Surveillance and Social Control through the Collection and Distribution of “Mug Shots” in the U.S.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 16:00
Oral Presentation
Anna BANCHIK, The University of Texas at Austin, USA
Sarah LAGESON, Rutgers University-Newark, USA
Recent years have seen a dramatic surge in the release and circulation of booking photographs on third party or official police webpages. While some advocates of this practice uphold booking photographs as evidence of justice being served and of law enforcement doing its job, others frame such images as a check on law enforcement, arguing that they warrant disclosure precisely because the facial expressions captured therein are capable of signaling police misconduct or abuse.

In contrast to these utilitarian arguments, a surveillance lens extends debate by highlighting the profound reputational and material consequences wrought on those depicted through disclosure. Magnified by the internet’s reach, the stigma of arrest carried in a digital booking photo has been found to extend well beyond an individual’s involvement with the legal system to pervade myriad areas of life including employment, housing, and dating (Lageson 2017). In this paper, we draw on theories of privacy, surveillance, and photographic evidence to analyze arguments concerning the release of mug shots as expressed within public debate, court cases, and Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. Positions challenging and affirming the release of such photos are found to be undergirded by starkly disparate assessments of their probative value. These findings point to evolving public understandings of the affordances and dangers of mug shots and surveillance footage in the digital age.