The Men on the Cards


The Men on the Cards

           This semester, I’ve taken a more active role in the research of Decomposing Bodies headed by Project Lead, Alison Langmead, and Project Manager, Aisling Quigley of the Visual Media Workshop. One of my tasks is to transcribe Bertillon prisoner identification cards of the Ohio Penitentiary, a collection comprised of around 40,000 cards created throughout the late nineteenth to early twentieth century; a pre-computer database of criminals.

           At the start, my progress was slow. My eyes were still getting accustomed to reading the rushed scribbles of numbers and my fingers were still working on developing the quickest and most accurate way of inputting the information into the database. I was only focused on efficiency; the montage of the indifferent young or aggressive old held their place only as unfamiliar faces in a century old crowd.

           By the next day, I had a swift system going.  With my right hand splayed across the number pad and my left draped atop the space, tab and ctrl+c, I was able to swiftly complete the transcription of each card in under a minute without having to look down.

           There seemed to be something cruel, though, in devoting such short lengths of time to each card. These cards were created to define the men depicted on them. For some, it was most likely the only ever recorded photo or official document of himself, the only mark proving his existence in history. (yes, I realize I have a tendency of romanticizing the smallest of things, bear with me). Although these cards are in no way accurate representations of the people they were meant to capture and though I am not glorifying the crimes the men may have committed, zipping through the documents felt akin to disrespecting their existence, downgrading each status from “individual” to “card” to strictly “numbers”.

           I’ve since made a conscious effort to devote more time to each individual card. This effort was also motivated by my want to understand the work I was doing, my thought process being that I should have knowledge of the subjects being described on the cards and be on the lookout for interesting outliers. Of course, if you asked me whether or not I recognized a man, I would still find it extremely difficult to remember him in the crowd of thousands, but I feel it’s granted me a more personal connection and appreciation for this research project.

            Focusing on the cards themselves, it’s interesting what information was prioritized. The front face of the cards are fully dedicated to numerical facts, listing first the Bertillon measurements, followed by codes of the eye-class, age, forehead size, profile dimensions, etc. Any personal facts such as the name or occupation are included on the back, as if unimportant second thoughts. With the goal of efficiency in sorting in mind, this admittedly makes the most sense; one could easily falsify statements about his name or his permanent residence, while restructuring facial features may prove to be a more ambitious task. However, the decision of ordering the data in this way further encourages a disconnect between the man on the card and the user. The man becomes reduced to his list of numbers (hence, decomposing bodies <into a set of data>), and while they may be digits specific to himself, it is nevertheless a cold description that doesn’t hold the same personal weight as one’s name might. Decades later, it makes it easy to dismiss the fact that these are cards of previously existing humans, to regard them as statements of data rather than cards of heavy biographical weight. (maybe that was the intention?)

            Most of the questions that rose in my mind through the transcriptions were ones regarding the process of obtaining these numbers and photographs. Were the photographs taken before, during, or after the measurement appointments? Some cards include second or even third re-measurements, what situations prompted those, the leaving or re-entering into the system? Were the prisoners and officers inclined to exchange words? How long did each appointment take? The routine probably required a decent amount of time, and was also a somewhat intimate process, seeing that the measurements needed are of small areas such as ear or finger lengths and observations of bodily scars. The most pressing, though, is how this technical system has evolved and inspired other such programs over time.

            People like knowing who other people are. This is especially prominent now, with our population increasing into the billions. How far might this practice of identification pervade into the daily lives of the public? As of now we have the standard issued drivers licenses, passports, fingerprints, what have you, but in the last few years, more advanced systems have begun to arise, namely facial recognition. This developing program uses a similar set of measurements as the Bertillon system to identify people, which may grant higher safeties but at what cost? As was read in Jen Donnelly’s research through her post discussing the application of the Bertillon system to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was a sense of breached privacy and humiliation involved in the use of one’s physical measurements, though it was in part due to the connotations of Bertillon measurements at the time. Even still, with the advancements of these systems of identification, the definition and importance of privacy begins to shift.  

            In the course of the next couple months, I plan on exploring these questions and topics further, namely focusing on the argument of how biometrics may or may not cause change in the social structures standing today and what benefits or repercussions this new sort of identification may bring.


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