Example expert witness evidence by Professor Feona Attwood at an extreme images trial in 2011. Unless a paragraph is prefaced by another identified person, all the points made are hers.
The CPS insisted all copies of the images be destroyed at the end of this trial, so it is not possible to depict them here. However that does not matter for the purpose of demonstrating the kind of points that need to be addressed when assesing an image.
The defence counsel started by asking a series of questions which flagged her expertise to the jury, eg you are the professor of sex, communication and culture at Sheffield Hallam University, 13 years an academic, author of many articles, etc.
Prof Attwood was handed a witness “bundle” (documents & pictures, which the jury already had; as a witness, she had been excluded from the court up until now). Defence counsel checked that she had examined them previously on secure police premises, and asked for her overview.
They are intended for several purposes. They are not like most pornography.
They focus on a narrative about a victim, using knives, strangulation, suffocation, etc.
They could be characterised as ‘death fetish’. It is not particularly common. Extremely specialised.
They have a distinctive style, a slightly different aesthetic to most pornography. Tell a story by static snapshots, freeze frames. They are particularly striking, remind one of a Hammer horror film. Very stagey, big expressions.
They were produced recently but with 1970?s type imagery.
Their features are an artificial style, a predictable narrative, acting, big gestures.
The characters are exaggerated, very made up, clearly staged sets.
Count 1 is S&M play; the victim is chained to a frame then threatened with a knife …
The Judge intervened – This depiction uses a knife, but does not show an actual wound.
Counts 2 & 3 (very similar images) are in a domestic setting, with the victim wrapped in (polka dot) cling film, knife at breast.
Count 4 depicts a bath, with the female victim being held down in a very artificial tableau, designed to imply she is being suffocated and drowned yet displaying vagina prominently; the most overtly sexual image.
All the images follow a pattern. Realism is not necessary in this aesthetic. It is set up one way and turns into an attack.
These images are on specialist websites, clearly signposted as fantasy images leading to death. They give warnings.
They follow conventions. The setting, lighting, story. They are acting out a scenario with a familiar plot.
They say clearly that they are staged. Choreographed, very clearly acted out scenes. Almost exaggerated. There is nothing to indicate these scenes are to be seen as real
Take Count 1. It is static. If a drama one would introduce a more realistic impression, more sense of movement. This is a messy encounter, but a deliberately held static pose. It is clearly staged. The actress is supporting her weight when unconscious. It is deliberately bad acting. It often expresses hammy conventions.
The victim performs an act of distress. In a tv drama it would not look like that. Poses are held and overplayed.
In 2, the pose is artificial, the facial expression unconvincing. It has a static quality, the knife is being held in place, not thrust in.
In 3, there is a sense of the camera being carefully positioned for maximum exposure. The facial expression is artificial. The knife is obviously not real. The wound is not realistic.
If it were real it would look very different.
Judge (turning to jury) But it is for the jury to consider what amounts to “realistic”.
The text here is that to be more realistic the expression would be more violent, the blood messier, more disturbing. The conventions of the same elements – binding, knife, blood, positions – they are saying “this is not realistic”.
In 4, the positioning shows how this is carefully staged. The attacker adopts a very awkward pose, so as not to block the view. It is not physically possible to hold her down to get a good view of the victim’s face.
Everything shows these are artificial, rehearsed. There’s no scuffle, no real exertion, no messiness. All the images are clean, make up, hair, is perfect. No conventional sex. Nothing is knocked over. All is pristine, artificial, in a very violent moment, which is part of the convention.
Defence counsel – they are not just bad, they are deliberately bad ?
It would be easy to make them more realistic. Introduce more movement, more mess, distress. The acting could be more real.
These conventions are not mistakes.
Prosecution counsel cross examines. You have over a decade’s experience and have had to view a lot of these images, so for you these are not uncommon. There is no shock value. This is your field. You term it Death Fetish.
Yes. There are signposts. You have prior knowledge. I can’t say which website they came from but they are produced by Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Prosecution counsel says the longer one looks, the more information there is to process. You say they are unreal because of your background, and because you looked at them for a long time.
I think the conventions I’ve interpreted are everyday skills. My students arrive already knowing how to do this, it is not a specialist skill.
Prosecution counsel says of Count 2 – there appears to be blood, and a knife pressing into a breast.
If one wanted to make that realistic one could do it, but it would not look like this. The producer has chosen not to make it realistic.
They relay fantasy. They are an enactment. They are like cowboys and indians, not like death. The story line follows fantasy conventions.
The Judge queries: So they are not only staged, but deliberately portrayed as staged ?
Yes. They have gone to a lot of trouble to make them contrived.