Visual Criminology: Policing the Image

Prof. Murray Lee1, Associate Professor Alyce McGovern2, Dr Carolyn McKay1, Linda Wilken1, Justin Ellis1
1Sydney Institute of Criminology. Sydney Law School. , University of Sydney , Australia, 2School of Social Sciences. Centre for Crime, Law and Justice. , UNSW, Australia

Icarus and Goliath: mixed metaphors, Mardi Gras 2013 and the politics of representation

Visual representations of police-public encounters are often reduced to a minimum number of parts, with individual motivation seen as the origin of action. This decontexualisation creates space for metaphorical interpretation of complex power relations that rarely fit neatly. Media reports of public order policing are particularly susceptible to such simplification. Using competing mainstream and social media images, this paper examines the visual representation of the police excessive force at the 2013 Mardi Gras parade for metaphorical analogies and what they reveal about police-public relations. It considers the extent to which the symbolism in these mixed metaphors reflects the tension between the Mardi Gras as a protest-turned-celebration within a broader history of paternalistic policing. Scrutinising these differing interpretations provides insight into the power dynamic between authority and resistance and the role the media can play in shaping public discourse on legitimate use of force.

Constructing Cops: Cultural Forces and Policing Practices

Popular forms of media are replete with content that depicts crime, law and order, and in particular, the police and policing (Reiner 2010). Fictional and ‘reality’ television programming, true crime podcasts, nightly news broadcasts, and social media platforms – just to name a few media types – provide the public with an array of ‘police stories’. Moreover, images and representations of police and policing through these popular forms of media feed in to, reinforce and create particular cultural constructions of police and the work that they do. As we have argued elsewhere, police organisations themselves are increasingly playing a key role in the creation and dissemination of these constructs of policing too, actively presenting ‘preferred’ police images not only to external audiences – the public, the political sphere and the external media – but also to their internal audience, operational police (Lee and McGovern 2014). This paper explores the recursive nature of these representational processes suggesting that police cultures and practices now need to be understood as embedded in an increasingly image saturated mediatised context.

Child protection or populist politics: Changes to legislation in the wake of the Bill Henson incident.

In May 2008, Australian artist Bill Henson attempted to and eventually did exhibit a series of photographs, which included images of a naked young girl. One image in particular, nude, untitled 2008, created controversy beyond the art world. Police removed the works from public view and the then Prime Minister called the photographs “revolting”. Henson’s art was labelled as child pornography. This incident had a bearing on the NSW Government Justice Department, Child Pornography Working Party Report, 10 January 2010, which resulted in changes to legislation in the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). In July 2008, Art Monthly Australia published on the magazine’s cover, artist Polixeni Papapetrou’s nude photograph of her 5-year-old daughter Olympia in a deliberate effort to reignite the controversy over the Bill Henson incident. This time the Federal Government asked the Australia Council for the Arts to draw up a set of protocols on the representation of children in art. Representation of children and young people in art has a long history in modernism, postmodernism and contemporary art, not to mention antiquity, and legal and artistic takes have varied substantially. However, the Henson incident sits at a time of unprecedented awareness of child abuse issues in Australia and amid calls for greater child protection. This presentation will analyse legislative changes in the wake of the Bill Henson incident and reflect on the impact of these changes.

Body Worn Images: The New Aesthetics of Policing

This paper adopts a visual criminological approach to examining the images generated by police body-worn (BWC) camera. While there is growing scholarship regarding the use of the technology in crime prevention and detection, as well as its evidential efficacy, transparency, behavioural impacts on both police and citizens, and surveillance/privacy/civil rights concerns (Gannoni, Willis, Taylor and Lee 2017; Lee and McGovern 2014), and some work on viewer perspective (yu and Bogin 2017), there is little academic engagement with what this form of technology actually produces aesthetically, other than to comment on its often poor and grainy image. Here we treat BWC as image making devices linked to techniques and technologies of power, which construct and frame police encounters.  These encounters become coded in specific ways, and we suggest that the aesthetics of the image contribute greatly to the truth-value their images acquire. We adopt a forensic aesthetic approach, informed by a visual arts context, to analyse the images made by these new vision machines (McKay 2018).


Justin Ellis lectures in Criminology at the UTS law school. His research examines the impact of digital technologies on negotiations of legitimacy. Previously he was a legal affairs journalist in Sydney and spent close to a decade living in Japan where he reported on gay, lesbian and transgender rights for Asia region publications. @justRellis

Dr Alyce McGovern is an Associate Professor in Criminology and Deputy Head of School (Learning & Teaching) in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney. She has researched widely in the area of crime and media, including police-media relations, police use of social media, young people and sexting, and craftivism. She is the co-author of Policing and Media: Public Relations, Simulations and Communications (2013 with Lee, Routledge), Sexting and Young People (2015 with Crofts, Lee and Milivojevic, Palgrave) and guest edited the Current Issues in Criminal Justice journal’s Special Issue on Crime, Media and New Technologies.

Linda Wilken is undertaking an interdisciplinary PhD in criminology, art and law at Sydney Law School, University of Sydney. Her research includes visual criminology, censorship in contemporary art, and the relationship between art, legislation and legal intervention.  Linda is also a visual artist and holds a Master of Fine Arts and Bachelor Visual Arts Honours 1st class, Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney University. She is a member of the Sydney Institute of Criminology.

Dr Carolyn McKay is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Sydney Law School where she teaches Criminal Law and Civil & Criminal Procedure. Carolyn is Deputy Director of the Sydney Institute of Criminology and a member of the Sydney Law School Social Justice Committee. She is recognised for her empirical research into prisoners’ experiences of accessing justice from a custodial situation. Her qualitative study based on one-to-one interviews with prisoners provided evidence for her recently published research monograph, The Pixelated Prisoner: Prison video links, court ‘appearance’ and the justice matrix. She is also a visual artist and curator.


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