Putting a Name to a Face: The Art of the Unidentified

by Michael W. Streed

Each year in the United States, coroner and medical examiner’s offices intake approximately 4,400 unidentified bodies. Of those, approximately 1,000—or roughly 25% of them—remain unidentified after the first year1. If you multiply that number over a period of several years, you begin to see the enormous challenge facing death investigators at home and abroad!


The journey for many unidentified deceased persons begins when a friend or relative reports them missing to law enforcement. Others are the result of a homicide or death investigation.


As part of their follow up, local law enforcement investigators routinely collect dental x-rays, fingerprints and DNA samples. The practice has resulted in the existence of several databases to store this information, for later reference.


At the federal level, NamUs.org brings much of this information together under the umbrella of a public website where friends and relatives can search for loved ones.


Other websites, including NamUs.org, often display photographs of missing and unidentified persons. Many photos of the unidentified deceased are not suitable for publication. This makes them difficult to identify, especially when other means of identification fail. To make an unidentified deceased person’s image ‘media ready’ requires a skilled and experienced forensic facial identification expert, better known as a forensic artist.


Forensic artists are helpful to law enforcement and death investigators. Those not familiar with their work should continue reading. If you are familiar with their work, consider the possibility of learning something new, or use this information as an update and refresher.

Forensic Art is one of eleven forensic science disciplines recognized by the International Association for Identification. Within the Forensic Art discipline, there is a subset of facial identification methods. The two, most related to the identification of unknown deceased persons are: Post-Mortem Imagery and Facial Reconstruction.

These methods are defined in the first edition of the I.A.I.’s Standards and Guidelines for Forensic Art and Facial Identification 2. They are described as an enhancement of a post-mortem, unidentified facial image created through the use of photographic editing software or the use of illustration techniques and intended to compensate for damage or decomposition factors. Resulting images are suitable for media release to facilitate identification.

Some commonly-used Post-Mortem Imagery and Facial Reconstruction methods are described below:

  1. 2-Dimensional Facial Reconstruction

These images are often hand-drawn. Forensic artists either sketch the face at the morgue, or they use a photograph for reference. Others may use photo-editing software to repair facial trauma and restore the photo to a life-like appearance. Or, the forensic artist will create a composite image from photographs and manipulate the facial features to match those of the deceased person to create the final image.


  1. 3-Dimensional Facial Reconstruction

Sculpted from clay, this method was first introduced to the public as a crime-solving tool in the 1983 crime-thriller, Gorky Park. Although many forensic artists still sculpt using clay, others have migrated to a digital format.


To be more specific, within a 3D space, a model of the skull is created by 3D laser scanning or isolating the image within a CT scan and exporting it as an .STL or .OBJ file.


Importing the object into a specialized software program allows the forensic artist to complete the sculpture using a stylus pen as a carving and smoothing tool to sculpt the virtual clay to create the finished product.


  1. Facial Superimposition

Forensic anthropologists use a 3D image of a skull to set the pose in the same angle as a photograph of the individual in question. A transparency of the photo is layered over the skull image allowing the forensic anthropologist to match bony landmarks to the photo image and render an opinion about its probable identity.


  1. DNA Facial Reconstruction

A private U.S. laboratory uses DNA profiles to create facial images of unidentified remains combining skull information with data provided in the DNA profile. Information about the person’s ancestry, skin, eye and hair colors, including the presence of freckles, helps provide information that may otherwise not be available 3.


  1. Facial Recognition Software

When suitable postmortem image or facial reconstructions are available, death investigators should consider using local, state, or FBI NextGen facial recognition databases to search for possible candidates.


Much of the forensic artists’ success relies on the availability of high-quality photographs. Over the years crime scene and forensic photographers have taken identification photos from angles not always favorable to forensic artists.


Today, there has been much improvement.


To ensure postmortem identification remains a useful tool for facial identification experts, it’s suggested that forensic photographers, when able, take photographs of the deceased from a frontal, portrait-style, with bi-lateral profile views. The face should be illuminated in a manner that minimizes shadowing that might distort facial features.


Once the postmortem and/or facial reconstruction is complete, efforts should be made to publicize photos in appropriate media markets and public agencies, including social media and related websites.


Unidentified deceased persons’ cases are very time-consuming. For investigators who live with the weight of trying to determine who they are, the unidentified are mentally and physically exhausting as well.


Including a skilled, qualified and experienced forensic artist as an additional part of the investigative team adds a piece of the puzzle that allows investigators to invite the public into their search. By providing them with a useable facial image, the odds of successful identification increases.


Luckily, many cases are solved quickly through hard work and resolve.


For those cases that remain open; the postmortem image, or facial reconstruction, becomes the art of the unidentified that helps the person live forever in the public eye, or at least until the case is solved. Nothing’s ever certain though. With the help of a forensic artist, you may be putting a name to a face much quicker than you thought!





Ritter, Nancy. “Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster.” National Institute of Justice, nij.gov/journals/256/Pages/missing-persons.aspx.


Richardson, Janet, et al. “Standards and Guidelines for Forensic Art and Facial – International …” Yumpu.com, 2010, www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/29859152/standards-and-guidelines-for-forensic-art-and-facial-international-.


Parabon® Snapshot® DNA Analysis Service – Powered by Parabon NanoLabs, snapshot.parabon-nanolabs.com/artwork.


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