The murder scene is now a stock image of TV and film. A dishevelled detective arrives, crouches down over a dead body, spots something everybody else missed and then makes a smart comment to amuse the audience. With the viewer hooked, the music kicks in and it’s on to the title sequence. You don’t really have time to think about the person who has died, let alone feel anything.
This doesn’t apply to real life murder scenes. The first one I remember seeing in London was just down the road from my house. There was no body visible, just a forensics tent on the pavement. These tents, usually white and yellow, are well known to the public through media reports. When you see one you know what it means, even if you don’t know what has happened. In that particular case it was another nine months before the case reached the Old Bailey and I found out that a teenage boy had stabbed his stepdad to death.
Once erected at the scene, the tent can remain in place for up to 48 hours as paper-suited investigators search for evidence. With advances in DNA and other forensic techniques, the smallest find can be crucial. But even when the tent has been packed up and taken away a few signs still remain. Leftover police tape fluttering from lampposts and fences. Discarded medical equipment and wrapping. Discoloured sand, scattered around to soak up any pools of blood.
Some scenes – usually those involving young victims killed on the street – are marked by temporary shrines made up of flowers, candles and stuffed toys, often attached to personal messages of love, grief and despair. Others return to normality almost straight away, as if nothing had ever happened. Many are permanently out of view inside private bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms.
It is this variety that the photographer Antonio Olmos captures in his project The Landscape of Murder. The idea is simple but time-consumingly ambitious – photograph every murder scene in London in one year. He’s been going for eight months now. Eight months and nearly eighty homicides across the capital, from Croydon to Enfield and Harlington to Romford, building up an alternative picture of ‘Austerity Britain’.
Last week it was the turn of Ilford in east London. Kelvin Chibueze, 17, had been stabbed to death in the early hours of Monday 15 August, the ninth teenage homicide victim of 2011. The details were vague, but he had been found injured in a car park following a clash between two groups of between 15 and 20 people.
It turned out the car park, for customers of Lidl, Fitness First and Farmfoods, was almost directly opposite the police station. Officers had rushed out on hearing shouts and bottles smashing and found Kelvin lying with a stab wound to the chest. He died in hospital at 1pm.
Two days later, only a few hours after the forensics officers had left the scene for good, the area was relatively busy for a Wednesday afternoon. It was cloudy but bright and warm. Vehicles drove in and out, families did their shopping, passers-by passed by.
It was no doubt a coincidence that the car parking space where Kelvin Chibueze bled to death was empty. At one end was a dark patch of ground which could have been mistaken for an oil leak. A few yards away a short piece of torn police tape had been left attached to a steel barrier.
There were no flowers at the scene but around the corner a group of Kelvin’s friends had gathered around a bench with their bouquets. They were clearly distrustful of the media and photographers, particularly if they were from the tabloids. Later they were to shout at and confront one of these ‘snappers’ who tried to take sneak shots of them from a distance.
By contrast, Antonio – who works for the Observer – won them over by being open, straightforward and polite and asked for permission. After discussing it among themselves, and seeing examples of his previous work, they agreed to let him take photographs as they stood in silence, hugging each other, talking quietly, cradling flowers. This wasn’t staged – there were no directions or pleas to look at the camera. They were left to pay tribute in their own way while Antonio stood by his tripod for just over an hour, waiting for the scene to arrange itself.
At some locations he has spent the better part of a day waiting for a shot. Often people approach to ask what he is doing, question him about the murder or even offer an opinion. Their reactions are as varied as the scenes themselves. A few yards from a teenage stabbing in Welling he witnessed a brief scuffle between rival gangs. Two youths even flashed their knives. Once he was approached by the mother of a boy who had been killed in the same area a few years earlier. At another scene in south London local shopkeepers told him the victim was a known thief, while in Ilford a man wanted to know the colour of the victim.
Murdered teenagers like Kelvin make bigger headlines, and for good reason at a time of growing concern for the future. But there are many more who go unremembered, unnoticed by the media and represented only by Home Office statistics. One of the ideas behind murdermap was to record and remember every victim, regardless of the ‘story’, and by doing so illuminate the hidden, darker sides of London. The photographs that make up ‘The Landscape of Murder’ do the same thing in a different way. And maybe, as the cliche goes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
A slideshow of pictures from The Landscape of Murder can be seen on the Radio Netherlands website.