Photo Essays

Art Students Reconstruct the Lost Faces of Unidentified Crime Victims

New York Academy of Art forensics (courtesy New York Academy of Art)
One of the unidentified crime victims from the New York Academy of Art’s Forensic Sculpture Workshop (photograph by Stefania Panepinto, MFA 2015, courtesy New York Academy of Art)

Last month, students in the Forensic Sculpture Workshop at the New York Academy of Art (NYAA) made faces for 11 anonymous skulls belonging to unidentified victims of crimes. Now those reconstructions are on view in the windows of the Tribeca university, part of an effort to get more eyes on them in the hopes that they can be identified.

New York Academy of Art forensics (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Two of the unidentified crime victims on view in the NYAA windows (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

In a New York Times feature on the continuing education workshop, instructor Joe Mullins, a forensic artist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, noted that this was the only instance he knew of art students participating in identifying homicide victims. The NYAA, with its curriculum focused on anatomy from the bone up, is uniquely equipped to collaborate on forensic reconstruction.

“The Academy teaches anatomy so that artists will know the human figure well enough to depict it from their imaginations, without having to rely on a model being present as a reference,” David Kratz, NYAA president, told Hyperallergic. “This class utilizes exactly those skills.”

New York Academy of Art forensics (courtesy New York Academy of Art)
The New York Academy of Art forensic workshop participants (photograph by Stefania Panepinto, MFA 2015, courtesy New York Academy of Art)

In collaboration with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, 11 plaster replicas of skulls were distributed to students with all the known details about the victims, from general biographical data like gender, race, and age, right down to the bullet holes and bludgeoned bone. By examining the shape of the skull and this evidence, faces emerged of men, women, and a child, something they haven’t had since their decomposed remains were discovered. In addition to the window display, images of the completed sculptures will be added to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) database and shared with the New York City Police Department.

“The partnership is a great real world example of how the students can apply their highly skilled training in sculpture with their extensive knowledge of anatomy, unique skills sets of Academy artists that are necessary for forensic sculpture,” John Volk, director of the continuing education program at NYAA, told Hyperallergic. “At the end of the day if we can help trigger new leads in cold cases to provide some relief for the victims’ families left behind then I would consider it an honor and a job well done.”

New York Academy of Art forensics (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
The reconstructed faces on view in the NYAA windows (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
New York Academy of Art forensics (courtesy New York Academy of Art)
Replicas of the unidentified skulls (photograph by Stefania Panepinto, MFA 2015, courtesy New York Academy of Art)
New York Academy of Art forensics (courtesy New York Academy of Art)
Photographs of the original skulls (photograph by Stefania Panepinto, MFA 2015, courtesy New York Academy of Art)
New York Academy of Art forensics (courtesy New York Academy of Art)
A reconstruction in progress (photograph by Stefania Panepinto, MFA 2015, courtesy New York Academy of Art)
New York Academy of Art forensics (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Reconstructed faces on view in the NYAA windows (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
New York Academy of Art forensics (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Three of the reconstructed crime victims on view in the NYAA windows (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
New York Academy of Art forensics (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Three of the unidentified crime victims on view in the NYAA windows (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
New York Academy of Art forensics (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
New York Academy of Art forensics (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

The reconstructions of the crime scene victims are on view in the windows of the New York Academy of Art (111 Franklin Street, Tribeca).

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