A series of forensic photographs can be a window back in time — and crucial in criminal investigations.
Jennifer Schindell, a nurse, Benton County chief deputy medical examiner and a masters student in medical anthropology and physiology, was at the Bend Police Department on Thursday to train about 30 local law enforcement, nurses and child welfare officials in basics of forensic photography.
The goal of forensic photography is to provide an “accurate and thorough representation of findings,” Schindell said, meaning several photographs — from several different angles and sometimes using different settings — are necessary.
Schindell became interested in the subject working as a trauma nurse. She’d see injuries she felt police should be aware of and thought there could be more communication between law enforcement and the medical community.
“Photography … just jumped out as a really important part of this,” Schindell said. “Even reports are kind of subjective, but the photographs are critical.”
There’s a legal imperative behind documenting injuries photographically. Since 2008, Oregon law has required that children who have exhibited signs of physical injury during the course of a child abuse investigation must receive medical attention within 48 hours.
Referred to as Karly’s Law, it imposes statutory requirements on law enforcement, Department of Human Services employees and medical professionals to assess injuries, according to the Crime Victims’ Services Division of the Oregon Department of Justice.
“We’re hoping a little constructive instruction will inspire you to get a little bit better pictures for us,” Dr. Deanna St. Germain, who introduced Schindell, told the audience. St. Germain is a former Deschutes County medical examiner and the current medical director of the KIDS Center, a child abuse intervention center in Bend that held the training.
Schindell showed images of injuries — from chafing to lacerations — from different angles. She has taken to the occupation with gusto, documenting her own injuries to show how differences and light and exposure can lead to dramatically different photographs. A too-intense flash can wash out bruising, and oblique lighting can help illuminate the depth of apparent lacerations.
Each finding, or potential injury, Schindell said, ought to have three photographs: one showing the relative location of the apparent abnormality on the body, one to show detail and another with scale.
She also encouraged her audience to go the extra mile — getting the back side of the Band-Aid, so to speak, looking for details and clues that may seem minor during an initial investigation but prove relevant later.
“If you go looking further, gently, you might uncover more,” Schindell said. “Some people may forget to look under stuff or over stuff very often,” she added later.
Schindell also said officers should think broadly about what questions might be asked in court to avoid any issues with how the photograph was taken and what it shows.
“Photographs are a sort of evidence, demonstrative evidence,” Schindell said, adding that even if the quality of photographs is lacking, those pictures mustn’t be deleted.
She also encouraged audience members to think broadly about how to make forensic photographs, by capturing the absence as well as presence of abnormalities, photographing clocks to corroborate statements about reported time of events, and photographing before and after moving anything.
Police and detectives must also account for where a camera is at all times, as well as keep track of their metadata, the information stored on a camera indicating information about when and how a photo was taken, Schindell said.
When Schindell first took an interest in forensic photography about a decade ago, the question was whether digital cameras would hold up against film cameras, but now “but nobody questions their utility anymore,” Schindell said.
These days, digital cameras are the norm; according to KIDS Center Executive Director Shelly Smith, local law enforcement agencies are grasping for funding for enough adequate cameras. Cellphone cameras can work in a pinch, if they’re assigned by the department as for-work only.
Bend Police Community Service Officer Canyon Davis, who leads the department’s forensic efforts and helps devise departmental policy, commented that he instructs his colleagues to find an “anchor object” in a photograph to get a sense of perspective.
“I don’t think we can ever get enough training,” Davis said after Schindell’s presentation, noting that he’d use one of her tips — practicing taking photos of eyeballs to learn about light and focus.