If a picture is worth a thousand words, and a typical PhD thesis averages around 70,000 words (depending on the discipline), then I should be all set to graduate with my hundreds of photos and 3D images from my data collection. Unfortunately, I doubt that it will be that easy…
This month, I entered the University’s PhDepictions contest, in which graduate students are invited to submit a photo that can capture the essence of their research project. This is quite challenging to do, since a PhD encompasses so much – how does one simplify the concept and content of a complex project into a mere image?
I must have done an all right job, since I placed fifth out of 21 candidates with my submission:
Images are very powerful tools, and humanity has used them for millennia as a gateway for our innate creativity. Even crime scene photos, which are objective and otherwise non-creative, are used to tell a story, especially in the courtroom. As objective as they are, however, scene photos are far from dispassionate. They can evoke sadness, anger, or horror – and although we can’t remove this emotional aspect when presenting such visual aids in court, we can be mindful and sensitive of this fact when testifying.
Earlier this month, a verdict was delivered on a murder case I was involved in as a forensic anthropology field technician back in Canada. There was understandably a lot of media coverage, and friends/family who knew about my involvement sent me links with news about the trial. The first thing that struck me about these articles was the use of imagery and photos that were ubiquitously present, many of them which were mainly used for shock and emotional impact. There were numerous photos of the victim, his wife, and of the accused, all of which painted the context of this case. There was even an article composed almost exclusively of photos highlighting the ten main exhibits used in the trial.
While photos, sketches, and diagrams (if used correctly and appropriately) can convey information faster than paragraphs of text, we need to think about the impact of such visual aids, especially in emotionally-charged situations like in criminal trials. Even if a certain visual is important and relevant to the trial, we should also consider the audience, especially family members of victims. We also need to think about the emotional sway that shocking images may have by unintentionally biasing jurors.
The use of visual aids in court varies from country to country, and even from judge to judge. But even though we, as forensic scientists, are not directly responsible for what is allowable in court, we can be aware of the impact that visual aids can have on our testimony, and on our professional image. I believe it is prudent to think about the ethical concerns that can arise from using visuals in a variety of different circumstances, and to form our own guidelines. When is it appropriate to showcase sensitive images? Should we use them in court? Teaching? Outreach? Social media (for broadening awareness)? And what are the boundaries that should exist in each situation? What impact can we have on the audience, and are these impacts positive or negative? The answers to these questions will vary according to individual, situation, and naturally, the topic of the images. The point is that we should all be thinking about these questions to decide on ethical practices governing the use of visual media.
I realize that this blog post ironically contains fewer images than most of my other posts, but the cartoons I had in mind that illustrate my point are copyrighted. Instead, I will end with a screenshot of my latest major achievement – my first article has been published! The abstract is available here.
Note: Personally, I believe it is unethical to ‘pose’ human remains or to use them as a prop for photoshoots, because by respecting the dead we respect the concept of life. It is for this reason that I choose never to use images with actual human remains unless I absolutely have to for teaching purposes (FYI – my PhDepictions submission uses a plastic cast, as do all of my images of “bone” that are available to the public).