Back to Conference Participants Abstract: Photographic Evidence, Accidental Injury, and the Contact of Legal Cultures in Brooklyn, 1895-1925.  




Courts in Brooklyn began to rely heavily on photographic evidence in the years around 1910, particularly in cases involving accidental injury. In 1900 a trial in a case brought to recover damages stemming from an accident typically consisted almost entirely of spoken testimony elicited by a questioning attorney; by 1915 the majority of such cases involved at least one photograph, usually depicting the scene of an accident as seen from something like the perspective of the injured plaintiff. This was not a cosmetic change. The very shape of accidental injury cases was transformed when photographic evidence was introduced, since a substantial portion of witness testimony was now devoted to answering questions which referred to these pictures.
Exchanges between lawyers and witnesses over photographs tended, not surprisingly, to be oriented around vision, but it is not my contention that the rise of this evidentiary source elevated the place of sight within legal culture. Rather, the fetishization of vision was already entrenched by the late nineteenth century, and the turn to photography was part of an effort to perpetuate an established preference. What changed around the turn of the century, inspiring the legal establishmentıs perceives need to shore up hegemonic assumptions about vision and law, was the influx of members of alternative legal cultures into the formal system of courts. Simply stated, by the first decade of the twentieth century immigrants were increasingly framing disputes as "legal," and therefore bringing their conflicts to the judicial system, but the ways that these new legal participants thought, spoke, and saw were often radically different from what the native-stock legal system considered normal. Photography seemed to present a means of imposing order on the proliferation of meaning-making strategies which had begun to take hold in the courtroom.
And yet this tactic was not entirely successful, as members of subordinate, less visually-oriented legal cultures continued to construct their testimony in ways that baffled attorneys and disrupted courtroom conventions. Rather than imposing a single way of seeing, then, photographic evidence served as a vehicle for arguments both about vision and about the possibility of objective representation. Recent immigrants, though often poor and only marginally "articulate," were active participants in this discussion.