On February 23, 2000, an engineer surveying a wooded property near a cul-de- sac in Emerald Pointe Circle, Fulton County, Georgia, discovered the partially buried skeletonized remains of the victim. The length of time the remains had been on the property is unknown. The victim was wearing blue jeans, a tank top, and a pair of Nike athletic shoes. An empty synthetic fold-over wal- let was found in the pocket of the jeans. No cause of death has been determined. Credit: Arne Svenson, <i>Unspeaking Likeness</i>, <a href="https://twinpalms.com/books-artists/unspeaking-likeness/">Twin Palms Publishers</a>

Photographer Arne Svenson’s new book, “Unspeaking Likeness,” asks you to stare deep into the eyes of the unidentified dead. Svenson traveled to morgues and sheriff’s departments across the country to make these haunting, large-format portraits of forensic facial reconstruction sculptures.

The artist told BuzzFeed he “felt the weight of great responsibility, knowing that through my photos perhaps some of these nameless people could be identified, and could come home.”

The victim’s partially decomposed remains were found on May 6, 1999, in Chastain Park in Atlanta, Georgia. He had a plastic bag over his head and was bound loosely to a tree. The body had lain in a wooded area of the park about 125 feet from the Chastain Park Arts Center for three or four days. The victim was wearing a plaid long-sleeved shirt, khaki shorts, blue boxer shorts, Timberland hiking boots and gold rimless bifocal eyeglasses. No cause of death was apparent. Credit: Arne Svenson, Unspeaking Likeness, Twin Palms Publishers

These artifacts are just one tool used in the quest to identify the unnamed dead. The Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth runs the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a database containing records of the missing and unidentified dead.

During his project, Svenson encountered many of the same frustrations Reveal uncovered in our investigation, Left for Dead.

On May 1, 2003, the decomposed body of a girl of about 16 was found stuffed into a green canvas bag and discarded behind a Carrows Restaurant in Alameda County, California. An autopsy determined she died of asphyxiation after a rag was stuffed down her throat. She had been killed about 10 days prior to the discovery of her body.
Months later, Gloria Nusse created a reconstruction of “Jane Doe.” In 2006, the television show “48 Hours Mystery” broadcast a segment on the case, showcasing the sculpture, and a witness came forward who thought the reconstruction looked like a young girl who had been seen around the neighborhood with a man who worked at the restaurant where the body was found. Another tip suggested that the girl and the man had come from the same town in Mexico.
Detectives from Alameda County traveled to Yahualica, Mexico, and passed out thousands of flyers with a photograph of the reconstruction of “Jane Doe.” Soon a woman came forward and identified the girl as her daughter, Yesenia, who had gone to California in March 2003 to visit the man, Miguel Angel Nuñez-Castaneda, who had been identified by witnesses as the one seen with Yesenia just prior to her death. DNA analysis confirmed that the girl was Yesenia.
The police are still searching both Mexico and the United States for the whereabouts of Nuñez-Castaneda, who in 2007 was charged with Yesenia’s murder.
Credit: Arne Svenson, Unspeaking Likeness, Twin Palms Publishers

“I had to go through many levels of law enforcement officers/officials, each time explaining and justifying my project until I was finally granted the right to photograph – or, in some cases, denied the opportunity to photograph the reconstructions.”

NamUs’ existing interface also poses some challenges for people who hope to match reported missing people and the unidentified dead. Our tool, The Lost & The Found, allows users to search photos and other details from both data sets and suggest possible matches.

There’s an edge of the “uncanny valley” to Svenson’s work, and that adds to the power of his photographs. As viewers, we know these aren’t real people, just the echoes of loved ones. The more than 10,000 John and Jane Doe cases in the country today are someone’s sister, brother, daughter or son.

On February 25, 1957, the malnourished and abused body of a small boy, thought to be between 4 and 5 years old, was discovered in a cardboard box in a field in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania. The boy’s hair had been crudely cut and his fingernails recently clipped. His nude body was wrapped in a cheap, colorful cotton blanket, and his arms were folded neatly across his chest. A brand new child’s hat lay nearby.
For more than 50 years investigators and concerned private citizens have tried to solve the mystery that is commonly known as “The Boy in the Box.” As a long shot, artist Frank Bender created a forensic sculpture of what he believed the father of the boy would have looked like at the time of the child’s disappearance. His goal was to expand the field of potential identification witnesses.
The boy and his father remain unidentified and the case unsolved. Credit: Arne Svenson, Unspeaking Likeness, Twin Palms Publishers

“Most of the reconstruction sculptures end at the neck, but to lead the viewer to see the reconstruction as human, I created the sense that a whole body was present outside the frame of the image.”

“My aim is to encourage the viewer to see the reconstructions as potentially human, not merely faces of clay. And, perhaps, to see in them a likeness of a lost friend or loved one, starting the trail of questions leading to the answers of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who killed me?’”

Sam Ward can be reached at sward@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @sward13.

Sam Ward is a former senior digital producer for Reveal, where he oversees the web team. He has years of experience producing creative digital media projects for Oregon Public Broadcasting, PBS, ITVS and the Smithsonian, and he has managed projects for funders such as the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education and Annenberg Media. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Ward is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.