When authorities wish to exercise influence and control over citizens by retaining their personal data it’s important to connect information on an individual only to that person otherwise the record is ambivalent. One convenient way of making that connection is by appending a photograph, because it contains a wealth of unambiguous identification clues; the written “1.8metres, pale, blonde, male, light build” would describe many people but when we see the picture, we’re pretty sure it’s David Bowie because a sizeable amount of human brainpower is concerned with recognising faces.
So when we say “Yes, it looks like him” what do we mean? Few people would be able to articulate the myriad details which make up a characteristic face. I can’t describe the Thin White Duke’s nose with any accuracy. I have no idea what his ears looked like. But I can identify him from photographs even when in a variety of guises.
When put to this purpose and assuming a benign authority, photographic identification can be an impartial tool. But in its early history, photography was pressed into service as a pseudo-scientific means of identifying character traits, notably criminal tendencies. The shape of the skull, appearance and distribution of facial features were thought to contain indications of pathology.
Pictures made for this purpose are sometimes called ‘mugshots’, featuring flat low contrast lighting, standardised poses and a lack of expression. I strive to avoid this in my work though opinion may vary on the extent of my success.