Review – Burden of Proof at The Photographer’s Gallery

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Face-skull superimposition of Josef Mengele.
Richard Helmer

Recent years have seen the evidential limitations of photography thoroughly investigated, indeed almost to the point of exhaustion. I don’t mean that in the sense that we have run out of examples of apparently evidential photography which might under inspection reveal themselves to be highly suspect, there are still plenty of these. Rather I mean that as a photography consuming culture I think we are increasingly tired of hearing from a succession of experts that this thing we all have vested so much belief in is, in reality, something of a sham. Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence which has just opened at The Photographers Gallery offers a wonderfully balanced assessment of the complications of using photographs as evidence. It reveals that while photographic evidence might be highly constructed, ambiguous, selective and often far from incontrovertible (what evidence isn’t?), the evidential roles that photography fulfills in our society remain for the most part too important for us to reject them outright..

The first gallery consists primarily of archival imagery from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, starting with the remarkable ‘God’s eye view’ photographs made using a system developed by the 19th century criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. In these images the camera appears to hover almost unsupported directly above the bodies of the deceased, the wide angle lens causing the wider crime scene in the periphery of the frames to curve away and disappear into a soft blur. Despite these images showing bodies which have been ravaged by violence and decomposition they are still irresistibly beautiful in a way it is hard to imagine anyone finding the starkly functional forensic photography of today. Other works in this gallery include the first photographs of the Turin Shroud (the ‘first forensic photograph’ later revealed as a medieval fake) and photographs taken of victims of Stalinist purges before their execution, an intriguing example of how a piece evidence produced for one purpose can later be turned around and reformed as evidence against it’s maker.

The second gallery opens with archive footage filmed at liberated German concentration camps by Allied cameramen who were issued highly specific instructions about how they were to film the unimaginable scenes they encountered (perhaps not unlike those guidelines by which police forensic investigators work today). Strangely though these guidelines were drawn up by the director John Ford, an auteur now most synonymous with the western, a genre of fantasy which are so often taken as fact. Such was the perceived importance of this footage to the Nuremburg trials that the court room was reconstructed around the cinema screen which took the position normally afforded to the judge, and neon lighting was reported to cast a ghoulish light across the faces of the accused. Hardly an objective arrangement.

Several of the works in this gallery are presented as part of research by Eyal Weizman who directs Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture Centre. In one piece a series of mid-century British aerial photographs of what is now Israel are probed for evidence of ancient cemeteries which would lend legitimacy to the claims of nomads who were forced from their lands in the wake of the 1947 partition. Given the limited resolution of the film used and the height that these photographs were taken at, these tiny graves lie at what Weizman terms the threshold of detectability, and are perceptible only as single grains of silver in the photographic emulsion. This level of detail proved too precise or contestable for the Israeli state which rejected the claim of the nomads.

The works in Burden of Proof are all taken from real world investigations, and refreshingly there is hardly an ‘artist’ in sight with the exception of Susan Meiselas who helped to photograph the excavation of a mass grave from the anti-Kurdish Anfal campaign. In spite of this many of the works on display still manage to have an artistic patina about them, partly I suppose a result of the rather lavish production of the exhibition, partly a result of the way consciously non-artistic aesthetics have permeated into contemporary art practice, but also mostly just because of the curious ability of photography to remould itself to the different circumstances in which it is seen.

Another contribution from Weizman highlights this pretty well. It examines the forensic investigation to determine whether a body found in Brazil was that of Josef Mengele, the Todesengel or Angel of Death who presided over exterminations and human experimentation at Auschwitz. As part of this investigation pioneering new techniques were developed which allowed superimposition of an archive image of the deceased over a video feed of the exhumed skull. In the resulting images Mengele’s leering face emerges out of and dissolves back into his skull in a way with far more emotional resonance than a forensic science experiment might be expected to permit. Even with this compelling visual evidence, the identity of the skull remained contested until it was later possible to undertake DNA testing, which confirmed that it was indeed Mengele’s.

I think it’s worth noting that the Burden of Proof underwent a name change in it’s transition from Le Bal in Paris where it was first staged under titled Images of Conviction, to it’s new form at the Photographers Gallery. I find the new title highly suggestive, as the original one is although perhaps in different ways than it might have been to it’s French audiences. The burden in this case is the burden of knowing all too well about photography’s limitations, its biases and selectivities, and of using it anyway. The burden falls on us as viewer, to equip ourselves with the knowledge to understand what a photograph is and how it works and how it dosen’t. The burden is one of faith as much as evidence, and the onus is on us to question our convictions and perhaps most difficult of all, to determine the threshold of our own belief in photography.

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