Crime, seen: a history of photographing atrocities
From Joseph Mengele’s skull to Gaza’s bombed-out buildings, a new exhibition presents a visual record of acts of violence in chilling detail
“We will give you undeniable proofs of incredible events,” announced Robert H Jackson, America’s chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, in 1945. What followed was unprecedented: a trial in which film was used as incriminating evidence, the screen placed at the head of the courtroom where the judge would usually sit.
The meticulously assembled images that appeared on that screen were made by a team of American film-makers led by John Ford and, as Jackson warned in his opening address, they made for difficult viewing. “Our proof will be disgusting and you will say I have robbed you of your sleep. But these are the things which have turned the stomach of the world and set every civilised hand against Nazi Germany.”
Within the context of an ambitious exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence, the film is doubly illuminating not only for what it shows, but for the ways in which the filmed evidence was created and presented. The filmmakers followed a set of specific instructions – “several photos should be taken of each body”, for instance, and they had to be taken “as close as possible” in order to “show, within the limits of the photograph, the entire body”. Alongside each image, detailed information had to be provided about the location, date, quality of film stock used and a written description of what had been filmed. For an image, whether moving or still, to work as evidence at Nuremberg, it needed to be forensic in descriptions of detail and context.