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How to humiliate and shame: a reporter's guide to the power of the mugshot

Lashmar, P. (2014). How to humiliate and shame: a reporter's guide to the power of the mugshot. Social Semiotics, 24(1), pp. 56-87. doi: 10.1080/10350330.2013.827358


The judicial photograph – the “mugshot” – is a ubiquitous and instantly recognisable form, appearing in the news media, on the internet, on book covers, law enforcement noticeboards and in many other mediums. This essay attempts to situate the mugshot in a historical and theoretical context to explain the explicit and implicit meaning of the genre as it has developed, focussing in particular on their use in the UK media in late modernity. The analysis is based on the author's reflexive practice as a journalist covering crime in the national news media for 30 years and who has used mugshots to illustrate stories for their explicit and specific content. The author argues that the visual limitations of the standardised “head and shoulders” format of the mugshot make it a robust subject for analysing the changing meaning of images over time. With little variation in the image format, arguments for certain accreted layers of signification are easier to make. Within a few years of the first appearance of the mugshot form in the mid-19th century, it was adopted and adapted as a research tool by scientists and criminologists. While the positivist scientists claimed empirical objectivity we can now see that mugshots played a part in the construction of subjective notions of “the other”, “the lesser” or “sub-human” on the grounds of class, race and religion. These dehumanising ideas later informed the theorists and bureaucrats of National Socialist ideology from the 1920s to 1940s. The author concludes that once again the mugshot has become, in certain parts of the media, a signifier widely used to exclude or deride certain groups. In late modernity, the part of the media that most use mugshots – the tabloid press and increasingly tabloid TV – is part of a neo-liberal process that, in a conscious commercial appeal to the paying audience, seeks to separate rather than unify wider society.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Social Semiotics on 18 Oct 2013, available online:
Publisher Keywords: mugshots, news media, photography, fascism, neo-liberal
Departments: School of Communication & Creativity > Journalism
Text - Accepted Version
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