Excellent session on Mugshots at the Format Festival in Derby on Sat 28 March


This illustrated panel discussion featured curator Sue Steward, Ashley Waterhouse, curator of Derby Police Museum; and Paul Lashmar from Brunel University, London.

Paul Lashmar’s position statement: The ‘mugshot’ – the judicial photograph – is a ubiquitous and instantly recognisable form, appearing in the news media, on the internet, on book covers, law enforcement noticeboards and in many other mediums.

The analysis is based on the author’s reflexive practice as a journalist covering crime in the national news media for thirty years who has used mugshots to illustrate stories for their explicit and specific content. The author argues that the visual limitations of the standardised ‘head and shoulders’ format of the mugshot make it an convenient subject for analysing the changing meaning of images over time.

With little substantive to debate in the image as to the photographers’ motivation or composition, arguments for certain accreted layers of signification are easier to make.

Within a few years of the first appearance of the mugshot form it was adopted and adapted as a research tool by positivist scientists in the Victorian period.

While the positivists claimed empirical objectively we can now see that mugshots played a part in the construction of subjective notions of ‘the other’, ‘the lesser’ or ‘sub-human’ on the grounds of class, race and religion. These dehumanising ideas then informed the theorists and bureaucrats of National Socialist ideology from the 1920s to 1940s.

Once again the mugshot has become, in certain parts of the news media, a signifier widely used to exclude or deride certain groups. In late modernity, the part of the media that most use mugshots – the tabloid press and increasingly tabloid TV – is part of the neo-liberal process that, in a conscious commercial appeal to the paying audience, seeks to separate rather than cohere society.