last breath

Somewhere in a filing cabinet stashed (at great inconvenience to everybody involved) in Ohio or Virginia or possibly New York are a few three-ring binders containing Kodachrome transparencies of various old crime scenes. They’re images I shot as a criminal defense investigator–all from cases that never went to trial. Had the cases gone to trial, the images would be filed away somewhere else as evidence. Since the cases were either dismissed or resolved by a plea agreement, the transparencies remained in my possession.

They are, for the most part, the most dull images imaginable. A lot of them are nothing more than establishing shots–photographs taken to establish the features of a location. If, say, a murder took place in a house, you’d begin (or end) your crime scene photography by shooting pictures of the exterior, taking care to include things like street signs and traffic signals and light poles. Evidentiary photographs are about registering clear information that might be helpful to an attorney or to a jury. A conviction or an acquittal might depend on something as mundane as the distance between a front stoop and the nearest light pole.

But also tucked away inside those three-ring binders are images that have no evidentiary value at all. These are photographs I shot simply because they appealed to the eye. There is, for example, a photograph of a blood spatter pattern that splashed across a church calendar hung on a kitchen wall. The calendar has a painting depicting the face of Jesus on the cross. It’s pretty horrible (both the painting itself and the photo showing the blood on the painting), but it’s also visually arresting.

There’s also an abstract image that shows a glass sample container from an old Breathalyzer test. Years ago when suspects were administered a Breathalyzer test to determine their blood alcohol, the samples were kept in glass vials that looked rather like test tubes. Two samples were taken–one of which was sent to the crime lab, the other was set aside for independent testing by the defense. In this case, the accused was charged with vehicular homicide. While awaiting trial, he hung himself in his jail cell. Several months later I discovered the tube while I was cleaning out my evidence locker. It occurred to me that it contained the breath of a dead man. So I photographed it.

There are probably no more than fifteen or twenty such Kodachromes. Except for a few defense lawyers, nobody has ever seen them. I’m not entirely comfortable with them. I’m rather glad they’re unavailable to me now. If I had them, I’m not sure if I’d scan them and make them available for people to see.

I rather think I might, though I’d feel bad about it. I hope I’d feel bad about it.

4 thoughts on “last breath

  1. Oversharer here. We’re both writers and chroniclers and journalists and photojournalists. I don’t see how a single photograph you take—whether because it’s painful or because it appealed to your artistic aesthetic—should make you feel uncomfortable sharing. Of course, things that violate someone else’s privacy are different.

    “The breath of a dead man” is beautiful enough for an essay; I’d appreciate the image just for the title, but it would hold a captivation all its own.

    But maybe that’s just me.


  2. I think the fact that you _think_ about this stuff and observe yourself and all that has flowed around you is a thing to be valued and savored. Like this post; with or without the actual photos, your musings about it all are worthwhile and interesting and moving. So thank you for those.


  3. As an observer myself, I’m fascinated by this. I imagine that if I were to see these photos, the observer part of me would take over and I would just marvel at “a moment of life” aspect of it. I agree that you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable having them. I doubt that I would share them, though. Not because of how it would make me feel, but because I know that there are others (lots, even) who would think of them in such a sensationalized way, it would take away from my reverence of them.


  4. One of the things I perversely enjoyed about being a working P.I. is that I was forced to make moral and ethical decisions every day. After I left the job, I realized how rarely ordinary life calls on you to make a truly moral or ethical decision.

    Take, for example, that breathalyzer tube. The case was over, the client was dead, and normally when a case ends the stuff in my evidence locker would either be returned or destroyed. But what do you do with somebody’s last breath? Do you give it to his survivors? Do you just toss it in the trash?

    I mean, it’s just a heavy cardboard tube holding a smaller glass tube containing some air particles. But if those air particles were breathed by somebody I cared about, I’d probably want them. I’d probably want to bust the glass at some point and breathe in that last breath…which is absolutely silly and stupidly romantic, but there it is.

    It occurs to me that I probably need to turn this into a short story.


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