Forensic photographs help settle lawsuits Scale is important in specialized craft

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

Eric Johnson, forensic photographer, would have to agree that 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' The photos he takes of the injuries can help resolve a case.

"All of my (personal injury) cases," he said, "have settled at the pre-trial stage."

A forensic photographer, Johnson explained, takes pictures that are used as evidence in criminal and civil cases. This means that it is important to get the scale right so that forensic evaluations can be accurate. For example, when taking the picture of a fingerprint, the picture has to be at a certain resolution or "a one to one scale so it can be life size. If properly photographed those prints can be sent to AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) for identification."

Johnson works for plaintiffs' attorneys.

"I do a lot of photographing of injuries. And, again, scale is very important. I take pictures of scarring and bruising in a way that they can be reproduced in a life size manner."

Generally, Johnson is brought into the "picture" long after the injury in cases where the insurance companies or employers have denied benefits. "Occasionally," he said, "I get called in early."

He was recently at a hospital taking photographs for a medical malpractice case.

Crime scenes, he explained, need to be photographed in a manner that tells a story that a layperson or a jury can understand.

Johnson uses a four-step approach to photographing a crime scene, starting with an overview.

"If it happens in a house, for example, you need to go around the house taking all four corners," the surrounding area and, if necessary, night views. Next he works his way "into the scene, taking pictures of doors and windows. Then when inside the residence, he takes the closer photographs. The last step is taking the close up photos of the crime.

"Every photo," he said, "needs to stand on its own."

In addition to his forensic photography service, Johnson travels around the state teaching law enforcement how to take photographs. He has trained 779 law enforcement officers from 182 departments, including evidence technicians, accident re-constructionists, and crime lab technicians. Johnson "also provides training for the Evidence Photographers International Council (EPIC). He teaches the course needed for certification.

"My classes are very hands-on," he said. "My philosophy is 'I tell them; I show them and then we take photographs together. In my two-day basic class, we do 17 hands on exercises. When they walk away from the class they are comfortable with the camera."

He was certified in 2010 by the Professional Photographic Certification Commission as a Certified Evidence Photographer (CEP) and is one of less than 50 CEP's worldwide. Johnson is also a member of the International Association for Identification (IAI), the Professional Photographers of America and the National Association of Photoshop Professionals.

The IAI has a certification as well. "I just completed that certification process. The assignments you have from them are extensive. In addition to presenting the photos, you have to explain what you did and why." Once Johnson receives that certification, he will be one of three in the country.

Johnson's career as a photographer began shortly after he enlisted with the Michigan State Police in 1978. Soon his interest and skills were realized and he was assigned to photograph complicated traffic crash scenes, crime scenes and serious injuries.

In 1983 Johnson began providing professional portrait services and has been taking photographs throughout the mid-Michigan area ever since. His prints have won numerous awards, including two "Top Ten in-the-State" awards by the Professional Photographers of Michigan (PPM), several "Best of Shows," and his prints were accepted into the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) Loan Collection.

Johnson is married with three sons and one stepson. None have followed in his footsteps as a photographer. His wife, however, learned the techniques and now volunteers as a photographer for the Capital Area Humane Society.

Published: Fri, May 18, 2012