need of

medical or social services, crowd control, traffic control, etc., and that most of

these encounters are nonproblematic. The call for police to adopt community

policing and problem solving orientations over more traditional crime control

policies has left many police wondering what their real jobs descriptions ought to

be (Greek et al, 2000, Terrill et al, 2003).

In addition to the micro level world of face-to-face interactions between

criminal justice employees and citizens, documentation of the macro world of

social settings (e.g., buildings such as courtrooms, jails and prisons; communities

and neighborhoods) also is critical for a more complete visual criminological

approach to contemporary criminal justice. The majority of crime-related policing

is done in neighborhoods characterized by lower socio-economic status and a

host of related social problems. Our courts and prisons are disproportionately

filled with citizens from such communities, resulting in frequent debates about

whether the criminal justice system is inherently biased.

The latter fact creates a unique challenge for the visual ethnographer.

Does one document the socio-economic and ultimately ethnic disproportionality

of the current system, and perhaps be criticized for in effect reifying the situation,

or choose to select subjects for photography which do not show criminal justice

agents interacting primarily in crime-related situations with minority citizens?

Factually, the deeper one descends into the criminal justice system the more

disproportionate the minority representation. By not focusing upon this fact, is the

visual ethnographer actually skewing reality by not investigating and

documenting this phenomenon? This became more than a theoretical exercise at

the beginning of this project, as publishers insist on a collection of photographs

that can in no way be construed to document that minorities are more impacted

by the criminal justice system than any other group of citizens. The topic can, of

course, be discussed in the textbook itself. The limitation on photographing police

interaction with minority populations became one of the reasons that data

collection moved beyond police ride-alongs and sponsored prison visits to

include everyday street encounters between police and citizens in which neither

may have known they were being photographed. Furthermore, as Diop Kamau

(2003) has demonstrated, official agency pronouncements on policy or criminal

justice employee behavior while in the presence of journalists or ethnographers

may be quite different from actual “street justice” administered when agents

believe no credible witnesses are present. Police autobiographies bear this out

as well (Leuci, 2004).

Given the above concerns, the project started with officially approved ride-

alongs and prison tours in which photography was permitted, with the focus on

documenting a typical day within a criminal justice agency, the types of

individuals encountered, the nature of the interaction that took place and the

settings in which these encounters occurred. Later the project shifted to street

photography as a way of expanding the situations that might be included.

(2) Gaining Entry Into the Field

Initial efforts were based upon establishing good rapport with criminal

justice agencies to secure their cooperation. Getting permission to photograph

was not difficult as long as the author had a high-level contact within the agency

as a starting point. Requests going down the chain of command were more

effective than trying to push requests up for permission. If one had to start by

going through the media relations office, the task was more difficult because the

presumption was that such requests were being made by a journalist or someone

with a journalistic interest, a fact that documented the negative attitudes police

sometimes hold towards media. When questioned about intentions, the author

stated that the goal was to document ordinary criminal justice-civilian encounters.

Agency approval and sponsorship is different from individual subject

permissions; the latter will be discussed as the essay proceeds, and then

focused on in section three.

Explaining exactly what one wanted to photograph was crucial, both in

securing permission for the ride-along or tour and obtaining the widest discretion

in what one would be permitted to photograph. Below is language from a typical

request to a police department:

I am a college professor who teaches criminal justice at…university. I am

requesting permission to take photographs while in the company of some
of your officers upon the following date. These photographs may be used
in an introduction to criminal justice text, which I am also authoring. What I
need are shots that show police interacting with folks of many ethnic
backgrounds, community policing shots, etc. I also need photographs that
demonstrate the use of technology such as computers, etc., within the
police cars and in offices. Settings with easily identifiable city landmarks in
the background of photographs would be great, too, as I want to show the
social settings in which police work. Let me know if I need to sign any
waivers in advance. What restrictions does your department place upon
field observer photographs? Will I need any further approval from the
department after I take the photos? Where and when should I show up? I
like to start the shooting day with roll call, and I find it’s easier to get
officers to sign permission releases for photos then, too, after I have told
them why I’m there and what I’m doing.

As the ride-alongs/tours were to reflect ethnic and gender variations,

police precincts were selected and requested by the author based upon

knowledge of residence patterns. For example a lower east side precinct in

Manhattan was selected because it included Chinatown, Little Italy, Wall Street,

etc., and thus would guarantee ethnic diversity. Shopping districts were also

favored as they were likely to have an interesting mix of possible subjects. In

addition, neighborhoods with distinctive landmarks (e.g., the Brooklyn Bridge, the

Italian North End of Boston) were chosen as photo backgrounds, so that viewers

would recognize the city and agency affiliations, rather than trying to disguise


NYPD officers respond to a rooftop crime report. Brooklyn Bridge is in the background.

Another level of agency permissions became involved to photograph anti-

terrorism law enforcement exercises post 9/11, as some of these involved

technologies or response strategies the government wished to protect from

immediate disclosure. In these cases one might have to promise not to publish

any potentially revealing photographs without further government review and

permission. For example, shots of an underwater crime scene investigation drill

exercise sponsored by the Department of Defense were taken with such a

proviso. However, a terrorist incident training exercise at a football stadium was

open to the press, and therefore photos were considered public information.

Police and EMS Workers respond to a simulated terrorist attack at a college football game.

When working with police agencies the author spent the day before the

sponsored photography conducting an unsupervised walking tour of the primary

neighborhood in which the ride-along was scheduled. Borrowing from visual

anthropology, the goal was to get to know the primary landmarks, community

activity centers, and people living and commuting through the neighborhood.

Signs of visual decay and social disorganization in the neighborhood [dilapidated

buildings, graffiti (Kephart & Berg, 2003), an overabundance of seedy bars,

homeless persons sleeping in the streets, etc.] were photographed at that time.

Images of neighborhood businesses and signs were collected. The exteriors of

police stations, patrol cars, etc. were photographed as part of contextualizing the

police presence in the neighborhood.

Window sign in Chinatown, NYC, shows NYPD is recruiting in Chinese language

Boston homeless man sleeps in the street in 40 degree F weather near major shopping district at Quincy Market.

Boston homeless man sleeps in the snow outside JFK Federal Building. The irony of the fact that President
Kennedy fought to eliminate poverty was noted.

The overall goal of the field visit itself was to photograph a “typical” day at

the agency. Thus, on the ride-along or tour date, photographing started at roll call

for police officers or with early morning activities at the courthouse or jail and

continued until shift change or end of the work day. At the police station one

could photograph not only the roll call activities itself, but also station interiors

such as billboards, crime maps and weapons stashes; plainclothes detectives

working at the precinct station in their work areas and commanding officers in

their offices.

At police stations, the day shift sergeant or command officer would

introduce the photographer during roll call, offered him the opportunity to explain

what he was doing, and requested cooperation from the patrol officers. Typically,

the author was introduced as a college professor writing a book about criminal

justice employees. Officers were asked to sign a permissions document stating

that all photographs taken during the day could be used as textbook illustrations.

At roll call, coverage of new legal rulings, police union issues, community

policing hot spots and crime trends would provide excellent material for

discussions during the day with officers. Thus, in effect, the day was spent as an

extended interview session, while photographs were continually being taken.

Roll Call at NYPD Precinct Station

Besides topics introduced at roll call, the author initiated discussion during

the day about issues widely known based upon the history and innovative

practices of each agency. For example, NYPD officers discussed the

COMPSTATS management system (Steinert-Threlkeld, 2002), their use of the

“broken windows” model of community problem solving (Kelling, 1998), the

history of graft and corruption inside NYPD (Greek, forthcoming), and both their

responses to 9/11 and whether a new public attitude toward the police had

emerged following this catastrophic event. With Riker’s Island jail officials,

discussion focused on how the facility dramatically lowered assault incidents

from the early 1990s to the present (Wynn, 2000). Chicago Police Department

officers discussed their well documented community policing efforts.

As the day progressed, incidents would occur that naturally led to

additional discussions. If officers received free coffee or small food items during

stops at convenience stores, the author was often told, sometimes without even

asking the officers, what the agency’s policy in these matters was. This then

stimulated further conversation. As each photograph was taken questions were

asked about how much time or how important that activity was on a daily basis.

NYPD officers stop for morning coffee and bagels. They paid for it themselves.

When paired with officers from diverse backgrounds, the discussion

focused on how they perceive their experiences within the criminal justice

system. For example, in New York City, the author was partnered for part of the

day with officers of Italian and Chinese descent. The Chicago Police Department

escort was a female sergeant who had finished a law degree as well. This

facilitated discussion in a number of directions about women in policing, officers

with law degrees, promotion structures, etc. The majority of the correctional

officers inside the visited jails were frequently African Americans, offering the

opportunity to interview them about their perceptions on criminal justice.

Efforts were not made to formally record any of these conversations as

this might have inhibited the subjects, but could have been done with the aid of a

small tape or video recorder. It was the author’s observation that subject

responses to being photographed and interviewed conversationally likely were

more positive than they would have been had a tape recorder or video camera

been introduced. This in all likelihood reflected the overall positive feeling that

most people have to photographic “snapshots” as souvenirs and historical

memories of work and family (Musello, 1980). On the other hand, tape or video

recordings can be negatively associated for criminal justice personnel with

criminal confessions, undercover investigations and wire tapping.

Photos taken during the day were both candids and posed. Permission

was typically asked for before taking a posed shot of a citizen. In a candid shot,

the photograph was taken first to capture more natural interactions, then written

permission was requested after the image was made. If someone asked to see

the photo first before signing a photo release form, the author could show the

image to the subject using the LCD screen review possible with digital cameras.

Few did. Candids were taken of such activities as police waking citizens sleeping

on park benches, interviews with crime victims, questioning of persons in a crime

event area, etc.; documenting everything from friendly conversations to

enforcement of quality of life offenses to police responses to more serious crime.

Candid shot of NYPD officer waking a sleeping man on a park bench inside a children’s playground

Posed Photo of NYPD officer interacting with owner of Korean green grocery

In addition to taking both candid and posed photographs aimed at

demonstrating police work involving problem solving or community policing, the

author was interested in focusing on the work environment itself, moving from the

interior of the police car as a work space to the streets and neighborhoods in

which police interacted with citizens.

Interior of NYPD patrol car shows quite obsolete text communications device

Contemporary urban beat policing is an unusual occupation is that much

of the work is done inside a car, followed by periods in which police interact with

the public, the great majority being total strangers, and a number of these in

distress, danger or behaving in a deviant or suspicious manner. Much of the work

day during the ride-alongs was spent responding to calls for service, many of

which turned out to be false alarms or reports. In the post 9/11 big city

environment, police appeared to take calls about suspicious behavior quite


The neighborhoods in which police work in large cities often have

significant immigrant and minority populations, while the officers may not come

from those groups, a fact which compounds understanding. At some business

locations the author stopped with officers in lower Manhattan, it was difficult to

locate an English speaking worker.

NYPD officers interact with a monk from a Buddhist monastery in Chinatown

Finally, both exterior and interior architectural aspects of criminal justice

workplaces were also photographed. The exteriors of courthouses and the

interiors of courtrooms were included, for example.

The exterior of an NYPD Precinct station

In jails and prisons this included exterior walls, barbed wire fences, tiers, and

cells. One of the locations, Riker’s Island (Wynn, 2000) in New York City proved

to be unique in that in its multiple jail facilities it had a new generation jail (Zupan,

1991), a floating hulk, a three-tiered “big house” era style facility, a boot camp

facility and a juvenile facility, while housing both pretrial detainees and sentenced


Boot camp facility at New York’s Riker’s Island Jail has pod type buildings but campus is surrounded by razor

(3) Ethical and Human Subjects Concerns

Though the essay already has mentioned some of the issues related to

permissions and photo releases, a more complete discussion of ethical and

human subjects concerns is warranted. This is particularly important given

several factors involved in this research: (1) a photograph constitutes a

permanent record of a person’s appearance at a certain location, and in this case

with a police or correctional officer in the image or places the person in a

courtroom or jail/prison, (2) some of photos included group and crowd scenes

which would make getting photo permissions from everyone in the photograph

difficult, and (3) the project shifted to include non-agency sponsored street

photography, sometimes unobtrusively done using long distance focal length


Agency permission for what could and could not be photographed varied.

None of the police agencies permitted photography of an arrest in progress.

Courtrooms often do not permit photographing jury members. Photographing

inside jails/prisons was much more restrictive than taking images of police/citizen

encounters. Inmate faces could not be photographed close up (inmates

themselves reaffirmed this if a camera was pointed in their direction). Thus, when

inmates were photographed it had to from a distance or behind. Activities such

as eating, hair cuts, recreation and security checks were permitted to be

photographed (from a distance), while visitation by friends and relatives was not.

Lunch inside Riker’s Island Jail. Different color jump suits indicate different status.

In addition to agency permissions, individual model release forms were

signed for photographs taken of citizens when images produced during ride-

alongs or tours included the subjects’ faces as recognizable. Permissions for

use of all photos to be taken during the entire day with squad police officers were

signed at roll call. No police officer refused to sign a release form, and all citizens

who were photographed agreed to sign a model release as well. Of course, the

photographer was in the company of police or correctional officers at all times,

which certainly had an impact on the universal agreement rate.

Other events in which official photography was permitted created greater

difficulty in getting model releases. For example, during anti-terrorism exercises it

was not possible to stop the exercise to seek individual photo releases every

time someone’s face was captured in a photograph. At the football stadium

training incident, for example, there were hundreds of law enforcement, fire, and

emergency workers present, all being monitored for their response times. News

photojournalists and video cameras were present at these events. No efforts

were made to secure individual permissions by the journalists; leaving one to

consider whether an ethnographic photographer present at the same public

event should use the same standard or a more restrictive one.

After a year of photographing with agency permissions, the author shifted

the research focus from officially approved tours and ride-alongs to street

photography. By this it is meant that the photographer collected images of police-

citizen encounters, homeless persons, alleged criminal activity (e.g. drug use),

etc., wherever he had his camera handy, and sometimes when using 200mm or

longer distance lenses. At such distances the subjects in the images may or may

have noticed they were being photographed. The method might not be

considered as surveillance photography per se, as the photographer made no

effort to hide what he was doing. The shift was made for several reasons and

with the understanding by the researcher that these photos would not be

published in books, as there were no signed model releases; but used only for

personal research purposes.

First, many of the photos were taken in foreign countries (UK, France,

Italy, Poland, Canada) during teaching and vacation trips and while attending

large scale public events that had considerable police presence. As an approach

to photography it would closest to a variation on the flâneur style. According to

Emmison and Smith (2000:173):

The flâneur is an urbane urban spectator, wandering the streets at will in

search of spectacle. The flâneur is no mere window shopper,
enthusiastically participating in a consumer culture. Rather he takes an
ironic, distant, aesthetic attitude to the commodities and street life on

But, being a criminologist, instead of focusing exclusively on the ironic aspects of

street life gatherings, attention always turned to criminal justice presence. For

example, while teaching in London, major events such as a Trafalgar Square

protest rally during a visit by President Bush, a massive Trafalgar Square fan

rally after the English team won the Rugby World Cup, crowds outside major

soccer matches and the annual Carnival festival in London’s Caribbean

neighborhoods were attended. Police were out in force at all of these public

events, as were citizens and the press. Discussions with police officers at that

time indicated that the majority did not want to be there, as many of these

assignments constituted overtime shifts.

These London officers were the only ones spotted who seemed to be enjoying having a duty shift at Carnival.

The second factor involved in the decision to shift to street photography

methods was the limitations placed upon photography by the agencies. As one is

on a “directed” tour provided by the agency, the researcher is only able to

document what the tour or ride-along provides. A model for the kind of agency

permission that ultimately might be required to truly document these social

worlds and public interactions would be the unfettered access Bruce Jackson

(1977) received to photograph in an Arkansas penitentiary. He was permitted to

revisit the prison over a four year period, walk through the institution

unaccompanied by correctional officers, interview any inmates he wished and

photograph freely. Without such access, if one wishes to photograph anything

other than approved topics, this has to be done without agency support. Not that

it was thought that the researcher might be on hand for the next Rodney King

type incident, but photographing under agency limitations could preclude

capturing images of anything potentially controversial. For example, at the 2004

Republican National Convention in New York, NYPD repeatedly trampled upon

First Amendment freedom of assembly rights in efforts to keep protesters away

from the convention itself (Walter, 2004). Taking photographs of such police-

citizen interaction would not be possible on a ride-along. But, should photographs

of citizens as protestors being arrested be taken?

This project raised a number of issues which have been discussed in the

social science literature on the ethics of research that involves human subjects.

In particular, questions regarding photographing human subjects under

potentially embarrassing situations needed to be considered, and will be

discussed here.

First, it should be mentioned that a bias against photography of human

subjects exists among some in the social sciences. Susan Sontag (1979)

espoused perhaps the most negative interpretation of photography to date,

comparing the camera to a predatory weapon. Cameras are “loaded,” “aimed”

and “shot.” In her view to photograph people is to violate them. This compares to

the idea that exists in some cultures that to photograph or otherwise try to

capture a person’s likeness is to steal a part of their essence as a human being.

While one must always remain sensitive to the feelings of those one wishes to

photograph, adoption of a hard line position that photography always is intrusive

would make all projects such as these impossible.

Perhaps the best overall discussion to date of ethical issues related to

photography appeared in Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in

Photographs, Film and Television (Gross et al, 1998a) and Image Ethics for the

Digital Age (Gross et al, 2003). Of particular note is the extended discussion of

the Columbine High School mass murders of 1999 (Moritz, 2003). While the

discussion in this essay was focused on photojournalism and not ethnographic

photography per se, the questions raised regarding intrusion and sensitivity are

important and related. Photojournalists (along with television video cameras)

showed up at the high school almost immediately, while the panic was still in

progress, and stayed on the story through the funerals. Using telephoto lenses it

was possible to capture highly visceral emotional reaction photos from immediate

fear through later profound grief. After the photographers captured these images,

their editors had to agonize over which of them to print and in what context (e.g.,

the front page or the middle of the paper, the type of story in which they would be

embedded, etc.). In some cases editors sat at tables reviewing hundreds of daily

photos before selecting the ones for that day’s edition. Collectively the twelve

news photographers on the scene won a Pulitzer Prize, demonstrating that this

kind of crime event photography is considered important when done with

sensitivity (Moritz, pp. 80). Of course, the editorial decisions sometimes were

questioned by parents and friends; and rightly so, the result hopefully leading to

greater sensitivity by media gatekeepers rather than less. Columbine media

coverage also has been the subject of numerous media journalism ethics


Should the visual ethnographer be held to a different ethical standard than

the photojournalist (Wang & Redwood-Jones, 2001)? Or should both use the

same standards? Upon what criteria should such standards be constructed?

Gross, Katz and Ruby (1988b) suggest that several factors be considered at all

times. These include (1) intrusion (2) embarrassment (3) false light and (4)

appropriation. Thus, questions that the photographer as researcher needs to be

continually asking include:

• What is the level of intrusion into the subject’s expected privacy?

Are there less expectations of privacy while in public places?
• Will the photograph prove embarrassing to the subject, either now
or if it released publicly in the future?
• Does the photograph show the subject in a false light? What is the
truth value of the image?
• Has the subject suffered a potential financial loss from the
exposure generated by the image? Has the photographer made
money from the image?
• Does a noble social purpose mitigate some of the above concerns?
• What exactly does consent mean? Is consent to take a picture the
same as consent to use it?

These questions will continue to be discussed by both ethnographers and

journalists. As ethical standards they should remain open ended and applied

situationally, so the standards are flexible enough to protect privacy rights of

subjects while not eliminating the important uses of photography as historical

documentation, social conscience or ethnographic data.

A few examples might be useful. Jackson (1977) not only requested

subject permission to photograph, but also changed the names of all depicted

inmates, though no one asked that he do that. As nearly thirty years has passed

since these photos were originally taken, and the resemblance to the person as

they might look today fades, the historical importance of the images as

documentation of a social world becomes even more important. Similarly, the

historical importance of a preserved visual account can be seen while visiting

institutions like the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. If these

camps did not have photographs of victims of all ages who died there and cases

filled with the personal objects brought into the camps by those murdered there,

the emotional impact of the visit by contemporary students and other visitors

would be lessened considerably.

Luggage brought to Auschwitz and then left behind

(4) Data Analysis

The ongoing collection of images, which now numbers several thousand,

required categorization beyond the original foci of the researcher. Dowdall and

Golden (1989) suggested a three stage process of image interpretation after

categorization that included (1) appraisal (2) inquiry and (3) interpretation. Each

will be discussed in turn, by giving examples of what was done with the criminal

justice images. While Dowdall and Golden used a set of historical photographs,

the same techniques were applied here to a combination of agency approved

photographs and street photography images taken by the author.

Categorization of the images to detail specific visual aspects beyond the

intended purpose was not part of the original project. The primary purpose of

collecting the images was to document the work experiences of criminal justice

practitioners, including their interactions with the public. This was to be done in

context of the spaces and environments in which criminal justice is practiced,

including: courtrooms, jails and prisons, police stations, law enforcement vehicles

and on the streets within neighborhoods.

However, upon reflection, there were a multitude of ways the images

might be categorized for more in depth analysis purposes. One way to order

categories was to start from the individual and move outward in a concentric

circle type way to include the larger community as depicted in the images. Thus,

on the personal level, a major category for categorizing criminal justice personnel

would be clothing and paraphernalia (uniforms, badges and insignia, weapons or

the lack thereof, vehicles). The impact that these items might have during

interaction with citizens could then become part of the later analysis of images

that show the two, criminal justice agent and citizen, together.

Clothing patterns and other external visual clues seen in the photos that

depicted civilians represented a second major area for categorization. Potentially,

they revealed aspects of social class, ethnic status or subcultural affiliation.

Obviously, prison inmates were required to wear uniforms that designate their

captive status, but were sometimes permitted to wear personal objects (chains,

for example) or might have distinctive visible body adornment such as tattoos.

Another set of categories was related to spatial dimensions. In particular,

the photos pictured the work spaces of criminal justice personnel. These included

offices and cubicles; courtrooms; jail and prison corridors, cells and

command/control rooms; cars; and the public world of streets and building

facades. The photo below, showing the personal computer work space of an

officer, could have appeared in the recent article on geekospheres (McCarthy,


While this Boston Police Sgt. Works primarily in his office on community policing projects, he still wears a
uniform. Note the children’s stuffed animals and toys which surround his computer.

On a sociological level, photographs of the neighborhoods in which police

work were categorized by the socio-economic clues the images offered. In

addition, the type of district (poverty stricken, homeless area, adult entertainment

district, shopping area, etc.) has been used for categorization.

London cop patrols in one of the seedier parts of the adult entertainment district in Soho.

Interpersonal space as a category was considered a natural analog of the

research. Could such visual interactive features as interpersonal space and body

language be seen in the photographs? Criminal justice personnel might project

themselves as more approachable while interacting with citizens inside their

agencies, but quite differently while in neighborhoods where their presence may

not always be wanted but where they nevertheless must maintain control.

Dominance poses and submission gestures might be noticeable in the images,

so they were categorized as such, or if no such indications could be perceived.

Following categorization, Dowdall and Golden’s (1989) suggested a three-

stage data analysis procedure including appraisal, inquiry and interpretation.

These steps were modeled after Max Weber’s use of ideal types as constructed

interpretive typifications to be applied when conducting subsequent individual

item analysis (Coser, 1977: 223-224). During the appraisal stage the researcher

compared the overall patterns that appear in the categorized visual imagery to

the literature in this area. During the inquiry phase the analyst looked for themes

that emerge in the photographs which supported the previous literature or

demonstrated new directions of potential interpretation. Finally, during

interpretation the researcher chose individual photos for thick description as

these demonstrated the selected themes, and variations on these themes as

well. The cultural embeddedness of the images remained recognized throughout

this process. One example of how this approach was applied will be given here,

having to do with the physical appearance and presence of the police in public

spaces during interaction with citizens. The analysis in this area is an ongoing

project, and is only highlighted here, as the collection of photographs is not


(5) Theory Building: A Case Study of Uniformed Cops in Public

It is impossible to do serious social documentation with a camera without

some informing theory. There are too many opportunities for selection, for

inclusion and exclusion, etc. For example, Jackson’s (1997:26) starting theory for

researching prison environments was quite simply stated as “prison doesn’t do

anyone much good.” His photographs documented that fact, but also

demonstrated his other major theoretical conclusion that “the primary function of

prison is to hurt people, and prison succeeds at that quite well.” Images of bodies

captured in cages, forced to collectively labor in lockstep fashion, while

continuously subject to visual scrutiny by their keepers predominated.

The theory of this case study, which is only one of many that could be

tested by employing the collected and coded data, is rooted in visual social

science itself, as dramaturgically interpreted by Goffman (1963) and others

(Emmison & Smith, 2000). If it is true that public interaction in both pre-modern

and modern cultures is primarily symbolic and visual, based upon clothing, make-

up and insignia, then how both law enforcement officials and civilians appear in

public is critical to understanding public reactions to each other. However, the

current urban setting may be more problematic than the Victorian city was for

reading civilian clues, as in our post-modern major cities there are less and less

clear class distinctions demonstrated by clothing alone. Thus, understanding how

police as a subculture read clues while interacting in public is a more complex

task. As police look for indications of deference in the external appearance and

body language of citizens they encounter, an explanation of both typical

nonproblematic exchanges and those that break down into aggressive or even

violent encounters might be offered. As a form of visual data, police and civilians

as interacting human bodies in public settings raise all types of questions

regarding gaze, territoriality, gesture and presentation of self (Emmison & Smith,

2000, 190). Neighborhood features thus become even more important as dress

becomes less class specified. The collected photographs in this study offered

one way of documenting and discussing these issues and their contextual nature.

One of the best theoretical visual descriptions to date of police presence in

public spaces appeared in Peter Manning’s (1977) Police Work. Manning’s

analysis was built upon the theory that police must dramatize the appearance of

control, which was accomplished by management of a set of presentational

strategies represented in the “selective display of symbols that large segments of

the populated are predisposed or prepared to accept as legitimate” (p. 24).

These strategies would include material culture costumes and props (uniforms,

badges and insignia, outward display of weapons, vehicles, etc.) plus acting

choices made to maintain control over interpersonal features of any encounter

(gaze, territoriality, gesture and presentation of self). Civilians who appear to not

understand or respect the law enforcement officers’ right to control these aspects

of citizen-law enforcement encounters will be treated problematically. For

example, when police ask questions they expect to be answered. Refusal, even if

within one’s constitutional rights to do so, typically brings further requests to

comply (Katz, 1990).

But, according to a dramaturgical approach, the failures of the police to

maintain control through conversation, dress and body language might be signals

that to the citizens involved in the encounter, the police were either unconvincing

actors, over-acting actors, poorly costumed actors, out of place actors, etc.

These ultimately are training issues. Similarly, police might have misread acting

cues provided by citizens. Police, trained to be suspicious as an investigative

(and survival) technique, might draw the wrong conclusions and escalate a

situation unnecessarily. Nevertheless, these types of situations were rarely

witnessed by the author and infrequently photographed. Of course, the author

was doing the research during daylight hours rather than at night, and primarily in

heavily traveled shopping districts or public venues, not isolated lower class

neighborhoods. Even the witnessed crowd control situations (anti-war protests,

soccer and football rallies, etc.) remained quite stable, with no events similar to

those at the New York 2004 Republican Convention (Walter, 2004).

The first set of photographs below focus on police, comparing police

appearances in different countries and at different types of venues. The second

set shows direct interaction with citizens.

Boston police officer inside Quincy Market has dress typical of American police. Note the gun and walkie talkie,
yet his cell phone has become his primary communication tool.

London Metropolitan Police (“bobbies”) stand side by side during a rainy President Bush visit to 10 Downing
Street. There were hundreds of protesters between them and Tony Blair’s residence. They have no firearms.

Paris cops on roller skates near Notre Dame Cathedral.
While baseball caps indicate their approachability, they do carry guns. Tourists, particularly female ones, often
requested to be photographed with these cops as travel souvenirs.

If police wish to shift their image from one as “to be feared” crime fighters

to one of approachable problem solvers, for instance, then a major dramaturgical

change, as already suggested in these images, would be required. Traditional

uniforms, demeanor and speech patterns, and even vehicles may need to be

replaced with more user friendly modes, like roller skates. While the public may

not be willing to approach an officer in a police car, they may be more willing to

tell an officer on a horse or bicycle that they have a problem. If Terrill, Paoline

and Manning’s (2003) findings that police attitudes toward the use of coercion

depended upon levels of commitment to traditional views of police culture were

correct (their study employed visual observations of police-citizen interactions as

a major data component), then efforts to change those subcultural attitudes

would include changing the visual images that police display through their dress,

demeanor, body language and situational control techniques. This second set of

photos documents police citizen interactions.

Note the aggressive questioning by London officers in this shot. The two citizens were operating a sausage
stand outside a museum without a license.

This Boston citizen had to rap on the police officer’s window a few times before he was willing to roll it down to
talk to her. It’s very difficult to interact with police while they are in a car.

Horse Patrol is used as crowd control on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, in particular during Mardi Gras. It is not a
community policing strategy.

This Naples, Italy police officer, dismounted from his horse, encourages grandfather and child to approach.

Here, in an effort to increase citizen understanding, police encourage a community resident to hold a S.W.A.T.
style weapon. Police-community events aim to lessen the gap between the two.

Would this American police officer be more approachable? This community policing officer is on foot rather than
in a car. His dress is much more casual than ordinary patrolmen.

Would such of image of American cops as teddy bears be even conceivable?

These are example photos that visually demonstrate themes related to police

citizen interaction, comparing traditional and community policing styles. A more

complete version of this project is planned.

Pedagogical Uses of the Photos

The primary original purpose of the photography described here was for

textbook publication. Secondarily, this essay has shown how the collected

images can be categorized and used for qualitative data analysis and theory

testing. Finally, several direct teaching applications were made of the images.

(1) The photos were included in Web-based lectures to demonstrate important

points. For example, forensic equipment such as fingerprint and DNA scanners

were photographed at a state law enforcement investigation office, and included

so that students have a better idea of what this equipment looks like.

Fingerprint technician scanning prints to be sent to FBI

Because each photo was taken by the Web page author, additional information

to contextualize the image was presented. Students also know the faculty

member was present when the photo was taken which adds credibility to the

point the author is making.

(2) The author has shown the photos in class to illustrate police and correctional

work to first year criminal justice students. Community policing, police community

relations, urban policing, technology and criminal justice, anti-terrorist efforts, and

jail and prison architecture were some of the topics illustrated. The photographs

also helped to foster class discussions in ways that traditional lectures and

PowerPoint presentations did not. As today’s students are much more visually

oriented than in the past (Lister, 2003), new media presentations have an appeal

that can motivate students to become more involved in the class.

Other types of photos taken by the author have been shown in class as

well. A set of photos made in 2002 during a tour of the Auschwitz and Birkenau

concentration camps in Poland made effective teaching aids while lecturing

about human rights crimes and genocide. Photos included images of objects left

behind or used as part of the killing such as empty Zyklon-B cans, along with

portraits of people who were executed there.

Hundreds of empty cans of Zyklon-B document the massive human extermination practiced at Auschwitz

Rather than having an entire class participate in field trip or ride-alongs as

suggested by Payne (2003), which is a logistical impossibility in large lecture

classes, the faculty member can share through photographs their own

experiences within criminal justice agencies. Similarly, students who wish to

create their own visual assignments could share their findings with the class. For

example, a student spent a day in a London tube station photographing the

public’s interaction with transit police and other transit employees.

(3) A very different classroom use of the photographs has been made as well.

Instead of having the author provide an analysis of the photo, the class is told

nothing about the image and asked to discuss what they see in it. Mitchell’s

(2002) method of “show and tell” was used, in that students were instructed to

assume that they were ethnographers reporting back to an audience within a

society that has no concept of visual culture. They were not to take for granted

that their audience had any knowledge of the everyday things which might be

seen in the images and to describe what they see to such an audience. Trying to

describe aspects of police interaction or prison architecture, for example, given

such guidelines, allowed the students to have fresh perspectives on these


Discussion: Photography and Visual Criminology as Alternative Research


This essay attempted to show the value of using visual data (photography)

to analyze aspects of criminological phenomena, such as public interaction

between police and citizens. Given that the opportunities to do similar projects

are only limited by the imagination of a researcher (and gaining access), why are

there not more photographic essays within criminology? One has to wonder why

the academic discipline of criminology places such low value on photography

(and visual data in general) as a research tool, in comparison to the focus upon it

made by practitioners (the criminal justice system and journalism) when

describing the same aspects of reality, such as human deviant behavior.

Martin’s (2002) analysis of the ongoing historical debate between

“naming” and “drawing” as contrasting means to express the essence of a

phenomenon is relevant here. Martin traced this debate back to Plato through its

modern variant; focusing here is on those who supported the primacy of drawing:

For Plato, there were two ways of representing a man, either by saying his
name or by drawing his portrait. Whereas words were taken to be arbitrary
signifiers without any necessary relation to what they signified, images
were understood to be tied by natural forces to what they resembled,

iconic analogues of their objects. Mimesis of the real was assumed to be
better served by vision than by any other sense.

The naturalness of the image makes it a universal means of

communication that provides a direct, unmediated, and accurate
representation of things, rather than an indirect, unreliable report about
things. The legal distinction between eyewitness evidence and hearsay, or
between a photograph of a crime and a verbal account of a crime, rests on
this assumption that the natural and visible sign is inherently more credible
than the verbal report. The fact that the natural sign can be decoded by
lesser beings (savages, children, illiterates, and animals) becomes, in this
context, an argument for the greater epistemological power of imagery
and its universality as a means of communication.

Even within the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition the debate over the

use of language versus images has played a crucial role. The early Hebrews

reviled all forms of image making while naming was considered an approach to

truth and the divine (the name of God was written without vowels so that ordinary

mortals could not invoke it, so great was its power). In comparison, the Catholic

church long made use of imagery and icons to communicate the faith to the

masses, while reading the Bible in a language no one in the congregation could

comprehend. Only with the coming of the mass printed Bible in native languages

did the primacy of the “word” over the visual take place within western

Christianity. The visual, no longer needed to point toward the supernatural, was

freed to find its targets in this sensate world (Sorokin, 1937).

The social sciences emerged from a social milieu in which the written

language as description had already become the dominant mode of reality

depiction, with the visual limited primarily to art worlds. The thing that separated

first generation social scientists from their modernist heirs was the shift of focus

from describing what they could see (the visual world) to trying to comprehend

the hidden world of social forces through the use of mathematics and statistics.

Mathematics combined with text largely replaced the visual and depth

descriptions of it; the latter remained separated from positivistic social science by

finding a home within anthropology.

Can the use of ethnographically-informed photography be part of a

response to Dilthey’s (1883) call for the creation of methods for studying human

beings that separates social science from the natural sciences? It seems that

photography alone is not sufficient in this regard, as the natural sciences also

have been interested in and employed visual data to document findings. Ordinary

photographs, microscopic imagery and x-rays all have important natural scientific

uses. Therefore, the question better asked is why the social sciences seem to

employ the visual as a resource for or topic of investigation so infrequently and

how that situation might be changed. Emmison and Smith (2000: 11-15) discuss

several reasons. First, the currently dominant “technology of summarization”

within social science depends upon the use of quantitative statistics. Second,

social science has promised that it can understand or interpret social action, thus

placing a premium on words. Third, discussion of the “body” as an analytical

category for mainstream social research post Durkheim has been quite limited

(until Foucault reintroduced the body as a topic of investigation). With

photography in particular, critics of the technique point to its history of use as a

form of surveillance on the poor and marginalized. All of these objections to the

use of visual imagery as data and photography as one means of collecting it

have been themselves attacked in post-modernist discussions, thus reopening

the visual to research.

However, at all times the limitations of visual data as qualitative research

materials must be recognized (Berg, 2003). Both discussion of individual images

and generalizations about patterns in a series of images need to be cautiously

drawn. A good example of the former problem, the dangers of uninformed visual

analysis, can be seen in the debate over multiple interpretations of the famed

“baby bomber” photography which appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph in 2002

(Robson, 2004). The photograph in question depicted a child between one and

one and a half years old (although the newspaper stated that he was only 5

months old). The child was Palestinian, from the West Bank town of Hebron, and

was shown dressed in the ‘uniform’ of a Hamas suicide bomber, including belts

holding bullets and explosives, and the red bandanna of a martyr.

These signifiers of struggle, of death and suffering, are rendered almost

comical over the child’s padded suit, at first sight no more threatening than
a Halloween costume. The wide, startled eyes of the child stare out of the
image as he appears to stand rather unsteadily, arms spread as if for
balance. Were it not for the context of this appearance of a baby in
uniform, this would look like any other snapshot commemorating another
stage in the child’s development, kept in a family album by proud parents.
And, indeed, this is exactly where it is supposed to have been discovered
by Israeli soldiers, in a raid on a Hebron house.

The raid in which the photo was discovered was part of the hunt for a man

described in the press as ‘an alleged Hamas militant’. He was not captured that

night during the raid, but the Israelis circulated the photograph, citing it as an

example of Palestinian indoctrination. An Israeli government spokesman was

quoted in the newspapers as saying that the photograph is part of “a deliberate

policy of incitement … which involves the brainwashing of an entire people. This

yields enormous hate and a future generation of terrorists down the road.” Other

voices in the debate claimed the photo was only a Halloween type image, or

family dress up photo, and not indicative of early indoctrination. Some claimed

the photo was itself staged and not authentic, the result of Israeli attempts to

manipulate the media. Without an intimate knowledge of the context of the image

or the “home modes of photography” (Musello, 1980) practiced by Palestinians,

social claims as to the image’s truth value abounded, ultimately making the

photograph only valuable as a propaganda tool.

A depth-level ethnographic analysis of visual data as described here,

completed using a contexualized methodology, can make a better documented

case for having truth value than any sole image. Through use of ethnographic

methods researchers may uncover patterns of social reality typically under- or

unexplored through surveys or other quantitative data collection methods. Some

of the strengths of qualitative research are in its ability to uncover trends and

patterns over time, locate the embeddedness of individuals within cultural worlds,

and yet retain focus on individual level responses and uniquenesses. Still

researchers need to be careful of over-generalizing beyond their data.


The discussion of visual criminology as a research methodology has up

until this point been inadequate, particularly given the use of photographic

materials for not only ethnographic, but also for journalistic, documentary, and

forensic purposes. A more complete analysis of these uses of photography and

videography within criminology and criminal justice is warranted.

This essay described and advocated a reflexive approach to ethnographic

criminological photography. According to Pink (2001, 57) such an approach


First, developing a consciousness of how ethnographers play their roles

as photographers in particular cultural settings, how they frame particular
images, and why they choose particular subjects; second, a consideration
of how these choices are related to the expectations of both academic
disciplines and local visual cultures; and third, an awareness of the
theories of representation that inform their photography.

By combining both a qualitative methodology for analyzing visual data as

suggested here with more traditional quantitative approaches, particularly

interview and survey data, a closer verisimilitude to understanding the lived

experience of those who work within or come into contact with the criminal justice

system might be possible. Current visual knowledge of criminal justice comes

primarily from Hollywood films, prime-time crime dramas and journalism, while

ethnographic visual materials play a minor role in comparison. For example, in

the 2004 documentary Control Room, about the Al Jazera satellite television

network, the final (deleted) scene showed the company's producer, Sameer

Khader, coming to New York City to promote the documentary (Noujaim, 2004).

He had never been to the United States and admitted to having only Hollywood

images of America in his head. His comment on the most striking thing about his

first taxi ride from airport to midtown Manhattan was that he didn't notice any

police cars along the way. He said he had always assumed America was a police

state because police cars were ubiquitous in Hollywood films of New York.

Photography as a form of ethnographic visual criminology may have an important

role to play in the process of creating materials that offer other perspectives than

those currently dominant as produced by Hollywood and exported worldwide. In

addition, the interests of ethnographic photographers sometimes differ from

those of journalistic photographers, thus offering a more fully formed

interpretation of the social reality which is crime and justice.

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All Photos are by Cecil Greek, except Lewis Hine photo.