What adds to the power these sites wield is a cultural conditioning that influences the way we’ve come to perceive the mugshot. A fixture in law enforcement practices since the 19th century, mugshots soon gained ubiquity in crime reports published by newspapers, tabloids, and television, becoming “imbued with a connotation of guilt even though they are created prior to a person’s conviction,” researcher and journalist Mary Angela Bock and colleagues wrote in the journal Journalism Studies in 2016.In fact, this is not the first or only time mugshot use has fallen into contentious debate. In 1903, the New York Senate tried to pass a law to ban “the taking of portraits of detainees who had not been charged,” according to a research paper in which Lourdes Delgado, a research scholar and teacher at Grisart Escola Internacional de Fotografia, Barcelona, examines the history of the mugshot.The photography of people who had been arrested first began in the mid-1850s. These daguerreotypes were created as artistically as the studio portraits of the day, only they were then displayed separately in what came to be known as “rogues’ galleries.” These exhibitions of “criminal celebrities” attracted spectators much like other art shows, noted a 1857 article in The New York Times.
It included a subject-centered, head-and-shoulder format, with stark, flat lighting, and a narrow aperture for a sharp focus that could capture the greatest detail.
When I first met Tuberquia at the municipal court in Newark last year, he told me that as a result of his arrest, he had lost his part-time job working with a solar energy solutions company as a project coordinator. (His driving license had been suspended and the job needed him to be able to drive.) On the hunt for another job, he interviewed at a job fair for a position with a non-profit community organization helping people with legal or financial needs.The interview went well, Tuberquia told me. But he never heard back.“I’ve applied for a bunch of jobs and I think I’m a good interviewer and have qualified,” he said. “Maybe the other candidates are better than me, yes, but I know that if you look my name up on the computer, you are seeing these pictures.”Put another way, Tuberquia feels the resonance of the online mugshot issue tracks with the unforgiving way society views ex-convicts. That’s not to say he doesn’t “believe in the First Amendment,” he explained, adding that people have a right to know who lives in their community and who their neighbors are. “At the same time,” Tuberquia said, “there are situations like my case, where I’m not a violent offender.”As we spoke, Tuberquia’s daughter wiggled from his grasp to squat on the courthouse floor, scribbling gleefully on her paper. Tuberquia got up, scrubbed her hands with wet wipes, and gently sat her back down on the bench beside him. After losing his job at the solar company, he took up gigs in bartending and general maintenance to meet his and his family’s needs. Recently, he landed a job with a marketing company doing door-to-door sales.He likes his new role because it gives him the opportunity to develop skills while continuing to work in the field of energy, something he’s passionate about. He has a strong desire to “develop and grow in every way possible,” he added, so he can overcome the problems that led him to making some regrettable decisions. “A lot of times young people make mistakes,” he said. “Those mistakes become a death sentence.”If only images of him no longer appeared online, Tuberquia says he’d sense relief. I asked him whether he hoped the arrests of the four individuals associated with Mugshots.com might bring some change. “Will it change things?” he commented. “It will only change things if progress is continued to be made.”With editing and additional reporting by Brian Anderson.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
“I know that if you look my name up on the computer, you are seeing these pictures.”