A Day in the Life of a Forensic Photographer

By Sanford Weiss

The popularity of scripted television programs like CSI is a cultural phenomenon. But the press coverage regarding the “CSI Effect” or “CSI Syndrome” has not been totally complimentary.

In fact, most of it has been relatively discouraging. Television has always had that kind of effect on the minds of the millions. Whenever contemporary programs capture the imaginations of the public, they invariably create a thirst for further information, resulting in an upsurge in interest and sales of associated products and technologies.

In the case of the CSI Effect, the obvious cure for television’s dose of forensic misinformation or exaggeration is an equal abundance of proper education. It is not surprising that universities have seen an increase in students who are enrolling in forensic-science and other related science programs. Along with the increase in education being offered, there needs to be an increase in available positions for the people receiving the training. Otherwise, the people who graduate will be forced to find other jobs. If available positions are not made available to new graduates, eventually general information or word of mouth will quell the interest in this specialized education. In the meantime, however, students continue to seek an education in specialized forensic fields, and subsequently seek jobs with law enforcement and forensic laboratories.

For a number of reasons, there are more people involved in forensic fields today than there were ten years ago. Developing technologies, miraculous discoveries, and an unrelenting need for ways to present courtroom evidence have brought forensic sciences and tech-nologies to the forefront of more than the popular television shows. Enterprising individuals and companies have taken the ball and run with it. Developments in technology and training were needed and welcomed by judges, attorneys, engineers, and the public.

So you want to be a forensic photographer

One field that has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of a growing group of talented individuals is forensic photography. It is a likely 21st  century goal for people who have taken photos since they were youngsters and have been told they “have a good eye” for photography. Whatever the reason, the throng is there and looking to snap up the available jobs and run out to accident and crime scenes to capture prize- and trial-winning images.

How difficult could it be? Well, the people taking the time to read this article know the answer to that.

Take a closer look at what is involved: A photographer is a person who takes photographs using a camera. A professional photographer uses a camera to earn money. A forensic photographer is tasked with the production of photo-graphs meant for court that record evidence, crime scenes, and victims of crimes and accidents as clearly, objectively, and accurately as possible.

Forensic photographers on television shows like CSI are depicted glamorously. In truth, their work may not always be glamorous—but it is a fascinating area of work suitable to dedicated photographers with excellent technical skills and meticulous working practices.

The availability of professional forensic jobs was small until recently, when technological and scientific advances developed and provided new tools to substantially improve the efficiency of law enforcement in solving crimes. As a consequence, many law enforcement agencies and other institutions expanded their resources and facilities in order to upgrade their abilities in the forensic sciences.

Advice for the would-be forensic photographer

Personally, I field a steady stream of inquiries from people who are looking for advice about finding positions as forensic photographers and crime scene investigators. Some of them are already professional photographers who have found that the excitement of documenting weddings is wearing thin. Others have gone to school and received degrees in photography, forensic science, or criminal justice, and now are ready to go out and work. Sadly, the number of jobs available is not enough to satisfy the interest.

Would-be forensic photographers ask me, “How did you get your job as a forensic photographer?” I reply that I have a driven personality and I trained myself to excel in macrophotography, processing, and analytical thinking. I also managed a “can-do” attitude. Then I watched everywhere, asked everyone, jumped at every opportunity, worked very hard, and learned every day from my experiences.

My advice today is to talk to anyone you know who may have a connection that could help you. Most often, your big break is a matter of who you know and being in the right place at the right

. Do not ever underestimate the value of persistence, research, and old-fashioned legwork. You truly do not see these jobs popping up too often in the want ads.

For people who are interested in forensic photography but have no forensic background, there are wonderful courses and conferences available through associations such as the Evidence Photographers International Council (EPIC) and the International Association for Identification (IAI), as well as a number of colleges and universities worldwide. Some of these courses are now offered via the Internet, so anyone anywhere may attend.

Another popular question is, “Does a person need a degree in forensic science or criminal justice to become a uniformed police officer?” And the answer is a resounding “No”. Institutions of higher learning do not necessarily teach policing. Criminal justice does not always include a section about how to be a police officer. It does include the history of policing, trial law, the constitution, and so on. Uniformed officers need to know how to shoot and how to fight, and they need to understand that their number one job is to go home alive at the end of their shift.

Crime-scene personnel do not necessarily need to be sworn police officers. The number of sworn versus civilian staff varies by each agency’s polices and practices.

If a career in law enforcement is what you really want, check out the hiring practices of the department where you want to live and see if you qualify. Most hiring processes will include a written exam, drug screen, medical exam, psychological exam, and background investigation. If hired—and before you will be allowed to specialize—you must start as an entry-level officer. After a probationary period, you may be able to apply to a specialized unit as opportunities arise. Uniformed officers could rank up quicker if they possess a degree in crime-scene investigation or forensic science.

Forensic photography jobs outside the world of law enforcement

If you are not interested in a job with a law enforcement agency, there are other alternatives for photographers who are looking for jobs related to forensic science or criminal justice.

Forensic photographers can also offer their services to individuals and attorneys involved in civil law and other legal cases. People working in the areas of science, computers, economics, and business can learn to detect, collect, evaluate, and prepare evidence for use in civil and criminal courts.

In summary, properly trained forensic evidence photographers will better understand and implement forensic techniques. Applicants for any forensic-related position will stand a better chance in a competitive market when they have a higher level of training. Added expertise also helps to provide better prosecutions, reduces court overloads because of inexact evidence, and—in general—makes cases run faster and more smoothly.

About the Author

Sanford Weiss is the author of a book published in 2009 by Pearson, Prentice Hall. The title is Forensic Photography: The Importance of Accuracy. To contact Weiss for more information about this topic, send an e-mail to: sandyweiss2009@gmail.com

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