In 1989, a body was found in the waters of Canal L-31, a short drive from the edge of the Everglades. It was a young man, estimated to be between the ages of 18 to 25, and he had short brown hair, no tattoos or scars. The physical details are listed coldly, calculatedly, in Miami-Dade police case #158190-J. It mentions electrical wire and plastic weights tied to his body. Then, the most gruesome detail: “Missing both hands.”

In the nearly 30 years since, the body still hasn’t been identified. It remains in limbo, an unknown person, defiant of the contemporary’s obsession with knowing. These unidentified bodies go to the “bone room,” as they call it at the medical examiner’s office, or are buried in the county cemetery. There’s a drawing of what this young man’s face may have looked like when he was alive. It’s available to the public, just in case someone out there is still looking.

Samantha Steinberg, the MDPD’s Forensic Artist, is the person who drew the face. She has drawn thousands of renditions in her nearly 20 years in this role. Besides sketches of the dead, her work includes composites—approximations of the living based on testimony and other information—as well as objects and places. Her tools range from testimony to facial recognition databases, but her goal is always more or less the same: “Whether you end up drawing jewelry or a tattoo, or you end up using Photoshop instead of a pencil, or you’re running [a drawn face] through a facial recognition database, they’re all still working toward the same goal, which is identifying the person’s identity we don’t know.”

Her forensic art practice is used in cases where images, ever-proliferating stills and videos that seem all too abundant, are not available.


(Published in Dragan, June 2017)


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