In the Eye of the Beholder: Good and Evil

A Photo-Essay Experiment

I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that so much of how we perceive others is dependent upon the things we already know (or think we know) about their character. There are the pre-judgements we make upon meeting someone based on their outward physical appearance, assumptions we make based upon rumours and gossip, and of course the knowledge we have of their actions; which can cause us to not only make judgements about future actions, but can even make us over-analyze every gesture or micro-expression.

When I was one,
I had just begun.
When I was two,
I was nearly new.
When I was three,
I was hardly me.
When I was four,
I was not much more.
When I was five,
I was just alive.
But now I am six,
I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six
now and forever.

photo: Aileen Wuornos

For this photo essay, I’ve chosen human beings who share one thing in common: infamy. They are all notorious serial killers and murderers. These are people most of us have seen before in photographs online, in newspapers and on television. And when we see their faces, they are commonly referred to as the ‘faces of evil.’

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

photo: Jeffrey Dahmer

But are their faces evil? There is no doubt that their actions were/are reprehensible. But I find it interesting how it seems to be a natural human instinct to attribute a negative connotation to every look and expression of men and women who for the most part, when we see them in court, are actually comporting themselves in fairly mundane fashion.

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”

photo: Charles Manson

What I’ve tried to do here is put together photographs of these same human beings that are sweet, funny and silly.

They all also happen to be photos of them as children.

Where did you get such a dirty face,
My darling dirty-faced child?
I got it from crawling along in the dirt
And biting two buttons off Jeremy’s shirt.
I got it from chewing the roots of a rose
And digging for clams in the yard with my nose.
I got it from peeking into a dark cave
And painting myself like a Navajo brave.
I got it from playing with coal in the bin
And signing my name in cement with my chin.
I got if from rolling around on the rug
And giving the horrible dog a big hug.
I got it from finding a lost silver mine
And eating sweet blackberries right off the vine.
I got it from ice cream and wrestling and tears
And from having more fun than you’ve had in years.

photo: Ted Bundy

I wanted to know what kind of a emotional response this might generate in the viewer: Does this change your perception of these killers in any way? Is it difficult to reconcile these relatively innocuous photos with the identities you have created in your mind for them as men and women?

I woke before the morning, I was happy all the day,
I never said an ugly word, but smiled and stuck to play.
And now at last the sun is going down behind the wood,
And I am very happy, for I know that I’ve been good.
My bed is waiting cool and fresh, with linen smooth and fair,
And I must be off to sleepsin-by, and not forget my prayer.
I know that, till to-morrow I shall see the sun arise,
No ugly dream shall fright my mind, no ugly sight my eyes.
But slumber hold me tightly till I waken in the dawn,
And hear the thrushes singing in the lilacs round the lawn.

photo: Charles Manson

Can you see them as innocent and untouched? Is it possible to look on their faces without judgement? When you look at the faces of your own children, is it possible to imagine evil at root there?

And even if evil had started to fester in these children; the images are from a time before they committed the sins of the adults they would become.

A little boy ran to the end of the sky
With a rag and a pole and a gooseberry pie.
He cried: “Three cheers for the Fourth of July!??
With a rag and a pole and a gooseberry pie.
He saw three little donkeys at play,
He tickled their noses to make them bray,
And he didn’t come back until Christmas Day
With a rag and a pole and a gooseberry pie.

photo: David Berkowitz

The pictures of children, the poetry — everything I have presented here visually speaks to innocence and happy children. But those images become tarnished by their names and your recognition of their identity. It becomes impossible to extricate yourself from the horror and distaste surrounding those identities.

And I think that is the revelation of what elevates someone from ‘bad’ to evil. Evil isn’t just a reflection of acts committed by the person — it becomes part of their persona. And unwittingly, we are part of building that identity. We help create evil. Our perception strengthens and reinforces what we expect to see: an outward manifestation of the darkness we imagine within.

I hope to do more of this type of photo-essay and I’d love your feedback!

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