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Of all of the social problems associated with crime and justice, perhaps none occupies space on the registers of visual culture like the problem of drugs. Long a central site and locus of criminological inquiry, drugs and the related issues they give rise to have always been essential characters in the drama of crime and justice, and those dramas largely play themselves out in the field of the visual image. From the menacing image of the crazed marijuana user immortalized in the film Reefer Madness (1936) to contemporary visual productions like popular ‘Faces of Meth’ campaigns, drug trends and associated issues and problems are constructed and communicated, reified, and even fabricated and cut from the whole cloth of the visual. The visual world(s) of drugs is also perhaps the best and most salient available example to illustrate the sort of flexibility and ‘unfixedness’ of images and aesthetics, the way that images and visual cultures have their meanings negotiated by the social processes that constitute the practice of seeing.

This chapter surveys the various ways in which drugs are given life and meaning in the visual registers of crime and culture, what might be learned or uncovered from those meanings, and the various—and, in the case of drugs, considerable—moments in which an explicitly visual criminology has already begun to engage with the specter of drugs. Among the most immediately relevant dimensions of drugs in visual culture, for a visual criminology, are important questions of ethics, representation, framing, power, and meaning, and so those are the questions to which we now turn.

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Among the most important moments in the history of photography was the publication, between 1844 and 1846, of William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature. The collection, which was the first commercially published book to be illustrated with photographs, described Talbot’s development of the process of calotype printing, which allowed for the mechanical and chemical capture of light, producing what were, for much of the collection’s audience, the first photographic images they ever saw (Talbot 1989). The project included a collection of images that, somewhat remarkably, represents much of the spectrum of photographic subjects at play well over 150 years later: still lifes, portraits, architectural studies, and even slice-of-life or vérité images are all represented in Talbot’s work. What I want to draw attention to here, though, is not the content of Talbot’s work—as fascinating as it may be—but rather the title of that work. For Talbot, it seems, the relation between the photographic image and the ‘natural’ world (more on that shortly) was plainly evident, with photography at last delivering the ability to capture ‘nature’ as conceptualized as all that is not human. Capture, of course, also implies mastery or dominance, as made clear by Allan Sekula (1986: 4) when he noted that photography initially promised, in addition to its early juridical deployment discussed previously, ‘an enhanced mastery of nature’. Human visions of ‘nature’, then—and particularly nature’s forms and relations to the human and the social—have long been at the center of the power of images.

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On the afternoon of 25 May 2020, police in Minneapolis, Minnesota approached George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old Black man, following a tip that Floyd had attempted to pass a counterfeit $20 note to a store clerk. During the interaction, a white cop, Derek Chauvin, detained George Floyd on the pavement with his knees on Floyd’s neck and back as a physically passive Floyd struggled to breath. For nearly nine minutes, Chauvin—with the assistance of three other cops—remained on top of George Floyd, ultimately killing him. The murder was captured, like so many are now, by the mobile phone cameras of bystanders, and by the next day the footage had circulated internationally. Almost immediately, global protests against police violence began, focusing largely on George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman murdered in her home by police, two weeks prior to Floyd, in my own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. At the time of this writing, almost six months later, those protests continue in every major American city and around the world, and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are the tragic symbols, their names hoarsely shouted and spray painted, their faces appearing on placards and signs and shirts and murals.

The image of Chauvin with his knee on the neck of a dying George Floyd, it seems to me, is the essential criminological image of the contemporary moment. I do not reproduce it here, not because it is too shocking—American police murdering an unarmed Black man should not, by now, come as a shock to anyone—but because it is too familiar.

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This book began with the killing of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the spring of 2020. It is fitting, then, that it ends more or less there, too. Instead, however, of the immediate particular circumstances of George Floyd’s murder—the knee in his back, the violent disinterest of Derek Chauvin and his coworker accomplices on the scene, or the pleas of bystanders, with their mobile phone cameras rolling, to the police to stop, to allow George Floyd to breathe—I end on what came next, as the world was confronted yet again with the painfully familiar image of the police violence of racial capitalism: a Black man killed by the state.

As this book has argued, described, and demonstrated, over the previous seven chapters, there is ample opportunity to find some criminological and sociological truth in the image, and in the ways in which we produce and employ and understand it. Images constitute and condition the social worlds of crime, harm, and justice, and we live our lives more or less immersed in their spectacle. But when George Floyd died the world did not just ‘see it happen’: George Floyd’s killing, like those before it, is not simply seen in the footage of his murder, it is felt. It is not only images of a police murder that are produced when the cameras roll, it is the sounds of a murder. It is George Floyd’s dying plea for his mother, or 26-year-old Daniel Shaver begging in a hotel corridor for clear instruction seconds before being hit five times with shots from Mesa, Arizona cop Phillip Brailsford’s AR-15 rifle, on which Brailsford had carefully inscribed ‘you’re fucked’ in an ornate script.

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If prisons are routinely occluded as described in the previous chapter, then police is a power that suffers the opposite condition: the visibility of police is markedly high, with police images occupying a fantastic amount of space across visual culture, a condition that has led police to be described as ‘by far the most visible of all criminal justice institutions’ (Chermak and Weiss 2005: 502). The relation between police and the visual, though, reaches far beyond the binary condition of visibility or invisibility; police power is elementally connected to the visual image, and the moments of interaction between police power and the image are incalculably vast, both historically and in contemporary contexts. In this chapter, I understand police power as largely imagined, expressed, materialized, reified, and resisted through processes that are, at least in part, theatrical, melodramatic, dramatological and, above all, visual.

This is what Jean and John Comaroff (2004) describe as the ‘theatrics of policing’,1 and it is largely the visual artefacts of those theatrics that I mine in this chapter for insights into the relation between police and the image. Even a fleeting glance, however, at the contemporary visual landscape will quickly overwhelm the attuned viewer with images of and from police; our visual worlds are, it seems, crawling with cops, their fingerprints smudging and distorting nearly every image. This chapter, then, describes only the broad contours of that relation. From ‘Wanted!’ posters and early efforts at biological criminology to the growing corpus of video images of police killings, this chapter describes the development of criminological analysis of the police–image relation and endeavors to uncover some of the myriad ways in which the image and the police always implicate one another.

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Like many of the other issues and sites taken up in this book—and, more generally, taken up by criminology—the ways and moments in which we imagine the prison are intensely configured by the ways and moments in which we see the prison; how we understand the concept of the prison is conditioned by how, where, when, and what we see when we look for or at the prison as a material space, as a building and as a location. The inverse, though, is also of course true: what we look at and for when we look for the prison in the vast landscapes of visual culture is conditioned by what we imagine the prison to be. Caleb Smith (2013: 167) cuts to the heart of this relation, noting that ‘the penal state is operative in sites where we might not be accustomed to look for it’. It is necessary for a visual criminological exploration of punishment to think expansively about when and where we might render regimes of punishment visible, or to otherwise use images in order to wrestle meaning from punishment.

It is obviously essential, then, when thinking about the visual dimensions of punishment, that we not limit our analysis to prisons. Like police, described later in Chapter 7, the full form of punishment is first obscured by thinking solely of the prison. In the example of police, the problem arises from the limitations imposed by ‘the’, whereas in the case of punishment the limitation is imposed by ‘prison’. It is important, then, to remain mindful of the vast apparatuses of punishment that extend beyond and outside of the confines of the prison.

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New Horizons in Criminology
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From fine art to popular digital culture, criminologists are increasingly engaged in the processes of the visual.

In this pioneering work, Bill McClanahan provides a concise and lively overview of the origins and contemporary role of visual criminology. Detailing and employing the most prominent approaches at work in visual criminology, this book explores the visual perspective in relation to prisons, police, the environment, and drugs, while noting the complex social and ethical implications embedded in visual research.

This original book broadens the horizons of criminological engagement and reveals how visual criminology offers new and critical ways to understand and theorize crime and harm.

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Visual criminology did not emerge solely from the critical and cultural criminologies described in the previous chapter. Rather, its development represents criminology adopting and adapting certain tendencies already at play in other areas. While its influences are as vast and diverse as its iterations—there are, it seems, as many visual epistemologies as there are visual criminologists—we can nevertheless locate and note them. This chapter begins by doing just that: by considering and describing the ways that scholarly attention is paid to the optical, mechanical, processual, political, and material forces that shape and condition the social world through the image. From there, I offer some loose and flexible definitions of some key concepts, as well as some efforts to operationalize some of those concepts so that their role in informing my own analysis can (hopefully and helpfully) be clear.

This is not, though, meant to be an account of these developments that is anywhere near comprehensive. For one, such an account would immediately exceed the remit and scope of this book. Moreover, though, the broad interdisciplinarity of ‘visual studies’ (a formation discussed thoroughly later in this chapter) in which we can more or less place the trends and developments discussed here almost necessarily leads to reiteration; while the refinements made by visual sociologists of course differ from those made by visual anthropologists, to describe each development exhaustively and to tease out the (important, but often minor) distinctions between orientations, thinkers, methods, and so on would be to lose sight of our topic—visual criminology—which, while growing up at the knee of these other disciplinary formations, has quickly come into its own.

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Like any other sort of material entering the context of criminological analysis, the visual can be approached, managed, decoded, produced, and considered in any number of ways. This chapter describes some of those ways, and notes instances in which a number of visual methods are already evident within criminology. We should keep in mind, though, that visual methodologies—like other qualitative methodologies—are often so peculiar and particular that they are developed individually, in order that they best suit the context of their use. Moreover, we should remember that despite their occasional fuzziness, methods and methodologies are actual things, and that sometimes—or, really, most of the time—what we call visual criminology is less concerned with and conditioned by method than it is by something more like tendency. Rather than rigorously outline the boundaries of visual criminological methods, I think it is essential that visual criminology instead perhaps borrow the sort of (anti)methodological promiscuity that already configures and informs cultural criminology (see generally Ferrell 2009; Hayward and Presdee 2010). A truly comprehensive overview, then, is a challenge that is impossible to meet in a short chapter (or even a short book). Rather than endeavor to offer such an overview, I simply describe the most common—and, I think, the most fruitful and promising—avenues of visual research already opened by and within criminology.

There are, it goes almost without saying, any number of ways in which criminology might methodologically approach the visual. The first task, it seems to me, is to parse the various approaches and tendencies along the first obvious point of cleavage: the origin of the image under the scrutiny of analysis.

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