Ambivalent Faces

“Ambivalent Faces: Visual Endeavours of Identification and Typification from 19th Century Science to Today’s Biometric Recognition.”

Presentation at the 6th international Surveillance & Society conference  (23.04.-26.04.2014) hosted by the University of Barcelona and supported by the Surveillance Studies Network.

When in mid-19th century photography entered science as well as criminological and administrative practice it was widely perceived as an objective medium of depiction and was used as a means for identification as well as typification. Not only in visual anthropology, also in criminology, visual types became influential in the description and classification of the human body and face.

The French anthropologist and criminologist Alphonse Bertillon was the first to establish the individualisation of human appearance through biometric measurements and visual depiction. Drawing on Adolphe Quetélet’s findings in social statistics and the binomial distribution, he developed a technique, which allowed for the identification of individuals through their physical characteristics that was soon adopted by police agencies worldwide. The triumph of Bertillon’s technique eventually ended with the introduction of fingerprinting as a more manageable method of identification, which was promoted and further developed by his Victorian contemporary Francis Galton, who also worked extensively with the medium of photography.

Today endeavours of identification move back to the face as the most visible part of the human body. Biometric facial recognition systems revolutionise identification, as for example in automated passport controls at airports. Face recognition systems in public space have reached trial stages in Germany and other countries. These systems will eventually allow for identification in passing, without consent and often without awareness of individuals. These asymmetries are further strengthened by laws that prohibit hiding the face in public.

The paper traces the development of identification by photographic means and the systematisation of recording in the “Bertillonage”. When looking closer at the practice of the production of judiciary identity, asymmetries and power relations come to the fore. The seemingly objective and neutral images produced by photographic means in this context carry strong derogative connotations linked to the inscription of a criminal mark on the human body. Looking back at the origins, it becomes obvious that the today’s techniques and modes of depiction are intrinsically connected to the developments in late 19th century.