New York City-based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been collecting litter: cigarette butts, hair strands and chewed gum from the streets of New York. She then uses DNA extracted from them to seemingly reconstruct the faces of the littering culprits through a process known as Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP). These faces are then transformed into life-sized 3D portrait sculptures by the artist; creating a large database of litterers’ faces that the artist calls Stranger Visions.

With the collected database of faces, Dewey-Hagborg is able to highlight that even forensic DNA tests, which are often used by the police in criminal investigations, actually carry within them racial biases—as race is not a genetically identifiable trait. This revelation allows Dewey-Hagborg to urge lawmakers and relevant stakeholders to reconsider their trust in FDP results. A move which will hopefully create a more equitable future for people involved in legal proceedings, so that they are free from racial profiling. All this makes her work relevant to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities.

Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, displayed at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Image courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s website.

Dewey-Hagborg shared her findings in detail on The New Inquiry in a piece she has titled Sci-fi Crime Drama with a Strong Black Lead. There, she revealed the inner mechanisms of the FDP which functions by taking a collected DNA sample and comparing it to an existing database called the face space. The face space is organized by putting traits on opposing ends of spectrums: such as masculine to feminine and West African to European. It is this latter face space which becomes the source of controversy. While FDP is able to determine someone’s geographical ancestry based on the dominant genes found in those locations, there has been no research to back up the claim that knowing where the dominant genes in one's DNA come from can be tied to certain skin colours.

Sample of the face space used in Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP). Image courtesy of The New Inquiry.

In her piece at The New Inquiry, Dewey-Hagborg goes to great lengths to also explain why, historically, there has been the perception that DNA can be used to determine someone’s race. In short, the practice was first propagated by Francis Galton, a Victorian scientist who thought he could categorize human beings based on their physical features as “types,” such as the violent criminal, the scientist, the diseased and the Jew. What this had created were instead what is known today as stereotypes, since it would be impossible to determine these traits on physical biology alone.

Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg. Image courtesy of The New Inquiry.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that 41 percent of Black Americans have been stopped or detained by the police because of their race. On top of that, a racial profiling report from the California State Board found that Latinos were being disproportionately stopped by traffic police, making up a total of 43 percent of the stops when only 32 percent of the population were Latinos. This is the reality that Heather Dewey-Hagborg warns FDP will only exacerbate.

Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg exhibited at the Friedman Gallery in New York. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s project, Stranger Visions, is a provocative critique of the racial biases embedded within Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP). Her project challenges the accuracy of DNA-based facial reconstruction and its use in police inquiries. She also underlines the urgent need to address racial profiling in police and legal proceedings, calling for a world where racial equality is the norm.

Find out more about Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions and their other pieces by checking their Instagram @hdeweyh.

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