While working on a project, my internet search took me to a blog called “Forensic Photoshop.” Being a long time fan of forensics and a user of Photoshop, I was curious to find out more about the author behind this blog. It turned out to be Jim Hoerricks, a forensic image/video analyst who not only writes a blog, but is also the author of a book by the same name. I contacted Mr. Hoerricks two weeks ago and he immediately agreed to an e-mail interview.
me: “First, could you tell me a little about you and what you do with the LAPD? Is this something you’ve always wanted to do?”
Jim Hoerricks: I’ve always been into art, the process of creation, crafting, designing, and so forth. I started out as an artist/designer. My first gallery showing and sale was in the 8th grade (some valuable lessons in contracting were learned there). I started out with art as a business in my shared flat in college, doing flyers for parties and so forth. I got a graphics job on campus that later lead to the editor’s job with the college’s daily newsletter.
Over time, I built up a client base. My primary function, my position with my clients, is to find out what they need and deliver it on-time and at a value that they and I can both afford. I’ve done everything from menu boards, to ad sheets, to Excel applications. Later on, with the advent of things like Microsoft Publisher, clients brought their art departments in house to save money. Some came back after a while. I still maintain a small list of clients whose accounts are more like personal relationships than business.
In 2001, I was offered the chance to join the LAPD as a civilian specialist and start the Forensic Image/Video Analysis lab. It took a few years of chasing down funding and equipment, writing SOPs, and whatnot, but I eventually got it all going.
To answer the “is this something that you’ve always wanted to do” question, I’d have to say no … inasmuch as the job, the technology didn’t exist to exploit images the way that we analysts do until I was already in college. Even then, I wasn’t aware of what was happening in the industry. I simply love to create, love the challenge of crafting something new. There’s a lot of technical cross-over between my background and this new industry … so it just fit. It just made sense. I could edit on an Avid, on Premiere, and Vegas … and these are the primary tools for a forensic analyst. Then there’s Photoshop. Everyone uses Photoshop, which is my real strong point. Then I can bring in all of the other software and hardware tools … and the Workflow was born.
me: “I’m sure when many people hear about your job, the first thing they want to know is “how close does it resemble forensic TV dramas such as CSI and NCIS.” Is your job as exciting as what we see on TV?”
Jim Hoerricks: There is no “CSI” button, obviously. 🙂 The question is valid, and there is a “CSI Effect,” but I think of it in terms of another challenge. Instead of sitting by bemoaning the fact that these shows exist and people watch them, I look to them for research into what juries expect. If a jury expects to see a face resolved from a reflection in a nearby window, and I can resolve the image … great. If not, I can tell the story, my testimony, as if I was within that “CSI” episode. “In CSI, the latent prints are lifted from the whole car in a matter of minutes. Fade to black, off to commercial, and when you return, there’s a match … the reality is much different.” Then I explain why.
Is the job as exciting as TV? No. An unfortunate “side effect” of the work is vicarious trauma, the trauma that your brain endures as you watch (helplessly) as bad things happen to real people, over and over again. In one murder case, I watched the footage over 500 times during the course of my work. It has an adverse effect on your mental health. The trauma can lead to things like depression and PTSD if not recongnized and mitigated. Thankfully, I’ve got a former client who’s an expert in this area. He’s helped tremendously.
I don’t think people realize that there is a psychological difference between watching Arnold blow up a town on TV (then seeing him as Governor later in the day) and stepping around an actual dead body or watching someone actually get hurt on video. Remember the Faces of Death videos from the 80’s? Remember the public’s reaction? There is a difference.
(comment: I couldn’t agree more that there is definitely a greater distinction between the real work and TV drama than many people might realize. It makes me cringe whenever an illustrator delivers facial reconstruction in minutes, and *computers* magically reconstructs accidents without much input on the part of the visual specialist. I think sometimes it is difficult for people to grasp what we do because many don’t realize that sometimes the simplest images require months of preparation and research to produce. However, Mr. Hoerricks brings up a good point that TV is something that a lot of people relate to. So next time we see something impossible on TV, instead of thinking “this is impossible,” maybe we should think instead “how can we make this possible?”)
me: “What are some of the challenges you have come across in your work?”
Jim Hoerricks: The biggest challenge is staying on top of technology. As an example, every time Adobe comes out with an upgrade to the Creative Suite, it costs me a couple of thousand dollars. I’ve then got to find a way to pay for it.
People just assume that these things happen somewhere, by someone. But budgets, priorities, and finding time for things like a life and family all add up.
(comment: Indeed, equipment is expensive and it’s all a big balancing act. I was a bioengineering major before, and I didn’t realize how much more it costs to become an illustrator compared to becoming a scientist. Textbook costs are nothing compared to the Adobe Create Suite, and there appears to be such a limited source of funding for travel. I am jealous of my friends in engineering who get all their conference fees and travel expenses covered for by the school. I would love to attend every single conference that’s relevant to what I do in order to stay on top of the trend, but we simply cannot.)
me: “Can you name one thing you do that sounds fascinating but is in fact very mindless and repetitive?”
Jim Hoerricks: There’s very little that’s repetitive. Every case is unique. Different recorders, different lighting, different circumstances, different law being broken, and so forth. Having a set of procedures and a Workflow helps keep everything in order and keep me on track.
(comment: I used to draw insect anatomy every day for a year and people would ask the same thing:) No, it did not get repetitive.)
me: “You have a website, a blog, and a book called Forensic Photoshop. Are some Photoshop techniques unique to the field of forensics?”
Jim Hoerricks: They really aren’t. Photoshop wasn’t written for forensics. I’ve just taken what I know from the design/photography world and applied it to forensics. Sometimes, there are those who disagree with a particular technique, like dodging/burning for example. But it can be done in such a way that preserves the original, happens on its own layer, and does not change the content or context of the image. It can also be documented and explained to the jury … so I’m comfortable with it.
A friend at Adobe told me once that there are over 7 million “consumer” photographers and about a million professional photographers in the world. That’s a big customer base for Photoshop. There are less than 100k potential customers in “forensics” at this time. They really like us and support us as much as they can, but the art/photography world rules the day as far as Photoshop is concerned.
me: “Did you ever encounter any ethical or legal issues with enhancing and manipulating images? One can argue that the more you manipulate an image, the more it deviates from the original. Does a manipulated image lose its validity in court?”
Jim Hoerricks: Words have specific meaning. It depends on what you mean by “manipulate.” Here’s how I would explain it. An underexposed image … nothing to see … all darkness. Is it useless? Not hardly. With Photoshop’s tools, I can potentially correct the exposure, adding light to the image. Did I manipulate it? Yes, of course. Did I add anything? Certainly, I added light. Did I change the content or context? No. I only added light to assist the judge and jury in ascertaining the contents of the image. Open the door to a dark room and turn on the lights. What did you do? Did the process of turning on the lights arrange the room as you see it? No. It merely increased your ability to resolve the details in the room. So you see, it all depends on how you define things.
I want to thank Jim Hoerricks again for this interview and his quick response. To view his blog and learn more about him, visit http://forensicphotoshop.blogspot.com/ and http://www.forensicphotoshopbook.com/about_me/about_me.htm.