While photographs are essential for the forensic process, they are themselves also constituted by a complex process of material inscription. The medium on which the trace is registered has specific material characteristics, sensitivity, and grain. It can record some impressions but not others; it can retain them for longer and shorter periods of time; it affects what it accepts.
Before-and-after photographs are the very embodiment of a forensic time. They frame a missing event by showing the states that preceded and followed it. This form of presentation emerged out of the limitations of the early photographic process. The few dozen seconds required for the exposure of a mid-nineteenth-century photograph was too long to record moving figures and sudden events. The result was that people were usually blurred into the background of the image; only buildings and other static elements of the urban fabric or landscape were registered. The absence of the violent event from representation is somewhat analogous to the way in which trauma selectively erases the memory of events that have proven hardest for the subject to experience. But the use of montage, even before the advent of the motion picture, allowed the consequences of battles, uprisings, and urban transformations to be represented as if they were archaeology.
(with Ines Weizman)
- MSF Supported Hospital (case)
- Drone Strikes (case)
- Guatemala: Operacion Sofia (case)
- Living Death Camps (case)
- The Left-to-Die Boat (case)
- Bil’in (case)
- Down to Earth (file)
- Atacama (file)
- Kivalina (file)
- NATO as Architectural Critic (file)
- Financial Forensics (file)
- Arsenic (file)
- Climate Crimes (file)
- ICTY Court Records (file)
June 25/26, 1848: Saint-Maur-Popincourt, Paris, France
The “before” image shows a sequence of barricades blocking the road. Although the workers’ neighborhoods of the time were undergoing an unprecedented population explosion, we can see nobody in the street. People might have been moving too fast to be captured in the daguerreotype’s lengthy exposure time. In the “after” image the National Guard seems to have broken through. Artillery and other military equipment is positioned in the area previously held by the defenders.
Today, some of the most common before-and-after images come from satellites. The orbital path of satellites circling the planet means that they can only capture data about the same place at regular intervals. Because there is a time lag between each image, specific events are often missed. In addition, the resolution of publicly available satellite imagery is limited to 50 cm per pixel, which means that a single pixel masks the human body (long shadows or large crowds can, however, sometimes be discerned). This limitation on resolution means that, 150 years after the invention of photography, the original condition before-and-after images persists: The human figure and events are dissolved into the ground of buildings, cities, or territories. Where images are concerned, forensis must attend not only to what is shown but also to the matter in which it is registered. These images indeed demand a form of interpretation analogous to archaeology—not an earthly archaeology, but rather one that relates to the materiality of images, or grain, silver salt, and pixels.
January 3, 1973 / December 14, 1985: Northeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
In January 1973, less than five months after Landsat 1 went into orbit, the first photographic survey of Cambodia was undertaken from outer space. That year also saw the culmination of an escalating campaign of “secret” bombing unleashed by the Nixon administration. The widespread carpet bombing transformed the surface of the territory, ravaging villages, fields, and forests, and reorienting waterways. However, the 1973 image became known for providing the “before” image—the supposedly neutral baseline—against which another crime would be registered: the atrocities perpetrated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. A satellite survey undertaken in 1985, six years after the Khmer Rouge regime was eliminated, shows a huge orthogonal grid—vast canal systems dug along the gridlines covering one square kilometer on the Chinese military maps. These were the “killing fields.” But the US bombing is still the lesser known episode because there was no “before” image with which to compare it.
February 25, 1995 / January 14, 2009: Near Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The third major force of destruction to have been inflicted on Cambodia is climate change. Cambodia is one of the countries contributing least to climate change but paying the highest price for it. In 2011, the worst flood in Cambodia’s recorded history saw three-quarters of its land area inundated and about eighty percent of the harvest destroyed.
The sequence of three catastrophes suffered by Cambodians demands a shift in the frame of analysis, from a notion of human rights in relation to the acts of repressive regimes, towards a frame that combines human conflict with environmental transformation and climate change.
2003/2007: Darfur, Sudan
Studying the transformation of the natural environment in Darfur, the Yale University Genocide Studies Program employed a technique for analyzing remote sensing data called the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). This is a graphical indicator used to visualize the vigor of vegetation cover. When two or more satellite photographs are juxtaposed or superimposed, the NDVI data can demonstrate changes in the natural environment between the dates of capture. Each pixel on the image has a color on a scale that indicates whether the area within the pixel has lost or gained vegetation cover.
Several years after being abandoned, fields display a random distribution of plant varieties, representing the robust return of “natural” (uncultivated) vegetation, as can be seen in the images. This, the Yale report claims, is an indication of the decrease in the number of livestock and the intensity of farming activity and thus a decrease in population that followed the ethnic cleansing of these areas.
In this and similar analytical work, human rights violations are made visible by visualizing some of the previously invisible domains of the electromagnetic spectrum. In contemporary human rights advocacy, the exclusion of the human figure from some forms of representation is thus complemented by the gradual exclusion of humans from the increasingly automated process of viewing, and from the algorithmic process of data interpretation.