This article is part of our series on unusual photography jobs. Today, we’re highlighting the retired forensic photographer and investigator Sanford Weiss.
“In my career as a forensic photographer, my work day hardly ever played out as planned,” Sanford Weiss, the retired photographer and investigator behind the books Forensic Photography: Importance of Accuracy and Forensic Photography for the Preservation of Evidence, tells us.
“The thing all the projects shared was a lack of warning. Once you signed up for a salaried position, you became on-call 24/7 for the rest of the time of employment. Once, I received a call at home early in the morning of the 4th of July. In that case, I had to find a pilot and an aircraft ready and willing to do a flyover of the scene of an accident.
“I would hardly ever be given time to prepare to travel. I would receive a call during the day to prepare and go to Alaska or in the middle of the night to get into the car and be in downtown Chicago or Rockford at dawn.” In his three decades on the job, Weiss always kept his suitcase packed, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Weiss spent much of his career as part of an engineering company, documenting evidence out in the field or at the studio and producing court displays at the photo lab. The jobs themselves were diverse, and although his cases sometimes had elements in common, no single project could ever be described as typical or routine. “We were not part of the law enforcement community,” Weiss explains.
“Some of our projects originated from a law enforcement department, but the vast majority came from defense attorneys. We had to pick one side or the other in a case and always staying with the defense made us safer from conflicts of interest.
“The defense side also gave us the opportunity to work for clients like Ford, General Motors, Toyota, many large railroads, construction companies, tractor and forklift manufacturers, electric and water supply companies, and manufacturers of everything from vehicles of any type, including aircraft, boats, ships, railroad locomotives, automobiles, ATVs, to grain silos, metal cables, wood screws, and paperclips.”
As part of this engineering company, Weiss didn’t usually document fresh crime scenes; instead, he would arrive after law enforcement had conducted their investigations. “We would do things the law enforcement community could be unprepared to do,” he explains. “This would include laser photogrammetry and studies of that class or category. The machines to complete that type of study are more expensive than most law enforcement departments are prepared to spend.
“They also need extensively trained operators to derive accurate data from the machinery. Also, many times, the engineers in our company would be better at studies of aspects of firearms, metallurgy, and gunshot trajectory recreation, to name a few.”
In a field that relies on precision and accuracy, the process of documenting even a simple object could take hours of painstaking work. “Just so you understand the variety and depth of a photographic documentation, we can consider how long it would take to properly document a paperclip,” Weiss posits.
“The best instrument to use for the job would be a scanning electron microscope. The SEM can document any metallic item from life size to around 20,000 X, or more. There are two potential problems here.
“One, if the object is too large, it will not fit into the SEM vacuum chamber. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the piece to be documented could not be cut into smaller pieces because that would be destructive to the character of the part. The other problem may be the SEM only makes photographs in black and white.
“If color images are needed, the range of magnifications of a macro camera is only life size and down to about 25 X. But still, if a set of overlapping images of the paperclip at 25 X was needed, it could take weeks to produce if every aspect of the paperclip needed to be imaged.
“Luckily, nobody ever requested a set of images like that. Usually, only a fracture surface or other landmark and its general area would need to be captured by the camera. A project of that magnitude and at high magnification could take many hours to complete if done well.”
A job “done well” in this line of work isn’t subjective, and mistakes can be catastrophic. “I only made two mistakes in those thirty years,” Weiss remembers. “One was recoverable, and one was not. It is not normal for a mistake to be able to be something a person could redo. Had I been the type of person who made mistakes regularly, I would have been looking for another position very quickly.
“Everything I did had a price-tag on the end of it. Taking photos of a paperclip, as unimportant as it appears on the surface, could be just as expensive to a client as an airplane crash. No excuses were ever tolerated.
“Our clients would never pay for extra time to do something over again. If the mistake cost the advantage in court, the mistake could cost a client millions of dollars. A client would not likely return to a company a second time after a mistake cost them a case in court.”
Despite the high-pressure environment, forensic photographers like Weiss must remain objective and neutral. “You cannot go into a study with any predetermined ideas of the guilt or innocence of a person or the fault or incompetence of a company that manufactured a part that failed,” he tells us.
“You must be completely impartial and undecided about everything involved with the study if you are going to do the best and most impartial degree of competence of which you are capable.”
At times, he also had to be fearless for his personal safety. “Some of the less glamorous aspects of this type of job is the danger involved,” he tells us. “I lost count of the number of times I could have been seriously injured. Standing on the freeway to make images from the viewpoint of a driver who crashed into a parked truck is one that immediately comes to mind.
“Head hanging out the window of a fixed wing aircraft flying with its wings perpendicular to the Earth to capture a series of images of a path through the woods is another. Climbing around under the wreckage of a crane collapsed on a job site was something I did more times than I can remember.
“You just need to forget about the personal danger and do the best you can under the circumstances. You get dirty, wet, cold, and completely uncomfortable. You need to learn how to function in suits designed to protect people from harmful chemical exposure.
“I once walked fifty yards inside a building where a dangerous chemical had been spilled. I was wearing relatively new OSHA rated safety shoes. By the time I got back outside, the soles of the shoes fell off. Just fell off, like leaves falling off trees. And we were only allowed to buy a new pair of safety shoes once every two years.”
After all his years as a forensic photographer, Weiss retired, and he still bears some of the scars that came with the job. “Are there a lot of long days and late nights in this field,” he says. “At one time, my assistant and I often spent 18-20 hours per day in the darkroom. It was satisfying but devastating. This went on for weeks on end.
“This job takes a person willing to live on the edge all the time. It probably went a bit against my internal character. I lost my colon to aggravation in 1988 and my stomach several years later. The emotional challenge cost me my health at a young age. I do not think that happened to anyone else at our company. I think I had more of an emotional nature than the other people.”
But despite all the pitfalls of his chosen career, he remained committed to it. “Why did I stay?” he asks himself now, before answering: “I enjoyed the good salary. I enjoyed the degree of challenge. I enjoyed being very good at what I did. There were several other things I could do and be good at, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger and quit. One of the best reasons for that is I loved the job and I loved some of the people I worked for.”
Since the rise of digital photography, Weiss says the demand for dedicated forensic photographers has decreased. To save money, engineers, attorneys, and law enforcement might do the work themselves rather than hiring a forensic photographer, or they might hire another type of photographer for the job.
The problem with that approach is that many lack the experience and knowledge needed to accurately document a piece of evidence, especially when it comes to complex, detailed assignments that are uniquely suited to someone like Weiss.
Since his retirement, Weiss has remained a preeminent expert in the field, but he also recognizes that it’s changing. These days, it’s harder to find this kind of work and even harder to keep at it over time. He pursued forensic photography at a pivotal moment in the history of the law and of photography itself, and in many ways, it shaped him into who he is today. “It made me a smarter, stronger, and better person,” he tells us.
Sanford Weiss’s forthcoming book Forensic Photography for the Preservation of Evidence will be released by CRC Press later this year.