Look at these four mug shots of similar looking prisoners. How would you describe the man on the left so he stands out from the others?  Leave your ideas below.

Describe The Face

It's not easy, is it? The challenge of this task lays in the way we translate a visual image into words. Before mug shots were invented in the mid-nineteenth century, words were essentially the only tool police had to describe how someone looks. However, it is nearly impossible to communicate what makes a person look unique in words alone. Think about the features and characteristics that make us recognise our family members, friends, classmates, characters on TV, and the people who work and live in our communities. Sometimes a person will have a distinguishing feature, such as a large nose or a wild hairstyle, but more often it is just the indescribable and unique way their features are put together. Imagine how difficult it would have been for the police to identify criminals using just written descriptions in the days before photography!

In the late 19th century, Alphonse Bertillon famously tackled this problem of written descriptions. Click here to read about his method of criminal identification and the portrait parlé

Chelsea Nichols, March 2010. Unless otherwise stated, all images and information found on this website are property of the New Zealand Police Museum.