Fitting image

Photo imaging technology is helping to track down missing persons

Photo imaging technology is helping to track down missing persons

Katrina Lee first hit the headlines 19 years ago. Then aged two, she went missing from army barracks in Germany and nothing has been seen of her since. Twenty-one years later, her parents have launched a fresh appeal to find out what happened to her.

In the hope that she is still alive, the National Missing Persons Helpline (NMPH) has issued a photograph of what Lee might look like today. According to the NMPH, more than 250,000 people are reported missing in the UK alone each year. Most of those people are found safe and well within 74 hours, but thousands are not.

If a person has been missing for longer than two years, particularly if that person is a child, the NMPH can produce an image of how they may now look by using age progression techniques on existing photographs. This is the role of Diana Cullington, forensic artist and head of the identification and reconstruction department at the helpline.

Cullington has worked at the NMPH since it was set up by two sisters, Janet Newman and Mary Asprey, in 1992. "It was a basement office in Richmond then and I was a dogsbody volunteer. Before that, I used to teach health and fitness, but I wasn't enjoying it. Forming the NMPH was the suggestion of a retired police officer - he said there were too many families for the police to cope with. The main aim of the helpline is to look after the people left behind - A is the family left behind, B is finding the missing person."

One year after Cullington started working for the NMPH, she was sent to the US to attend a course on ageing technology. The system had already been in use in the US for 10 years, but no one was trained to use it in Europe. "In those three weeks, I learnt the techniques on a US program called Photosketch," says Cullington. "There was only one other person in Europe who could do it until this summer, and now there are two more in the UK."

Photosketch is still used by forensic artists, but there are other packages as well. Cullington usually uses Adobe Photoshop, although she sometimes goes back to Photosketch. If she is doing an e-fit, she uses a paint program called Picture Publisher.

"What you need is a good art program that allows you to manipulate, find details and do fine precision artwork," she explains. However, the most important thing is having a good visual perspective in the first place. "You need to be an artist. You have to know things like the relative proportions of ears and where they are in connection to the nose. You will not get a good e-fit from a computer boffin, unless they're artistic."

A good understanding of how the body works and develops is essential, and Cullington has found that her training as a health and fitness instructor has helped her enormously in terms of knowing how muscles and bones develop. With children, she also has to take into account factors such as puberty and how it alters a child's appearance. "You need to know about what happens in puberty, about dentistry, or how someone's jaw might change shape," she says.

One of the first things Cullington does when she starts on a case is to build a profile of the missing person. If it is a child, she collects photographs of immediate blood relatives. "I use family photographs to see hereditary traits and growth patterns. I need photos of the child, its siblings and parents, and ones of everybody as near as can be to the age the child would now be to try and work out their features and growth into that image," she explains.

Cullington prefers to do age progression work on children, because there are more definite patterns than with adults. "Ten years in an adult is nothing. Pretty much everything will remain the same, except lines and gravity. There is generic ageing, and lifestyle and happiness is important - whether someone smiles or frowns. But, with children, it is about growth and bone structure."

Cullington is also involved in the identification of dead bodies. "If the police have a body, they should inform me immediately. I can do a search to see if we have anyone on our database with a similar description. I can use the computer to do searches - for tattoos, for example."

This is done not only to help identify who the body might be, but to eliminate who it isn't, and Cullington can often do that quicker than the police might be able to. She says this is of tremendous help to families who fear that a dead body is their missing person. "Say a five foot male has been fished out of the Thames. I might have to reassure 50 people that the body is not their missing person. We can't change the outcome sometimes, but time is so important," she says.

Cullington says technology generally has speeded up the whole process of identification. An Access database means that everyone at the NMPH can instantly access any information held. It also means they can share this with the appropriate people. "You can whizz photos to the other end of the world almost instantaneously," says Cullington. "Say a child has been abducted and is on a plane, we can get a photo of the child to her destination before she does. It is a wonderful advancement."

Technology still has a way to go in terms of lifelike 3D skull reconstructions, but Cullington believes it will only be a few years until a viable system emerges.

Missing facts

  • The younger the missing adult, the more likely it is that they will turn up

  • Males aged 23-32 are more likely to disappear than any other group. Peak ages are 28 and 29

  • Female adults are more likely to go missing the younger they are. Peak ages are 26 and 27

  • More people go missing in October than any other month (13%) and more turn up in March than any other month (14.5%)

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