Max Aguilera-Hellweg is a rare breed of photographer who feels at home in the hospital as much as the dark room – because he is also a medically trained physician. “I can read the monitors,” he says. “I know the pathology and the diseases. Patients and doctors know they can talk to me at a certain level.”
A veteran documenter of scientific procedures, Aguilera-Hellweg has photographed more than 300 medical operations and boasts a wide-ranging career that has provided him with unique opportunities to witness and showcase the medical and forensic unknown.
His latest body of work is a study of some of the cutting-edge experiments and procedures undertaken by forensic analysts working in US laboratories. The images come with a unique context: at the time Aguilera-Hellweg started shooting, the field of forensic science was in the process of recovery after the publication of a major US government report in 2009 called into question the validity of forensic techniques.
Investigations by the US National Academy of the Sciences (NAS) into the introduction of DNA testing into the judicial system had uncovered substantial discrepancies – several convictions were overturned as a result of poor forensic data, and its reliability was no longer considered a given. The NAS called on the scientific community to build a more robust forensic database and establish the additional resources needed to ensure evidence was reliable.
Meanwhile, “murders and other horrific things still happened and needed to be investigated, and the work of forensic science and investigation carried on,” Aguilera-Hellweg says. “In my story, we were at this inflection point, exploring what, if any, changes and advances were being made in forensics.”
Aguilera-Hellweg was allowed privileged access to meet experts at the FBI’s forensic laboratory at Quantico, Virginia. Quantico is located inside a US Marine base, and is the primary training base of the FBI, as well as the location of its main forensic lab. From traditional forensic practices such as analysis of fingerprints on a gun, to the latest laser technologies used to accurately replicate crime scenes, Aguilera-Hellweg’s images seek to tell the stories behind contemporary crime scene investigation from a laboratory perspective.
The project is his first venture into digital photography, but his interest in forensics can be traced back to childhood, when Aguilera-Hellweg was first introduced to his father’s graphic wartime photo albums. As a teenager, a photography assignment led him to witness open surgery for the first time, prompting him to embark on a career in medicine. “I was photographing the surgeon’s hands, and she stepped aside and said, ‘here, take a picture of this’,” he recalls. “And there it was – at arm’s distance away from me, an exposed spinal cord. It was the most precious, intimate place I had ever been. It was like going to the Moon.”
Today, much of his work is driven by a desire to “normalise” the science world for new audiences. “I want to help people become interested in the science, draw them into the picture in every way possible, so that they begin to ask questions into what’s really going on,” he says.
Not everyone has responded positively to his work. Upon showcasing images from his 1997 book, The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery, people were “reviled”, he says. “They said ‘these are disgusting’. It didn’t dawn on me that people would have that reaction.”
He does, however, have boundaries: after a commission led him to photograph a hospital burns unit, the film never saw the light of day. “For me, it’s the same question that I was asking back when I was doing my surgery work: why am I doing this? Do I have a right to, a reason to be here? It’s something I spend hours figuring out.”
A forensic analyst at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, studies two bullet casings: one shot from a seized gun in a controlled lab environment, the a crime scene. The aim is to compare abrasions on the two casings and draw a conclusion as to whether they were fired by the same weapon. “It’s all about comparisons, and the trained eye of an expert examiner,” says Aguilera-Hellweg. Although firearms experts today agree that it is impossible to make robust scientific conclusions using the naked eye alone, the examination is still regarded as a highly skilled process.
A controlled experiment replicating a bedroom fire allows analysts to collect the gases released using an overhanging fume extractor. “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms built this huge warehouse where they can set up fires, so they could burn materials in varied environments, and use that to gather a body of scientific data to both understand fires and then use it as court evidence,” Aguilera-Hellweg says. Scientists burned this scene once in an “open” environment and once in a “closed” environment with walls, to replicate the impact of an open or closed window.
An examiner at the FBI Laboratory at Quantico investigates latent fingerprints on the barrel of a handgun. His laboratory and workbench are fitted with a variety of alternative light sources, such as UV, emitting light at different wavelengths to show up minuscule residue. This scene was set up as a demonstration. “Because of laws regarding evidence, I was never allowed to photograph evidence in a current or open investigation,” says Aguilera-Hellweg. The weapon pictured was related to a previous, closed case, and stored in the FBI’s “library” of guns used by analysts to compare against new evidence and to run tests on.
Stephen D Atkinson, a firearms and tool-mark identification expert at the state of Virginia’s Department of Forensic Science, test-fires a high-powered rifle seized as evidence. The aim of the experiment is to replicate what happened during a criminal incident, so Atkinson fires the shot at a measured distance into a target that is covered with textiles similar to those worn by the victim. From this, analysts will be able to compare the spread of particles from the fired bullet with patterns of debris found at the crime scene.
In the past, crime scene documentation required photography and video taken from multiple angles, and measurements recorded by hand with a tape measure. Now, 3D scanning and reconstruction technology allows investigators to “revisit” a crime scene. Lasers allow for accurate measurements of distances, for instance between a weapon and a body, and there is no risk of contaminating the evidence. This is a demonstration of 3D laser scanning on a mock crime scene in a boiler room beneath Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Sciences.
Bruce Budowle, former chief of the FBI’s Forensic Science Research Unit. When the possibility of DNA fingerprinting was discovered in 1984, the FBI sent Budowle to the UK to learn from the leading researcher of the time, Sir Alec Jeffreys. Budowle brought that knowledge to the US and used it to establish the country’s own protocols for DNA forensic testing. His group went on to determine the 13 unique regions found on nuclear DNA used for comparison between individuals (known as Short Tandem Repeat analysis).
An analyst studies a macro projection of a fingerprint to identify an individual’s “ridge characteristics”. Fingerprints have been a part of forensic science for more than 100 years, and are still used as a determiner of proof in some criminal cases. However, fingerprint patterns are not genetic, and many scientists today contest the theory that every fingerprint is unique. Recent cases of incorrect identification have made fingerprint evidence something of a contentious issue.
Odontologists – scientists who study teeth – at Canada’s Forensic Services and Coroner’s Complex in Toronto replicate human bite marks using the skin of a young pig, said to be most similar to human skin. The “bite-o-matic” pictures here was created for an experiment testing error rates in bite-mark analysis during criminal trials: 30 volunteers with varying experience in dentistry were asked to determine which markings belonged to which “suspect” set of teeth. The rates of success were inconsistent – experts were often incorrect, and inexperienced examiners were often as likely to guess a match correctly – highlighting the dangers of false interpretation when analysing bite marks for evidence.
After a shooting, forensic investigators can trace a bullet’s suspected trajectory using lasers. To get this shot, Aguilera-Hellweg followed the lead of forensics investigators, who record reconstruction scenes in the FBI’s Quantico warehouse. “You have to use smoke and oil to get a clear picture,” he explains. He was inspired by some of the forensic team’s own photographs, one of which showed laser patterns from a movie theatre shooting. “It was amazing, like postmodern art you would see at a gallery.”
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