Thursday, 28 March 2013

Photo or witness?

Misperceived black rabbitMost people carry cameras around all the time these days, in their phones. In spite of that, it is still highly unusual for a witness to something weird to record it at the the time with a photo. There are three main reasons I can think of for this. Firstly, witnesses are often too amazed by what they're seeing to think about taking photos. Secondly, many sightings only last a few seconds, minutes at most, and there may not be the time to take a photo. Thirdly, witnesses to something amazing rarely want to take their eyes off it!

From the very few cases I've come across where witnesses have actually photographed what they've seen, the resulting photo generally does not agree closely with what the witness remembers seeing. So, where they are contradictory, which is most likely to be correct - the photo or witness account?

I think you should treat both photo AND witness account as equally valid. It is entirely possible that both are entirely accurate! That's because people misperceive while cameras don't. So a witness may see a ghostly figure in a car only for a simultaneous photo to show an empty seat with a coat hanging draped over it. Indeed, it is the very contradiction between the photo and witness memory that may have led to the incident being reported as a ghost in the first place. It is the reverse of the more common case where people see a figure in a photo but cannot recall seeing anyone at the time of exposure.

But which is real - photo or witness report? We know there are many problems with witness reports, quite apart from misperception, like memory for instance. And the more time that has passed since the incident, the less accurate the witness report is likely to be. By contrast, a photo can be examined minutely again and again with its information content never changing. Having said that, photos do have their own limitations. They may suffer from low resolution, under- or over-exposure, motion blur and so on, which will make it difficult to say what is present. And though they may not show misperceptions, they do quite often contain photographic artefacts (can you see the 'black rabbit' in the photo above - background here?).

Investigators do have one other thing they can do, besides interviewing and studying the photo, to help resolve these problems - they can (if practical) visit the site where the photo was taken. They can look for signs of possible misperception on site (see here), though things may have changed since the original report, of course. Such research can help resolve whether the photo, witness report or both are truly accurate representations of what took place.

So, the question of photo versus witness report is not simple. Many people would say the photo must be 'correct' but, for reasons I've given above, that is not necessarily so. And it is entirely possible for the witness to have perceived exactly what they say they did, even though what they saw was not physically present and not photographable. We always need to treat the photo and witness report as equally valid and important evidence.

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