Spring 2010 Issue

The Dark side of the Lens

Whenever a picture is taken at a crime scene in Miami-Dade County, there’s a good chance a Barry student or graduate is behind the camera

By Rebecca Wakefield

Barry intern Candice Telles can usually be seen at the morgue in the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office wearing scrubs and with a camera hanging around her neck.

There’s a kind of rhythm to the county morgue, a constant hum of data collection – weighing and measuring, cutting through soft tissue and bone, transferring fluids and bits of flesh to plastic containers for later analysis, the rustle of body bags.

And always, the quiet click of the shutter.

Every body undergoing an autopsy at the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office gets at least eight photographs taken. More if it’s warranted.

This early morning in February, Candice Telles stands back, waiting for her turn to shoot an elderly man who died after returning home from a surgery. A tech is stitching up the skin flaps around the back of his head, which were peeled back during the autopsy to allow for access to the brain.

Telles is about halfway through a six-month internship with the Medical Examiner’s Forensic Imaging Bureau. Like most of the interns who have passed through the program in the past two decades, she is a Barry student.

The Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office is one of the busiest in the country (at roughly 2,500 autopsies a year) and one of the most respected. Its relationship with Barry University’s program in biomedical and forensic photography has served both organizations well.

Barry graduates in this track receive unparalleled training in an intense environment. If they make it through with stomachs intact, they are readily accepted into medical examiner’s offices, police departments, federal law enforcement agencies, museums and hospitals.

Telles says that Barry’s intensive focus on training fundamentals has given her the technical skills necessary to work in a real morgue. The challenge was learning to apply those skills in an intense environment.

“We’re used to a school environment where there’s more handholding,” she reflects. “Here you don’t have time to be a student anymore.

You have to recall what you’ve learned and put it into practice. The first time you walk into the morgue, it’s sensory overload - all the chemicals being used, the bodies, everyone rushing around. Your training gets you through it.”

Students in the forensic track take all the same courses as budding creative and commercial photographers, as well as courses in biology, human anatomy and criminology. If they are deemed skilled enough to specialize in this track, students do an initial three-week tour in the M.E.’s office at the end of their junior year (as seniors, they serve for six months).

Barry photography professor Scott Weber, who serves as advisor to the six to 15 students in the program at any given time, says that brief experience is usually enough to separate the merely curious from the serious.

“A lot of people come in and think, ‘Oh, it’s like ‘CSI Miami,’ ” he says. “Well, not really, it’s not for everyone.

From small town Maine to a Miami morgue

Even after 10 years of working in the M.E.’s office, Heidi Nichols ’99 loves her job.

“You never get bored,” she says. “Every day it’s something different. Even if it’s another gunshot wound or stabbing, they’re all unique.” Nichols is a freckled blond with the friendly, direct manner of someone who grew up in small town Maine. She originally came to Barry to get a degree in marine biology. Then she took a course in underwater photography and got hooked on cameras. Because of her interest in science and law enforcement, it made sense to specialize in forensic photography.

“My dad is a science teacher and photographer,” she reveals. “He shot weddings and I hated helping him do that as a kid, but when I took photography at Barry I loved it. At the time Barry (in the area) was the only school offering a degree in forensic photography. It’s a great program. They really push you and they allow you to find your niche.”

The Medical Examiner’s Forensic Imaging Bureau has its own photo processing mini- lab, digital microscopes, studio setups (rigged up by Dr. Lenny Wolf, the lab’s director and resident photo MacGuyver), various computer suites for uploading, enhancements, and archiving of digital photos and video. It even has a film processing lab which is mostly used for training interns.

Prominently displayed on one wall are examples of the variety of photographs the office takes – bite marks, tire tracks, shoe prints, head wounds, blood vessels, body parts destroyed by drug use. Every student who interns here will have these types of photos in their portfolio before they leave.

“Occasionally we will cut tissue out and do what we call transillumination,” Nichols says, pointing to photos of bite marks taken using different lighting techniques. “For bite marks and things like that, sometimes when you light from underneath you can show what kind of force was used, how deep they go into the skin.”

Such photo techniques can be used to develop a bite profile that might later be matched to a suspect. The same is true of shoe prints. Often rulers are used in the photos, so measurements are exact. The photographers must decide how to manipulate their subjects sufficiently to make them useful for data analysis, but they also have to be careful not to alter the story these bodies want to tell. The sheer volume and pace of the work requires a rigorous adherence to standard and process.

“Our photos are used all the time in court, both criminal and civil,” says Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Emma Lew, a specialist in forensic pathology. “It’s an essential part of our file.”

Lew says that this M.E.’s office is unusually well equipped, in particular its photography department, which routinely cranks out work of a quality typically found more in textbooks than in a morgue. It’s why law enforcement agencies and hospitals often request their help in photographing evidence in tricky cases where special techniques are called for.

“I’m not sure that any other M.E. department in the country has anything like it,” she says. “It’s a vision that Joe Davis had.”

Wet works

Hanif Dawson ’08 documents evidence using traditional photography techniques.

The Joseph H. Davis Center for Forensic Pathology, the massive three-building complex that houses the Medical Examiner’s department, is named after its most famous and beloved M.E., who served in that capacity for almost 40 years.

The complex is a world-class training and research facility that houses a morgue capable of holding more than 300 bodies at a time, as well as a sterile autopsy room for harvesting transplantable bone and tissue, a large toxicology lab, a gun range with a high-speed camera that shoots faster than a speeding bullet, and a separate “decomp” building for especially noxious or potentially infectious corpses.

There are more than 70 employees in the M.E.’s office, of which four are full-time photographers. Just about everyone has a camera, though. Every doctor takes their own photos at the scene and whenever necessary.

But there is nothing like a specialist, so the photographers go to most scenes where they take overall shots to establish context; then orientation shots for positioning; finally, close-ups for detail.

The entire world of photography is almost entirely digital, but the M.E.’s forensic photographers have found that learning the old technology of darkrooms and chemicals is invaluable when it comes to training the brain to the exacting mindset necessary for a career in forensics.

That’s one reason why the office often prefers interns from Barry over those from other colleges, Nichols says. They learn how to document reality as it is.

“The great thing about Barry is the fact they are still using film,” Nichols explains. “Students that are strictly digitally trained often have such a hard time getting out of their head [the idea of] not correcting things in the computer afterwards. When you’re in forensics, you want to get it right and perfect the first time. With Barry students, because they work so much with film, they get that.”

Professor Weber concurs: “There is no substitute for foundation skills. Film is not forgiving. You can’t fix bad exposure, bad composition. Film is discipline. When I travel to schools that have closed their wet [chemical] labs and gone all digital, the skill set [of the students] drops off dramatically. We’re one of the few programs in the country with this mix of foundation classes and intensive training, and that’s why students come from all over the country to be part of this program.”

‘Just’ another day at the office

Heidi Nicols ’99 often uses alternative light source imaging to bring out details in various specimens found at crime scenes.

As an example of forensic precision, Nichols points to a series of photographs of a shotgun bullet caught in the act of flying apart at a certain distance from the gun. In this particular case, that piece of evidence was critical in determining that an apparent suicide had been faked.

“We fired off some rounds and found that … the point of impact had to be at least 27 inches [impossible for most human arms],” Nichols explains. “[The victim] could have pulled the trigger with his toe, but at the scene, if you look, he was wearing big steel-toed work boots.”

As it turned out, a loved one looking for an insurance payoff had staged the scene.

It can be a challenge for newbies to handle the scene work. When they photograph a body in the morgue, that body has been cleaned up so that all the damage can be clearly shown. At the scene, there can be considerable gore, distraught family members, gawking onlookers, and other physical and emotional challenges.

Hanif Dawson’08, who is now finishing a year’s employment with the Miami-Dade M.E., will never forget his first scene. “My first case was a taxi driver,” he recalls. “He got called for a pickup, but it was really a robbery. They sprayed the back of his head [with bullets] and the car went through a couple of fences. He was slumped over and the foot well of the cab was entirely filled with a deep pool of blood.”

But shock value wears off after awhile and what remains is the fact that there is a job to do. That’s what Nichols has learned in her 10 years.

“There are definitely cases where you bury your head in your camera and get very emotional,” she says. “For me, without a doubt, it’s [cases involving] children, especially really bad child abuse cases. Very violent crimes against innocents are tough. But for the most part you’re really busy bouncing from case to case, so it’s a job.”

Nichols, like the other photographers, wakes up and goes to sleep by the news, wondering what their day will be like, and how much of the tragedy they see will even make the news. What keeps them going is a fascination for the work, and the hope that their photos will contribute to justice being served, even if there’s a gap of several years between the scene and the courtroom drama.

“I always think, ‘I’m going to follow that case through and see whatever happened to it,’ ” Nichols reflects. “And then another case comes up where you think, ‘I’m going to follow that through.’ You get so busy, it’s impossible to do that. But you really do feel like you are doing your part by working to put the puzzle pieces together.”

Rebecca Wakefield is a freelance writer based in Miami. She covers politics, culture, and characters for a variety of local and national publications.