New York’s creative scene has been a coastal hub of American counterculture for decades, often reflecting the tension between its natives and the police state surrounding them. And Kamoinge Collective member Salimah Ali’s experiences, professional and personal, often distort the lines between them. As a tried-and-true street photographer, Ali has spent the past four decades shooting complete strangers, political pariahs, and entertainers alike. In that time, she’s gathered dozens of stories about the subjects, and further--the particular moments she has frozen in frame. After a decade of freelance work and a focus on street photography, Salimah eventually managed to turn her love of photography into a new career--just maybe not in the way that she had imagined. Because despite the sheer impact that imagery has had on 21st-century global discourse, society has ensured that the skill involved in doing so can’t be worth all that much. But photography, with its stinging power to document, has Salimah unexpectedly working on what seems like alternate sides.
As Torry Threadcraft explores in his new piece, “Since the late seventies, her work has been featured in books as well as photo exhibits throughout the city, having photographed everything from protests, to parades, to political events all over these mean streets. Everything was going swimmingly, by New York City creative scene standards, but freelance work also had its downside. “I would wait forever for my money. Sometimes the pay was really good, other times it stunk. You had to balance it to pay your bills throughout the year.” That was, until an unlikely opportunity emerged: a photography position with the New York Police Department." Her point of view was suddenly about to change.
Long before photography was even considered an art form, it was used primarily for the purpose of documentation; its value purely utilitarian. Because in the same way that basic plumbing skills might be a prerequisite on a handyman’s CV, documentary photography, too, was becoming a necessary technical part of institutional systems—specifically that of the police force. Ever since the Bertillon Method (developed to track criminal suspects) was showcased at the Chicago World's Fair in 1863, its sinister iconography, soon to become known in popular culture as mugshot photography, has permeated our collective consciousness.
“America’s obsession with both sides of the outlaw lifestyle spans the past two centuries. The pervasiveness of mugshots in pop culture is a fairly recent development, an extension of those infamous Most Wanted posters in American Wild West mythology. What began as childhood games of Cowboys and Indians would eventually lead to Cops and Robbers. Mass media evolved, and mugshots captured, in that sinister way, images of celebrities, hardened recidivists, and common civilians at their most vulnerable moments. While there are the occasional cases of mugshots that lead to modeling jobs, they’re mostly a shameful sight to the families of those charged. To the average person, a mugshot itself is sufficient evidence of the subject’s guilt. Because though they are meant to be neutral images, that neutrality also allows them to become susceptible to the public’s projections.” Read Alternate Sides of Salimah Ali
Having spent years in the streets capturing police activity from the other side, Ms. Ali brings that viewpoint with her to work everyday. For the most part, she takes mugshots in central bookings throughout the metro area, occasionally shooting official department portraits, awards dinners, and parades. Still, the harsh realities of the job rear their heads occasionally. “It’s depressing sometimes,” she lamented. “You get your crazy people coming in, you get your people that are innocent, you get your young guys that come in at 15 and 16 years old who made the biggest mistake of their lives. On May 7th, I’ll have been with the NYPD for 18 years, and I just think of someone spending that time in jail while I have the freedom to make choices.”
When asked about instances where her own line of creative work clashed with the force, she chuckles. “I’ve had a few,” she said. “My camera strap got wrapped around an officer’s gun once when they were arresting Al Sharpton. I was taking pictures of him while they put him in the paddy wagon, and my camera strap just happened to wrap around his gun. I had to say hey, listen, I’m not trying to do anything, I just need to get my camera. Another time,” Ali continued, “they were arresting protestors at the Democratic National Convention. I was low-shooting, and I saw a leg get in my way. I almost flipped the person. Good thing I didn’t, because it was an officer, and I hadn’t seen his face. Then, during Khalid Muhammad’s Million Youth March, the NYPD really didn’t like him and wanted him to end the march early. When he didn’t, there were helicopters flying over, and stuff was sprayed for the crowd to disperse. It was just pandemonium.”
“It’s not my job to sit in judgment of you,” Ali concluded. “I’m only here so you can get through the system because, without your photograph and fingerprints, you’re going to sit in a cell.” Black celebrities and public officials alike have long wrestled with the question of collective cultural responsibility. Between growing wealth disparity and the ever-burrowing claws of the police-industrial complex, there’s no shortage of native New Yorkers who would scoff at the notion of assisting the NYPD with a clear conscience. But above all else, after many years of shooting the streets, she says, “it gave me the opportunity to have light at the end of the tunnel.” In the intersecting career timelines of the Kamoinge Collective, it’s just another example of life interacting with art.
All images courtesy of Salimah Ali
It might be surprising to hear that the creator of the modern day mugshot wasn’t a photographer, or even a police officer for that matter. In fact, it was Alphonse Bertillon, a clerk in the 1840's office of the Prefecture of Police in Paris who grew frustrated with the lack of resources to track suspects, and so he went about developing his own system.
He used a camera to take photos of the suspects and created what we now know as the formal mugshot. One straight on and one of the profile. Hats were so in vogue at the time that he also required suspects to wear them in photos. This “Bertillon System” was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and it quickly caught on with major American urban police departments.
But Bertillon was more of an anthropologist than a criminal justice expert. So in order to track details of the alleged criminals, he took an anthropological approach, called anthropometry. His system, eventually called bertillonage, involved measuring dimensions of the suspects head, face, stature, and height. Bertillion would then enter these measurements into file cards for each person, along with their mugshots, and sorted them in order by the offender’s size. If an individual was thought to be a repeated offender, Bertillion and his minions would check their files and reference the cards to see if the suspect matched with anyone who had been previously arrested.
This is all fine and dandy, especially for the time, but nowadays it’s something those on Twitter would call deeply problematic. That’s because there is a major, obviously glaring flaw: a lot of people are generally the same height and size, hat or no hat. So, an unfortunate and insidious side effect was that officers began to assume someone with said measurements, or appearance, were “born criminals” which led to the debate of eugenics. It was almost like a minority-report-esque way of thinking. And, eventually, it would lead to racial profiling of immigrants and minorities.
So, yes, Alphonse Bertillon made major advancements to forensic science, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been collateral damage along the way, regardless of what a certain Top Shop heiress would say.