Heartache of being a crime scene photographer

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Police photographer Bennie van Staden testifies during the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. He was assigned to take pictures of the murder scene last year. Picture: Daniel Born

Pretoria - Twelve years ago, former police photographer and crime scene expert Rinus Viljoen attended his last scene – an accident.

A father had driven over his two-year-old son. It was 2002 and Viljoen’s own son had been born that year.

“To me, that scene was too much,” says Viljoen.

He never took another crime scene picture and six months later ended his almost decade-long career in the police.

Viljoen was stationed at the Criminal Records Centre in Pretoria and Centurion, and worked closely with a witness in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, Warrant Officer Bennie van Staden.

“I have the utmost respect for Bennie and believe that he went by the book,” says Viljoen of the police photographer.

Viljoen says that in his experience, Van Staden was one of the best – always professional and thorough in his work.

Viljoen says he understood the pressure Van Staden would be under. He was once kept on the stand for three days.

A 14-year-old girl had been raped in her home while the perpetrators kept her parents and brother tied up in the lounge.

Each of the four accused had their own defence and each grilled Viljoen.

“They (the defence) take you apart. They are trying to get information out of you that is not consistent with what you said earlier,” he says. All four accused received life in prison.

For Viljoen, this is the only tangible upside to a job that causes a lot of stress and trauma. He is part of allowing justice to be done.

“The exhibits tell a story,” says Viljoen.

 

The police photographer is often the first person allowed into a cordoned-off crime scene, and must take note of as many details as possible through their pictures.

“The crime scene photographs are the most real-time account of the event that actually transpired,” says Dr Jackie de Wet, forensic criminologist and forensic psychologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“They can unpack the narrative of a scene visually.”

Although the technicalities of the actual photography are not complex – one has to make sure everything is in focus, use a measure to show scale, etc – it is the ability to note everything and disturb nothing that is crucial.

“The scene is not just what is in front of you; it’s all over the place,” says Viljoen.

Tiny bits of wall, crevices and ceilings can all be part of the scene.

The photographer first takes a picture of everything as it stands, before continuing to take photos as the investigation unfolds.

“You shouldn’t touch anything. No matter how carefully you move something, you can never put it back in the same position,” says forensic expert Dr David Klatzow.

“Photograph everything. Never assume you have taken that photo.”

A crime scene photographer gets up close and personal with all aspects of the scene – the body, the blood, even the autopsy.

Some believe the camera acts as a barrier for them, and although they create these graphic images, they do not need to get as involved as other police officers.

“There is no real investment in terms of finding out the how and the why (of the crime),” says De Wet. “They take the picture and then they move away.”

For Viljoen, with time, he found crime scene investigation to be a heartless profession that no longer satisfied him.

“I was tired of photographing disaster, if you will, and wanted to capture life,” he says.

“I wanted to capture happiness, fond memories that would last a lifetime.”

He is now the managing director of TGF Productions and takes photographs in the studio, and at corporate events and weddings.

theresa.taylor@inl.co.za

The Star

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