Julie SandoVisual arts instructor Julie Sando is shown here in the Leddy Library holding a copy of "Least Wanted" by Mark Michaelson. A collection of of various mug shots, it plays a central role in the film.

Documentary explores fascination with mug shot photos

When people get arrested and step in front of that camera for their mug shots, they may be at one of the lowest, most vulnerable points of their lives. So what is it about those images that make some people want to collect them, and perhaps even think about them as art objects?

That’s one of the central questions posed by a new documentary that a University of Windsor art instructor helped create.

“The film will definitely get people to ask those very questions,” Julie Sando says of Mugshot, a film produced and directed by former Windsorite Dennis Mohr. “In fact, it presents a whole series of social, cultural, and ethical questions.”

According to its promotional material, the film “explores the bewildering world of iconic photos of suspects and criminals,” examining their cultural value and questioning their worth to contemporary society. These photos have become highly sought after by collectors, and the film focuses on those “whose lives have been transformed by the strange power of the mug shot.”

A sessional instructor who also works as an information officer for the School for Arts and Creative Innovation, Sando is listed in the film’s credits as a researcher, but actually played multiple roles. She wrote and edited proposals, worked as a still photographer and videographer, lugged lots of gear, fact checked, consulted art history databases, scouted locations, and helped manage the talent.

Sando said she was actually with Mohr when the idea for the film first sprouted. The two were driving through Arkansas when he was finishing his last film, and they stopped for gas. She said Mohr came out of the convenience story with some beef jerky and a copy of The Slammer, a small weekly, but now defunct publication that prints mug shots of area people when they’re arrested. They were both fascinated by the publication.

“Mohr was thinking of doing a number of different films at the time, but I’d like to think that my efforts and enthusiasm helped to keep this project moving. Apparently I brought ‘half the magic’ to the film,” she said with a laugh.

The film will be screened for the first time near the end of this month at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, and will also be shown on TVO in May.

Sando will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.