Now this is curious.
Take a look at the photograph opposite and assess what you see. If you’ve been reading the newspapers in the past few days you may recognise it – so you can’t play in this game.
It looks like a fairly standard, relaxed kind of photo of a middle-aged man with a thoughtful expression on his face. It’s taken under some kind of lighting and there is no background. The top of his head is cropped away - but not much to say beyond that.
Well, the photo is © the Metropolitan Police so that’s a huge clue. It’s a mugshot of the final suspect in the 2015 Hatton Garden jewellery raid. This is Michael Seed (aka Basil – the Best Alarm Specialist In London) who was sentenced to 10 years in jail last week for his part in the robbery. The perpetrators were so old and used such traditional techniques – drilling and alarm disconnection - that they were known as the Diamond Wheezers.
Yet this is a very unusual mugshot. Partly it’s the subject’s demeanour: he doesn’t look like someone who has just had his door flattened in a police raid or who has just suffered the indignities of arrest. He looks pretty composed. It’s also the format of the photo. The mugshot is conventionally square or portrait format. It is cropped close and the subject is often looking tough or shocked or dishevelled. By its nature it criminalises - which is why juries are often not allowed to see it. But not Basil’s: his looks more like a social worker’s identity badge. He isn’t even looking straight at the camera – he is looking up to the left. It is possible, of course, that the newspapers cropped it into this format rather than the police but the expression and lighting remain the same.
A couple of years ago I looked pretty closely at the use of digital photography as legal evidence and found that that legal systems generally are struggling to get to grips with the whole range of digital images: still, moving, CGI and so on. That is largely because the law is an overwhelmingly verbal practice and few lawyers are sufficiently literate visually to understand the significance of the digital image and to grasp its rhetorical potential.
Look at this press shot of the scene of the Hatton Garden crime, for example. Look at the digital sheen it has. It has entirely abandoned the conventions of forensic photography where objectivity and neutrality take precedence. The source of the photo is given as Alamy/Getty Images. That too strikes me as odd. Traditionally, the provenance of crime scene photographs has been the state because the agents of the state (the police and prosecution) were the ones with access to that scene. Yet Alamy and Getty Images are commercial organisations. The crime scene photo now seems to be a commercial tool rather than an evidential one.
The unconventional mugshot of Basil is not the result of digital technology in any direct sense but it shows the ease with which digitality can subvert convention. A digital image is easily and infinitely malleable while an analogue one is not. So digital starts off by mimicking a convention and ends up by creating a new one. Ironic, then, that Basil’s mugshot should emerge from such a spectacularly analogue crime.