Truth be told, the second I finish any compelling true crime documentary or podcast, I head straight to “Google images” and start feverishly dissecting all the blurry photos and/or grainy surveillance footage associated with the case. Admittedly the odds are not great that some earth-shattering clue will be uncovered by my untrained eyes, but the odds also aren’t zero. And in honor of that sliver of hope, I scroll on with my citizen detective work.
If you can relate, then perhaps our combined slivers of hope will be large enough to form a crack in an unsolved case or two...or twenty!
It Doesn’t Hurt to Look
Let me guess, at some point during your photo research, a concerned loved one has interrupted your focus with, “You should leave it to the professionals.”
And yes, they have a point.
But instead of complying you rebut with some variation of the same five words that got you hooked in the first place, “It doesn’t hurt to look.” Welcome to the world of photo investigation. Or photo sleuthing. Or photo analyzing. Whichever one you call it, I’m here to share some tips and best practices I’ve come across in my own photo detective work that may benefit you with yours. It’s my belief that by sharing resources as a unified community we stand a far greater chance at uncovering some mysteries hidden within an image or frame. I say mysteries and not crimes, because the tips I’m about to share with you are commonly used practices in genealogy research for dating and identifying family or historical photographs.
A little background for context: I recently received a certificate in genealogy. One of the main modules involved analyzing and dating photographs. As I was breaking down the steps of identifying the people and places in the centuries-old photos, I realized that some of the same steps and practices could also be applied to crime scenes or missing persons’ photos and footage. In fact, some of what I’ll be sharing may indeed overlap with law enforcement’s approach to analyzing case photos.
Genealogy, the study of family lineage, is not unlike criminology in that they both involve the tracing of evidence in search of proof to build, corroborate or dismiss a case.
The connection between these two fields of study shouldn’t be all that surprising if you dabble or dwell in true crime. In recent years, forensic genealogy has become somewhat of a buzz phrase in the community thanks to pioneers like CeCe Moore, a Genetic Genealogist who has appeared as a consultant on the popular television series “Finding Your Roots” and was most recently the star of “The Genetic Detective.” Using genetic testing to help eliminate or identify a suspect of a violent crime is already changing the way both cold and new cases are being handled. One of the most noteworthy examples of forensic genealogy aiding law enforcement came in April of 2018 when familial DNA was used to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as the Golden State Killer; a serial burglar, rapist and eventual murderer who terrorized the state of California in the 1970s and ‘80s. A genetic familial match for DeAngelo was found through GEDmatch, a company that analyzes and compares raw autosomal DNA data from fee-based genetic genealogy testing companies. He is currently behind bars.
Genetic DNA testing is a prime example of leaving it to the professionals. However, when it comes to analyzing easily available crime or case photos, it’s my belief that there should be a place for constructive and responsible civilian input like ours.
On the topic of constructive and responsible civilian input, I want to make it clear that the information shared here is based on my personal experience and is not meant to interfere or compete with actual police work. It’s merely meant to help our true crime community become more efficient and effective citizen photo investigators on our own time. However, if you do come across any notable findings during your personal research, I encourage you to please send the information to the proper authorities. That’s it. Your job should be done after that. Do not in any way take matters into your own hands. We. Are. Not. The. Professionals.
OK, now let’s get to the tips and best practices. (Finally!)
Start with the who, what, where, and the why. Who is in the image? What are they doing? Where are they doing it? And why are they doing it? If you keep the five Ws in mind, then it’ll be much easier to avoid falling (or eagerly swan diving in my case) down those infamous rabbit holes.
Keep a close eye on clothing, jewelry, and a person’s overall appearance. Clothing can be particularly useful in dating a photo. If you know roughly when a garment was made or in fashion, then you can better pinpoint a date range in which a photo was taken. Clothing and jewelry can also be used to show religious affiliation (i.e., a Star of David charm on a necklace may imply Jewish heritage). Look for recognizable logos on t-shirts or jackets. Note if a pant leg is cuffed or a rip is visible in the fabric. If it feels off to you, then put it on your list of things to research later. You can also quite possibly determine time of year, a person’s social status, and even their state of mind. Is the person overdressed or underdressed for their surroundings? Is their hair casually pulled up or properly styled down? Think critically and creatively with this one!
Pay attention to location. Take a good look around. Then take an even closer look around. Start from the top left corner of the photo and read the image like you would read a book. Our eyes are trained to look at the foreground when often the background is where key answers reside. You may notice a shadow, a footprint or even a car in the distance that could be of importance. A prime example of finding clues in the background comes from the documentary, “Long Shot.” In the documentary, Juan Catalan is arrested for a murder that he is adamant he did not commit. He is eventually proven innocent when raw footage from a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode being filmed at Dodger Stadium shows Cataln in the background of a shot. He was attending the live game around the time the murder would’ve been taking place. An eye for detail is essential!
Don’t overlook out-of-place objects. From an open drawer to a missing patch of grass, if something looks out of place, there is reason to investigate further. For example, it may be easy to dismiss an overflowing laundry basket, but that pile of dirty clothes could tell us something. Maybe the individual residing there is generally a messy person or maybe they haven’t been around to do their laundry in a while. Both instances would provide some insight into that person’s life, behavior and/or living situation.
Key in on relationships. If a photo or footage show more than one person, it’s important to look for nuances like a hand on a shoulder or lower back. These easy-to-miss gestures can speak to whether one person has control over the other’s movement and direction. In a scenario where more than one person is in a car, pay attention to who is driving and where the other people are oriented in the vehicle. The key part of observing relationships is the relations part. How people are or aren’t interacting with each other can speak volumes.
Watch out for body language and facial cues. It’s common knowledge that posture is a good indicator of someone’s confidence and comfort level. If someone is crossing their arms or making themselves appear small, it’s worth noting that they may be in a position of feeling vulnerable or nervous. In contrast, photos, or footage of someone dancing, smiling freely or walking tall could indicate that they are not feeling threatened in their current environment. However, it can be easy to mistake intoxication for confidence, so check back with tip number 4 to see if there are any objects (i.e., beer cans) that would suggest a person may not be in their right frame of mind before making any assumptions.
Don’t underestimate negative evidence. Negative evidence is evidence based on the absence of something. I find this tip to be extremely useful. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked. Do not only focus on what is present in the photo, but also key in on things that may be absent. Was there previously a framed photo on the wall that is now missing? Are there three wine glasses in a photo, but only two people are pictured? Sometimes what you don’t see can be even more important than what you can see.
Investigate the photo itself. This final tip may require some expert input, which should be encouraged. Afterall, it takes a village to raise awareness! Finding out what type of camera was used to take a photo or capture footage can be extremely helpful. Analog or digital? Maybe even a Polaroid? An original photo can provide a time stamp of the exact moment a photo was taken and potentially who took the photo. For social media photos, this can be particularly difficult (but not impossible) since the origin of a photo posted can be misleading due to distorting filters and sharing capabilities. If an analog photo is hard to analyze, then try scanning it onto your computer and working with it as a digital file. As a digital image, you can more easily manipulate the exposure, saturation, and overall visibility of details in photos like lettering and logos.
Below I’ve spotlighted two well-known true crime cases, where either photos or surveillance footage stills are available to help illustrate the 8 tips for capturing clues in true crime photos. Other aspects of the cases or other photos related to the cases are not a part of this exercise.
Disclaimer: I’m not a certified investigator and I do not have a legal background, so please note that my analyses are limited to my personal observations. They are not judgements or accusations and should not be considered as anything other than opinion.
Maura Murray A 21-year-old UMass Amherst college student who has been missing since 2004. Her last known location, based on witness reports, was in Haverhill, New Hampshire, where she crashed her car on the evening of February 9th, 2004. Footage shown was taken of her on the day she disappeared at an ATM machine near UMass Amherst. For further information regarding the Maura Murray case, please visit mauramurraymissing.org.
The bodies of Abigail Williams (age 13) and Liberty German (age 14) were tragically discovered near the Monon High Bridge Trail in Delphi, Indiana, on February 14, 2017. The girls had disappeared from the same trail a day earlier. Photos of a potential suspect were later found on Liberty German’s smartphone. For further information on the Delphi murders, please visit the respective FBI page for each girl; Abigail Williams and Liberty German.
Photos for justice: Crowdsourcing as a community
On January 6th, 2021, thousands of rioters organized a violent attack against the United States Congress at the U.S. Capitol. Some wore face masks. Many did not. Since then, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has asked for the public’s help with identifying rioters whose faces were caught in photos and footage taken the day of the attack. Using social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, the images from that day are being shared in an effort to crowdsource information regarding the whereabouts of individuals involved. More information can be found here. This is a prime example of how the power of community and the individual work of citizen detectives can help move a case forward.
No, we are not the professionals. Yes, we can still contribute.
Now, let’s get to work!
Love this post? Meet the Author.
Tiffany C. has been working as an advertising copywriter for just under a decade in the Boston area. Her interest in true crime started at an early age with Unsolved Mysteries and hit its fever pitch with the Serial podcast. Most recently, after completing the Boston University Certificate program in Genealogy, she’s been looking for new ways to put her writing experience and newfound research skills to good use. Enter Uncovered.com.
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