CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You – yes, you – click on mugshots. As often as one in five times a visitor clicks on charlotteobserver.com and an even higher percentage of times on wcnc.com. In the online world, slideshows of mugshots have become a kind of Facebook of crime. They are wildly popular. But why? Why do we look? Why can’t we resist? What explains it?
Is it because we’re snoopy gossips who want to see what the kid down the street is up to now? Is it to pump ourselves up with a feeling of superiority? Is it schadenfreude – a perverse glee at the misery of our fellows? Or is it plain old human curiosity?
Mugshots are the great equalizer. Governors and gang-bangers, congressmen and conmen, movie stars and strippers, the cops’ cameras are the great leveler. No filters. No photoshop. No airbrushing. All of them – all of us – rarely looking our best.
Now of course mugshots are a multi-media extravaganza. In print – there’s a tabloid devoted entirely to mug shots – the Slammer. It posts older issues online so the viewer can click through page after page of mug shots like a high school, yearbook of crime. Online theSmoking Gun website posts thousands of mug shots conveniently sorted from historic civil rights figures to defendants wearing NASCAR gear. There’s even a coffee table book, Least Wanted, that presents mug shots as history, sociology and art all wrapped into one. The book’s coeditor has his own flickr photo stream.
Even radio – radio! – uses mugshots. So how does a medium without pictures use mug shots? My friend Max, a producer on the Charlotte-based “Bob and Sheri Show’ explained, “One thing we use mug shots for: we have a feature called ‘morons in the news.’” Max says he considers it a public service – but he can’t get the words out without cracking up.
Co-host Sheri Lynch says her favorite mug is a picture of a man, his eyebrows shaved and tattooed, “F*** You.” “You know why?” she asks, “He made a commitment to being socially unplugged for the rest of his life. There is not one social situation where ‘F*** You’ is the appropriate response.”
Forty-five thousand times a year, deputies at Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County Jail take a new mug shot, making it one of the largest portrait photographers in the southeast. Defendants assume the position, feet in the well-worn outline of footprints on the floor, eyes wide open and looking at a pink ‘x’ marked just above the digital camera, head held straight up, not tilted.
“With their street cred or whatever, it’s almost like Facebook for ‘em or a social network,” says Lee Conner, a Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Deputy who has taken many mug shots. “You get some people come in with a big smile, fix their hair, they’re almost proud of it.”
And mug shots have become wildly popular. In December alone on charlotteobserver.com, slideshows of mugshots from the Mecklenburg County Jail generated more than eight and a half MILLION page views. That’s one month.
Veteran Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson says he hopes there’s a higher purpose than low-brow entertainment. He sees the photos of arrestees as, “…signs of people in trouble, signs of people who need some help, signs of people who need to be punished and put away.”
The mugshot can be iconic, historic and addictive. “They tapped into visual and literary fetishes,” says graphic artist and mug shot collector Mark Michaelson who co-edited a coffee table book of mug shots called Least Wanted and produces a flickr stream by the same name.
Michaelson started collecting mugshots on E-bay and they have now taken over his Manhattan apartment – about ten thousand of them by his reckoning. “The ones that fascinate me are the ones that have the filter of time that give them the extra layer of ‘marvelous,’” he says. “They work on so many levels: history and social history of crime and injustice and man’s inhumanity to man.”
He got started looking for fingerprints and wanted posters when he ran across a mugshot from Minneapolis well over a half-century old and marked, “Closed mouth Negro probably up to no good.” He realized he held a snapshot of history, not a famous image but an important one. He was hooked.
He eschews color mugshots, views most movie-star mugs as “cheesy” and doesn’t collect many mug shots taken after 1960. “I keep an eye on Ebay but I’m getting much more picky about what I go for,” Michaelson says.
“Every other day I run across one that just knocks me out,” Michaelson says. “I’ve got children and old folks, beautiful people and ugly people, the entire human condition.”
Truth be told, mugshots are funny and sad, hilarious and tragic, historic and of-the-moment – until they are yours. Then little objectivity can be achieved.
Yours truly had a mug hot taken – my one and only – at the Wake County Jail in Raleigh sixteen years ago this month. Misdemeanor trespassing charge. Long story short: I walked into a guy’s office with a camera. He told me to leave. And I didn’t leave fast enough to suit him. The whole incident lasted less than two minutes and I know because the camera was rolling the entire time.
The charges were dropped. My mugshot remains. My colleagues think I look guilty. It’s a good reminder to this reporter: just because there’s a mugshot doesn’t mean there was a crime.