these faces closely. Do you think they look guilty of a crime?
you looked at these faces and tried to ‘read’ them, you were doing the
same thing that many scholars, scientists and police officers have tried to do for many years. Sir Frances Galton made composite
photographs out of mug shots trying to identify a ‘criminal look’;
phrenologists studied the death masks of executed criminals; Johann
Kaspar Lavatar named facial features he thought might indicate
1886 a Boston police officer named Thomas Byrnes published
Professional Criminals of America, a coffee-table style book
of mug shots of mainly ‘confidence men’ and swindlers. According
to Byrnes, these criminals appeared to have 'respectable faces' and
he wanted to encourage the public to look suspiciously at these
seemingly trustworthy faces. People in New Zealand at the end of the
nineteenth century also had concerns about the 'criminal look': in
1892, for example, a newspaper article entitled “Beautiful
Rogues” expressed concerns that pretty young girls wouldn't be
convicted of serious crimes because their faces wouldn't look
criminal enough to juries.
with the ‘look’ of criminals in mug shots still exist today.
Studies by psychological researchers in the 1990s revealed that
juries who are shown a mug shot of an accused person will be far more
likely to convict that person, whether or not they are guilty.
Researchers suggest that this might be due to our strong association
between mug shots and criminality. Other psychological studies of
human recognition can reveal fascinating insight into the way we look
at mug shots as well. For example, it has been claimed that the way
we see people is based strongly on the way we see ourselves: if we
focus on our teeth when we look in the mirror, teeth will become an
important focal point when we look at other people. Because of this,
two people might recognize the same person for different
characteristics. This explains why a person might remind us strongly
of someone else, but another person won’t see the resemblance
between the two at all.
Ask yourself this: Do the people in these mug shots look suspicious or do we just look at them suspiciously?
Chelsea Nichols, March
2010. Unless otherwise stated, all images and information found on this
website are property of the New Zealand Police Museum.