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Jonathan Finn

Capturing the Criminal Image: From Mug Shot to Surveillance Society

by Jonathan Finn
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009
200 pp., illus. 29 b/w. Trade, $67.50; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5069-9; ISBN: 978-0-8166-5070-5.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Jonathan Finn’s book is a well-informed and very clearly written contribution to the study of surveillance society and, more in general, the problem of visual knowledge. It helps to bridge the gap between several domains and various types of research that are gathered and combined here in a very efficient and innovative way.

The most important domains tackled by Finn are photography and post-photography, as used and discussed in the reflection on law enforcement and criminal investigation. The author relies in a very intelligent manner on the classic essays by scholars such as John Tagg and Alan Sekula, who focused in the 1980s on the use of photography and the archive in the monitoring of the population in a class society. At the same time he enlarges the scope of these works by linking them to the study of more recent tools such as DNA analysis and computer databases. The most interesting aspect of Finn’s study is that he manages to demonstrate as well as to disentangle the broad similarities but also the crucial dissimilarities between old and new photographic techniques of crime investigation and law enforcement. For although the new identification tools fingerprinting or DNA analysis can only become useful once they are combined with photography (in fingerprint analysis, for instance, what the police is using are not the actual fingerprints, but pictures of these prints, and the same applies to all the more recent law enforcement tools based on the use of computers), there are also dramatic differences between the traditional mug shots, which are just photographic images, and the newer images, which are photographs of other types of traces. Technically speaking, photographic images are representations, whereas fingerprints and DNA codes, for instance, are presentations resulting form an act of inscription, i.e. that they are constructed as scientific facts by a whole set of procedures and inscription devices by a community that has to agree on their signification and use.

With this distinction between representations, which can be recognized by the visual relationship between image and model, and inscriptions, which need more complex forms of interpretation, Finn manages to establish a very fruitful relationship between the classic reading of panoptic society along Foucaldian lines and the actor-network theory by Bruno Latour and others. The insistence on the criminal image as presentation and inscription proves that the traditional juxtaposition of seeing and knowing is not strong enough to understand what is really going on in the shift from the 19th century mug shot to newer techniques of envisioning, ranging from late 19th Century fingerprinting and Bertillon’s biometrics to late 20-Century techniques such as DNA analysis and live scan recordings (as used nowadays to monitor incoming US visitors). What really changes is not the photographic character of the images, since in a sense all these inscriptions remain photographs but the very nature of their reading and the social and political consequences of it. A mug shot ‘identifies’ the criminal (or attempts to do so), whereas a DNA analysis is something that has to be ‘made’ into a sign and whose interpretation is far from self-evident. In other words, both the production and the reception of presentational signs entail many elements that are ‘black-boxed’. In order to make them meaningful, a lot of interpretive work has to be done. At the same time this work has to be ‘hidden’ if one wants to have inscriptions that are both ‘immutable’ (i.e. stabilized after the black-boxing of the numerous procedures that help produce and read the signs) and ‘mobile’ (and here photographic techniques play a crucial role: as long as the immutable inscriptions cannot be easily reproduced and circulated, their efficiency remains very limited). The Latourian feedback on Foucault’s surveillance society is an important new insight of Jonathan Finn’s book, which functions also as a missing link between photographic and post-photographic media theory.

Another very appealing aspect of this book is its avoidance of any naïve political overinterpretation of the field under scrutiny. Conspiracy theory is often just one block away when scholars tackle issues of law enforcement and crime fighting. Finn, however, takes a much more cautious and theoretical stance. He does not claim that every technical innovation increases the impact of Big Brother and has to be fought in the name of liberty, but he clearly demonstrates a shift that may be even more important. With the new inscriptional devices, it is no longer the criminal that is identified, it is any given body that is becoming virtually criminal and that is threatened of being converted one day into the index of a criminal subject. Yet as Capturing the Criminal Image. From Mug Shot to Surveillance Society convincingly demonstrates, the production of an inscription is all but a neutral operation and each of many currently black-boxed aspects is a possible threat to both the integrity of the citizen’s body and the truthfulness of criminal investigation.


Last Updated 1 May, 2010

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