photo op

The Art of the Mug Shot

Photo: Fulton County Sheriff’s O/ffice

The man in the photo wears a scowl. Shadowless in some no-space. His hair is a mystery: a cloud, an eddy, a fleece of spun gold. Harshly lit, slightly out of focus, no depth of field. It could be a driver’s-license photo, were it not for the badge in the corner — “Fulton County Sheriff’s Office” — that provides the image with its context. The man’s glare was practiced a thousand times before it was captured, yet he seems to be seething at his lack of control. It is the most famous photograph in the world.

One of 19 similar pictures. All bright and weirdly washed out, the light sometimes gleaming like a white bar on the subject’s forehead. A few of them are so brightly lit that they seem to be fading away; others wear masks of a deathly pallor. Mug shots are meant to convey just the facts of a person’s face, but the more you look the more the facts fade away. Some of these people seem like they are from the same gene pool. A couple look like twins.

The criticism of mug shots is that they are dehumanizing and prejudicial against Black and brown people. These 19 subjects are almost all white, many in suit and tie, and indeed there is something not quite human about them: the hunched shoulders, the deep grooves on their faces, the bloodless lips pressed together in a grimace, the zombie stares. A couple of them are smiling, but from certain angles their faces seem caught in a rictus of pain. The mug shot does not reveal a person’s essence; rather, it makes them seem criminal. Police departments should stop using them. But what can be said of these mug shots is that, for once, there is no discrepancy between what the jail’s camera imposes and who these subjects actually are. They might even redefine what picture comes to mind when we think of that word, criminal.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos FULTON COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The mug shot is an unlovely subgenre of portraiture photography. It is the opposite of a self-portrait, which offers the maximum amount of agency. Think of Cindy Sherman. No matter what the pose is, you are aware that she is aware of how the photograph will look. In the mug shot, the subject is given very little leeway. Heads may be tilted up or down, but they are always seen straight on (or, in the old days, from the side). We rarely see much below the shoulders. At the mercy of the police, the subjects have no idea how they will look, and for a certain sort of image-obsessed person, that is enraging. Made in the inaccessible privacy of a police station, these are pictures that the whole world is meant to see. They were made for, and belong to, the public — to judge, to play with, to make into memes, to mock.

The genre, like all genres, has its own rules and imagistic rhetoric. There is a canon of famous mug shots. Some are righteous, poignant, though still painful: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks. There are mug shots that are iconic (Lee Harvey Oswald), chilling (Bill Cosby), and even cool (Frank Sinatra). In all of them, a face is forced to confront a camera as the shutter opens or a digital imprint is made. What these 19 confrontations might mean is ultimately up to the viewer. Already the man with the scowl is using his portrait as both a statement of defiance and a claim of persecution — a symbol as diabolically ingenious as the red MAGA hat. I see ghouls who are corrupt and morally damaged. To me, the images signal a reckoning.

The Art of the Mug Shot