“Portraits” of People That Don’t Exist

The IP used the above “portrait” for his Facebook image a few weeks ago. He was surprised at how some folks thought he was trying to be provocative, or cause some sort of “controversy.” The real reason for him choosing the image was more mundane: he simply liked it. As he said in a brief exchange with another Facebook patron, the picture reminded him of the portraiture of Winold Reiss, an important and multi-talented artist of the early 20th century. Not only that, the image shows what looks to The IP as a nice young black man with an expression that is not at all menacing.

But the fact that the image is of a young black man and was wrought in the manner of a “facial composite” for an alleged crime suspect made one Facebook “friend” bemoan that people might think he has friends that are, and The IP quotes here, “thugs.”

But The IP never told anyone who that sketch was supposed to represent, so saying that it looks like a “thug” reflects no only a bias, it treads on the shaky ground of racism, as if any charcoal sketch of a young black male should be interpreted as a image of a suspected criminal. That’s not only unfair to artists that work in that medium, it’s kinda unfair to all black men.

Does it matter that the image WAS a facial composite of a suspected criminal? It shouldn’t. Aside from the fact that it looks nothing like the Facebook subscriber it’s associated with, it’s really no better or worse than the millions of avatars people use for their profile image, including objects, pets, cartoons, etc.

After the aforementioned “thug” comment, The IP decided to do some research on facial composites. Not surprisingly, that area of crime “evidence” is fraught with ethical and intellectual peril. Did you know, for instance, that eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide? And the role of the “artist” and witness in forming a facial composite is filled with suggestion and bias. Can they get it “right” sometimes? Sure. Can they get it wrong? Read about that here.

The fundamental thing to understand about facial composites is that they are NOT portraits; they are conjectural images based on memory, so they are not really images of people at all.

See some more interesting Winold Reiss portraits here.


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