Evidence on Trial

cctv-evCCTV evidence bag ‘as approved by the Crown Prosecution Service’.

Evidence on Trial:
When Media Reformats the Law


The concept of evidence as it pertains to the law may seem to be self-evident — namely materials presented during trials and courtroom proceedings to support and/or refute a legal claim, however the admissibility of such evidence has in fact always been heavily contested.

While the question of what counts as evidence is implicated in the shift from human testimony to that of the material witness as scientific and forensic analysis plays an increasingly significant role in determining a sequence of events in relationship to a crime, my interest is specifically directed towards the ways in which evidence itself (and not merely the information contained within) was subject to the force of the law. For example, the 19th century introduction of photographs as evidence into court proceedings radicalized what could count as evidence given that corroborating materials could now be constructed or produced in the aftermath of a crime. The acceptance of photographic evidence allowed other non-textual visual aids to enter into the court such as 3D models.

“In the second half of the nineteenth century, two competing paradigms governed the understanding of the photograph’s evidentiary status. One emphasized its ability to transcribe nature directly, while the other highlighted the ways in which it was a human representation. From the first perspective, the photograph was viewed as an especially privileged kind of evidence; from the second perspective, the photograph was seen as a potentially misleading form of proof.” Jennifer Mnoonkin (see attached PDF “The Image of Truth”)

This tension between new forms of evidence and the law is also made explicit when it concerned changes in media format. Another useful example concerns the shift from black and white to colour photography, which was argued as decreasing the evidentiary value of the photograph because it was viewed as harbouring a greater degree of subjectivity and affect. Likewise human rights investigators are still, to this day, reluctant to use moving images over stills because courts tend to equate camera movement with more deliberate acts of media-capture suggesting that an event may have been “stage directed”. In spite of much well rehearsed photo-criticism that has unveiled the truth claims of photography, somehow a frozen image-field is still better able to perform it objective capacity and assert its status as evidentiary material before the law. The forensic analysis of the Sri Lankan execution videos of 2009 and subsequent contestations between the UN and Sri Lankan state as to the authenticity of the mobile phone videos is a paradigmatic example, something I explore in greater details in my upcoming book Forensic Media.


This new body of research/artwork titled “Evidence on Trial” gathers together a wide range of archival source materials (photographs, films, videos, and audio recordings) and legal documents (transcripts of proceedings, rulings, recommendations) that tested the limits of the legal system and the cases they were specifically attached to. Examples that provide a sense of the project’s direction and scope of interest, range from the first use of colour slide film in Argentina during the military trials of  the Argentinian Junta, the infamous 1991 amateur video recording by George Holliday of the Rodney King beating by the LAPD (which must now be updated to include Paul Pritchard’s camcorder footage documenting the TASER death of arriving Polish immigrant Robert Dziekański by the RCMP in the Vancouver Airport in 2007), Colin Powell’s use of satellite surveillance imagery during the UN Security Council debates (2001), CCTV footage of Denis Lortie’s killing spree in the National Assembly of Quebec (1984) to allegations of faked footage by the Sri Lanka government in reaction to Channel Four’s documentary on torture in Sri Lanka (2009). I highlight these more well-known examples to provide a quick snapshot as the more elaborated and arcane cases will require more lengthy descriptions. 

These clusters of media materials and the ways in which the photography, film, telephony, audio, camcorder footage, CCTV files, mobile phone-videos, remote sensing and infrared technologies slowly gained entry into legal processes (albeit very differently in different jurisdictions) opens up a fascinating alternative media history that exposes what was perceived to be legally at stake in the shift from B&W to colour, silence to sound, stillness to movement, and expert producer to citizen journalist – insights into media’s history, that are not always congruent with the ways in which media studies and art history have tracked the transformations of their subjects. This project might well be summarised by the adapted concept LAW+RW which refers to the re-writable nature of the law and the material media substrates upon which this reformatting takes place.


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Video Forensics

Denis Lortie (May 7 1984) – Killings in the National Assembly of Quebec captured by CCTV  but Lortie can’t recognise himself in the images when they are presented in court.


Rodney King  (March 31 1991) – George Holliday videotaped beating by LAPD


Abu Ghraib (2006) –  Film clip from STO by Errol Morris


Sri Lanka executions videos (May 2009) – mobile phone videos / Channel 4 Documentary


 Robert Dziekanski – CCTV & Paul Pritchard video of his Taser death by RCMP