Proof of death: Police power and the visual economies of seizure, accumulation and trophy

Publication Date01 February 2017
Date01 February 2017
AuthorTravis Linnemann
Theoretical Criminology
2017, Vol. 21(1) 57 –77
© The Author(s) 2016
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DOI: 10.1177/1362480615622533
Proof of death: Police power
and the visual economies of
seizure, accumulation and
Travis Linnemann
Eastern Kentucky University, USA
The phrase proof of life describes visual evidence meant to prove a kidnap victim
or prisoner of war is alive. As developed here, proof of death describes a similar
technique of seizure and display practiced by hunters, native warriors, soldiers and
narco-traffickers meant to denote hunting prowess, domination and death. This article
elaborates upon these representational practices, extending them to “police trophy
shots”, the police practice of displaying large sums of money, illicit drugs, weapons and
other seized materials. In the context of precarious late-capitalist economies, trophy
shots as proof of death usefully reveal how police are actively involved in seizing the
means of subsistence and administering, displaying and celebrating everyday domination
and death.
Accumulation, biopolitics, drug war, police violence, visual criminology
The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.
(Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967: 34)
In late 2013, Melissa Bachman, a would-be television personality generated a hearty
backlash after tweeting a photo of her South African big-game hunt. The photo depicts
Corresponding author:
Travis Linnemann, Eastern Kentucky University, 467A Stratton, Richmond, KY 40503, USA.
622533TCR0010.1177/1362480615622533Theoretical CriminologyLinnemann
58 Theoretical Criminology 21(1)
Bachman proudly grinning, rifle in hand, as she kneels above her prey, a large lion. The
tweeted caption reads, “An incredible day hunting in South Africa! Stalked inside
60-yards on this beautiful male lion […] What a hunt!” Outraged Twitter users responded
immediately with a torrent of criticism, dismissing the hunt as an act of cowardice and
calling Bachman among other things, a “pathetic, sad excuse for a human”. Even come-
dian Ricky Gervais chimed in noting the “big difference between the natural need for a
species to kill and eat prey & just shooting an animal simply as a ghastly trophy” (empha-
sis added). Bachman, whose personal website featured a virtual “trophy room” of her
other kills, is no stranger to this sort of public response. In 2012, she was dropped from
a National Geographic television program, after an online petition demanding dismissal
of the “contract trophy killer” collected more than 13,000 signatures in 24 hours.
Following the lion photo, displeased viewers began another petition, this time demand-
ing she not only be prohibited from future hunts, but barred from visiting South Africa
altogether (Sevilla, 2013).1 While Bachman may be just another of the mounting casual-
ties of a crowd sourced politics of outrage, her case also neatly maps contemporary vis-
ual economies2 and underlines the irregular force and effect of visual self-representation
(Poole, 1997). Though they were in many ways identical to those produced by trophy
hunters in the United States, there was clearly something about Bachman’s lion photos
that engendered the disgust of much of the viewing public. It could be that for her mostly
western audience, the exoticism of the lion deemed it more grievable than animals hunted
legally in the United States. It might also be that viewers saw the killing as shameless
promotion of Bachman’s television program. Viewers may also have sanctioned Bachman
for transgressing the masculine boundaries of gun culture and big-game hunting.
Whatever it was, viewers did not meet Bachman’s photographic message approvingly.
In order to consider the composition of not only what registers photographically, but
also pain and suffering rendered as objects of consumption (Feldman, 1994)3 this article
engages a pervasive yet somewhat overlooked image, the trophy shot. As understood
here, the trophy shot is a visual self-representation of accomplishment and/or possession
(Bourke, 2005). This may be as banal as a photo of a new graduate proudly clutching her
diploma, or as Eamonn Carrabine (2011) has adeptly shown, as ghoulish as soldiers pre-
siding over the torture at Abu Ghraib. In Bachman’s case, we can assume that she meant
to represent herself as an accomplished hunter, possessing both the prowess and will to
stalk and kill a large animal. The contradiction is that the qualities Bachman aimed to
represent—her will to kill and dominion over nature—are precisely what incited view-
ers’ anger. Because of the oft-conflicting dynamics found therein, the trophy shot pro-
vides particularly fertile ground to engage the politics of visual self-representation and to
question why some images escape public scrutiny, while others do not.
As developed here, the police trophy shot (Figure 1) is an unvarnished representation
of the state’s prerogative to search, seize and accumulate private property. Police trophy
shots often accompany official press releases announcing a “major bust”4 and are also
produced by individual officers informally in order to commemorate a particular arrest
or event. At a moment when social media has dramatically altered the one-way, top–
down model of police–public dialogue, this sort of electronic visual self-representation
is increasingly central to the production of the police image (Lee and McGovern, 2013:
13). While drugs, guns and money feature prominently, trophies are not limited to drug

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