This article originally appeared on VICE France
Even though it was invented in the 1830s, modern photography was only made available to French police investigators in the 1870s. A few years later, in 1887, criminologist Alphonse Bertillon introduced the method to criminal identification practices. It was thanks to Bertillon's foresight, that the photographic archive of the Paris Police Prefecture is now one of the richest in the world – counting millions of images that date back to the beginning of the 20th century.
After spending quite a long time investigating murders that have made history – which earned him the nickname "the Indiana Jones of cemeteries" – medical examiner Philippe Charlier became interested in these first pieces of forensic evidence. In his book Seine de crimes, he compiles and attempts to analyse nearly 100 shots illustrating murders, assassinations, suicides and fatal accidents that took place in Paris between 1871 and 1937.
Looking through several decades' worth of photographs from crime scenes in Paris is, above all, a way of revealing the evolution of the police methods used to investigate and deal with crime," explains the author in the book's preface. "Aside from their obvious medical interest, these snapshots testify just as much to the savagery of humans as to the every-day lives of those who came before us," he adds.
If a couple of famous scenes make their way into the book – like the attack on the Louvre of 1905 and the assassination of Jean Jaurès in 1914 – the majority of the shots concern anonymous persons, often assassinated in the most horrible ways. For instance, we learn about the death of a certain Julien Delahieff: "…wrapped in cloth and locked inside a piece of luggage" in 1896; that of Madame Candal, "who loved cats" and was seemingly punched to death in 1914; or that of Suzanne Lavollée, a prostitute, savagely strangled and mutilated in 1924.
Because of the difficult nature of certain photographs in the book, Philippe Charlier questioned the legitimacy of his work. "These photographs are historical, the cases are classified and their age is well beyond the 30 years required in order for something this sensitive to be made available to the public," he explains. "The problem is not so much legal but more of an ethical one. Even if it is legal to publish pictures like this, is it acceptable to overstep medical confidentiality and the respect for the privacy [of others]?"
In response to these questions, the medical examiner puts forth the "concept of a 'science pudique', that manages to be respectful of others without preventing itself from advancing towards progress and knowledge." All the more reason to look for an understanding of the century-old methods of Parisian criminology – methods that according to Charlier have hardly evolved at all.