Love Thy Neighbor's Mug Shot

This mug shot of Ezra Pound was taken by the U.S. armed forces in Italy,  1945. Given the trouble newspapers are having staying afloat—which includes paying for reporters, news gathering, and making (or leasing) photographs to illustrate stories—cutting costs is a key to survival. A startling article by Tim Badgett in the September 21st issue of Time magazine described how some papers are simultaneously trimming picture budgets and bulking up online readership by featuring digital, continually updated galleries of mug shots.

The home page of the St. Petersburg Times, for example, features mug shots of locals who’ve been arrested by the police in four nearby counties served by the paper. Straightforward, artless, and yet completely fascinating, the routine portraits depict subjects posed in front of neutral blue backgrounds. Although they’re all innocent until proven guilty, it’s hard not to scan faces for indicators of character and/or criminality. And for website visitors who want more specifics, a click or two links them directly to police records that provide names, addresses, vital statistics, and a sense of what these unintentional celebrities have been charged with.

Photography, since its invention, has been an essential tool for those charged with maintaining law and order. In the second half of the 19th century, Allan Pinkerton created a detective agency that published wanted posters and, later, books of mug shots that were distributed to clients, such as the American Bankers Association.

In the 1870s, Communards who manned barricades in the streets of Paris posed for the photographs that would ultimately be used to prosecute them. In the 20th century, tabloid newspapers routinely generated excitement by reproducing portraits of alleged and seasoned criminals, in order to both inform and titillate the reading public.

The phenomenon continues to this day. A quick online search yields a rogues gallery of historic and contemporary mug shots:

Mug shot of Elvis, possibly taken in 1970 at the FBI headquarters in Washington DC, when Elvis visit Mug shot of Larry Craig, U.S. Senator (R-Idaho), following his arrest on June 11
Mug shot of Benjamin Siegel, Jewish-American Mobster, taken by the New York Police Department, 1920s

Mug shots, now a media staple; pique curiosity, build audiences, and cost nothing. That’s why, some have argued, news outlets’ websites feature these public domain pictures (under the Freedom of Information Act) so prominently and often. Take a look at one Florida TV channel’s website, to see hundreds of recent photographs, accompanied by an equally impressive array of graphs and statistics. “It’s a huge traffic driver for us,” Roger Simmons, digital news manager for the Orlando Sentinel, where mug shots generate 2.5 million page views per month, is quoted as saying in the Time article.

The more people who come to online sites to see both what’s going on and going wrong in the neighborhood, the higher the fees media sites can charge to advertisers can soar. Given that fact, the old adage—looking good is the best revenge—is starting to sound out-dated. Now, it’s the people charged with being bad and who’ve been photographed indifferently who are helping others laugh all the way to the bank.

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