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 thesehaunting, 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.”
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.
“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.
“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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @sward13.
Sam Ward is a 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.