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‘Silent mass disaster’ of missing and unidentified people – the impact of forensic facial imaging
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking
Published: 24/05/2023

​​​An estimated 7 000 - but likely closer to 10 000 - unidentified bodies in South Africa's medico-legal laboratories are waiting to be identified each year, says Dr Kathryn Smith, an interdisciplinary visual and forensic artist and Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University (SU).

“Statistics are kept on unclaimed bodies, but not all unclaimed bodies are unidentified. And in the absence of a single database where information on missing and unidentified people in SA can be easily compared, and in a context where there is just one forensic pathologist for every million people, the extent of this 'silent mass disaster' cannot be accurately quantified."

Understanding the extent of the problem is further exacerbated by the lack of digitised case records in all but one province: the Western Cape. The identification of bodies is a task which requires close co-operation between the South African Police Service and the Department of Health Forensic Pathology Services.

SU only institution with expert capacity in forensic facial imaging 

SU is the only higher education institution on the continent with expert capacity in forensic facial imaging, and the technology to conduct this work in line with international best-practice. 

Smith established the VIZ.Lab research group at SU to promote research in forensic identification, and experiments with digital design and visualisation methods.  It is the culmination of over 30 years of traversing the chasm between science and art by working in forensic laboratories and producing artistic and curatorial projects to explore cultural representations of death, and exploring ways in which forensic art can restore dignity to the deceased or identify the unclaimed, thereby bringing resolution to loved ones, and helping to solve criminal cases.

Already an established visual artist, writer and curator, Smith's interest in the forensic world led to her complete the only available postgraduate qualification in forensic art and facial identification in the world, established by leading practitioner Prof Caroline Wilkinson at the University of Dundee (Scotland). She then pursued a PhD as a member of Face Lab, Wilkinson's research group at Liverpool John Moores University in 2015.

Her PhD focused on forensic visual identification processes, including reviewing records of over 1 000 unclaimed bodies from a Cape Town mortuary, critically assessing the associated postmortem photographs for image quality and facial condition. As Smith explains, “For skeletal remains, a facial reconstruction might be the only opportunity to attempt to identify an unknown person. But reconstructing a face from the skull is labour-intensive and time consuming and may require expert cleaning prior to anthropological analysis and reconstruction."

While the skull reveals an enormous amount about face and feature shape, other critical visual information about someone's physical appearance – such as skin tone and texture, eye colour, hair colour, length and texture, and body mass cannot be inferred from the skull alone, explains Smith. But this information is usually available unless a body is in a very advanced stage of decomposition. “So, if sufficient facial information is present to infer living appearance, even with facial trauma, it is possible to digitally adjust a postmortem photograph to restore a plausible and acceptable living appearance. This is much quicker and more reliable than reconstructing a face from a skull."

All deceased persons admitted into a forensic facility are photographed, but Smith's research showed that there is no image standardisation, which means the resulting postmortem photos are very unreliable. They cannot be confidently used for facial comparison or to create a depiction for a public appeal for information, which are two accepted methods of facial identification.

Of 1 010 unidentified cases Smith reviewed, only 30% had suitable associated photographs. This means that many bodies can lie in the morgue for far longer than the mandated 30 days before they can be legally released for a pauper burial. For Smith, the complexity of the identification process, and the commitment by the facility to offer the best possible forensic care against all odds was embodied by one unknown individual in her sample who had been retained for 687 days until being released for burial.

Advocating training for forensic officers

Smith therefore advocates training forensic officers in postmortem facial photography as a cost-effective intervention. She has offered such training to about 90 forensic officers and undertakers as part of a pilot project of the Western Cape Cold Case Consortium, an initiative she co-founded in 2021 with colleagues from the University of Cape Town and SU to apply multifactorial analyses to complex identification cases in this province. She also argues that a postmortem depiction should be produced as early as possible in the identification process, and for it to be shared widely on social media if there is a need for identification.

Excited by the opportunities which Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digitisation offer the field of forensic human identification, Smith is in discussion with SU's School for Data Science and Computational Thinking about ways to explore synthetic imaging, and how data on the missing and unidentified may be better consolidated and compared.

“There are indeed great opportunities for collaboration with the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences," confirms Prof Sibusiso Moyo, SU's  Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies. “Training more people to work across disciplines in this field will go a long way to addressing the gap."

“The work of forensic humanitarian initiatives identifying the disappeared and those seeking a better life who perish trying to cross international borders is showing that secondary identifiers such as clothing, personal effects and facial imaging are perhaps more useful in complex and low-resourced contexts such as ours. This will assist criminal and social justice. So, as an artist-scientist who wants to be useful, this is my focus," says Smith.

“We need to think creatively and collaboratively about how to do forensic identification in our unique context. We can't always rely on the methods accepted as scientific and primary, being fingerprints, DNA and dental. DNA is expensive and most South Africans don't receive regular dental care, so comparative records don't exist in most cases. We need African solutions for African problems." ​​