Monday, July 14, 2008

Putting a face to the faceless


Using a fascinating blend of fine art and science, forensic artists can provide the crucial first step towards the apprehension of criminals.

THE Kampung Baru Molester, aka Catman. The kidnap and murder of eight-year-old Nurin Jazlin Jaziman. The kidnap of five-year-old Sharlinie Mohd Nashar, who is, heartbreakingly, still missing....

“Stranger danger” is especially terrifying when it is the most vulnerable members of our society that are victimised.

When, at the height of the uproar over the Catman, the police released an image of a suspect, levels of paranoia actually eased a little – it always helps to put a face to a faceless terror, after all.

In the case of the Catman, though, what the cops released was not a photograph but a composite, a drawing made by combining photographs of different facial features until they resemble the suspect.

A police artist would have spent many patient hours with eye witnesses, teasing out their memories of the suspect to produce that composite drawing. But to no avail, it seems, because there has been no sign of the Catman since the drawing was released to the public via the media in January.

Such are the frustrations of police artists, arguably among the lesser known yet more fascinating members of most modern police forces.

But their careers can provide great rewards, too.

Karen T. Taylor, one of the world’s foremost forensic artists – and the one who wrote the book, literally, on the process – has this to share about her job:

“As an artist, I have known the greatest possible satisfaction, seeing the tangible real life effects my forensic art has had. On many occasions there have been phone calls to say, ‘You know that drawing you did (of that paedophile or murderer or rapist), well, we got him’.

“What could be better than that?”

Arresting a suspect based on a drawing is just the very first step in a long process of putting together crime scene evidence and witness testimony that will eventually put a criminal behind bars. But that composite drawing can be a crucial first step.

Says Inspector Jimbai Anak Bala, of the Criminal Investigation Department at Kuala Lumpur Police Headquarters: “A facial composite helps narrow the scope of suspects for us,” he says. “A composite released to the media can draw in suspects. People who may have chanced upon the criminal but didn’t realise it at the time may also recall what they’ve witnessed.”

Indeed, in the United States, many high-profile cases have been solved with help of police artists. One such case was the 1993 abduction, rape, and murder of pretty 12-year-old Polly Klaas who was snatched, shockingly, during a slumber party.

Sketch artist Jeanne Boylan helped draw a composite of the suspect from descriptions given by Klaas’ terrified friends. When Richard Allen Davis was arrested six weeks later at a routine police stop, he strongly resembled Boylan’s drawing. (Davis is currently on death row in California.)

Says Taylor, “For the forensic artist, one image can literally be responsible for the recovery of a precious stolen child, stopping a serial rapist or murderer, or providing closure for the family who has lost a loved one to homicide.

“It is an awesome responsibility? and one that wears on the heart and soul,” she shares in an e-mail interview with StarMag.

Taylor knows a little something about that wear and tear. She worked for 18 years with the Texas Department of Public Safety in America, building up a global reputation, writing the academic text in her field, Forensic Art and Illustration, and even having a character based on her on TV’s forensic series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (for which she is a consultant).

A passion for faces
When the Chicago police department could not identify the decayed body of a woman discovered in a dumpster, they turned to Taylor.

They sent her the Jane Doe’s skull, a hair sample, and autopsy photos.

With the skull on a stand, Taylor worked over several weeks, layering on clay – according to a technique she pioneered in the 1980s that is now commonly used around the globe – until she could put a face to the nameless victim.

Crucially, she noted glue and metal bands on the victim’s teeth, indicating that the victim had worn braces.

From the 3D model, Taylor produced a 2D sketch that was aired on the TV programme America’s Most Wanted (along with images of the 3D model) and published in a publication for dentists. That turned out to be the vital link: A dentist recognised the victim as his 17-year-old patient Marlaina Reed.

Taylor’s work had a striking likeness to the photo of the murdered teenager that was eventually obtained.

The “Chicago Jane Doe” case is just one among thousands in Taylor’s portfolio.

“Depicting faces has always been my passion,” she tells us. “I drew faces in childhood, attempted my first facial sculpture in high school, and continued the obsession throughout college.”

Taylor’s fascination for faces led her to the School of Fine Arts at the University of Texas and then the world-renowned Chelsea School of Fine Art in London. She later worked as a portrait sculptor for Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, further honing her skills in sculpting faces.

But it was in law enforcement that Taylor found her calling, and ended up working for almost two decades as a forensic artist in Texas.

In 1992, she was honoured as a Texas Woman of the Century and, in 2002, the International Association for Identification awarded her the John A. Dondero Award for “significant and valuable contribution in the area of identification and allied sciences”. Her book, Forensic Art and Illustration, is used as a textbook by practitioners globally.

To become an artist of crime

In a multi-ethnic country like Malaysia, forensic artists must consider issues of race or ancestry, not because of prejudice but simply as a potential means of specific physical description, Taylor points out.

“In my forensic art workshops, I teach students to focus on facial shapes, feature forms, and skin tones rather than attempting to ‘place labels’ on people,” she explains.

“Racial prejudice may sometimes play when people give descriptions of members of certain ethnic groups. It’s the artist’s job to deal with appearances not labels.”

Taylor believes that the forensic artist must blend skills in the fine arts with science.

And that you must never stop learning, ever. And you learn not just about your own field but as many other related fields as you can if you want to be the best possible police artist, she explains.

“Artists should strive to acquire various skills to do this work well, depending on the specific type of forensic art they practice.”

For instance:

·To produce accurate composite images, an artist would have to know the subtleties of how memory functions and learn interviewing techniques.

·To produce an image of an adult based on the picture of him/her as a child, the artist would have to know how faces generally develop and grow, ie craniofacial development.

·To update images of fugitives who have aged requires knowledge of craniofacial ageing.

·Producing a recognisable image from a dead body that has detriorated requires an understanding of post-mortem processes and what changes happen to the face after death.

· Reconstructing a face from a skull is perhaps the most arduous of the forensic arts; it involves aspects of anatomy, anthropology, and dentistry.

Most importantly, “Forensic artists should be capable of empathy for crime victims, both living and deceased”.

Leaving the heartache behind

Taylor is often asked how she deals with the skulls and the gross morgue work in her career.

Her answer is revealing of how much empathy plays a part in the field of forensic art.

“It has been easier for me to deal with a crime victim who is no longer suffering. It has, at times, been far more difficult to work with the living who are still in great emotional or physical pain,” she says.

After two decades of witnessing at first hand the heartache victims of violent crime and their families experience, Taylor is drawing away from forensic art and returning to being a portrait sculptor.

She now works as an independent contract artist out of her studio, Facial Images, in Austin, Texas.

“I’ve spent the past 20 years doing artwork to help capture the bad guys. Now I intend to spend the next 20 years commemorating the good guys and girls!” she says.

“My intent now is to use the skills with which I was blessed to create facial images that document the intelligence, goodness, and joy that a human face can hold.”

Among many successful projects is her work with the advisory group that developed the content of a hugely popular travelling exhibit called Whodunit? The Science of Solving Crime created by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Texas.

For all her success, though, nothing beats the satisfaction of knowing that her craft has helped apprehend a criminal or bring closure to a grieving family.

Karen T. Taylor’s website is

- Sunday Star


Anonymous said...

I've heard of this woman. She's done a lot of impressive work in the field.

Btw En. Jasni, the URL for the link to Ms. Taylor's website is incorrect. It should be

unicorn said...

police should work together with this creative & imaginative woman.

because i've been to the police station before to do some photofit. i tell you, it's hopeless...the guy(policeman) juz asking me the closest resemblance part of human face(eyes,mouth,nose BUT limited) to make one photofit.

Actually,i wanted to tell him, none of those in his PC came close to the suspect. anyway, to make case easier for him (who looked restless) ,i juz hentam saje bcos apapun, case i akan terus di sejukbekukan krn kes tipu org2 kebanyakan.

Jaj, apa khabar terbaru keluarga arwah nurin, linie & awie?

dyanaalwi said...

Dear sir, just be patient, and hope and pray that they will find the missing girl and the evil man. This case seems like it's getting cold... :(