Giving Faces to the Unnamed Dead: Reconstructing the Identities of Bodies Found on US-Mexico Border with 3D Technologies


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Despite the fact that, overall, the number of migrants entering illegally across the southern border of the US declined in 2017, deaths among that population have increased sharply from the year before. This is a number that is difficult to tally, obviously, but the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has estimated that there were 234 deaths in the first seven months of 2017, while the US Border Patrol reports a drop of nearly 50% in the number of migrants apprehended crossing the border. A contributing cause to the increase in the ratio of deaths to attempts (also known as the dying/trying ratio) might be attributed to stricter border security measures, which can cause people to try to cross using more dangerous methods.

Remains found at the US-Mexico border.
[Image courtesy of: Susan Schulman/Barcroft Images]

The highest profile of these types of migrant deaths are those such as the recent discovery in a Wal-Mart parking lot in San Antonio of a group of migrants being smuggled in the back of truck. By the time they were found and released from the hellish interior of the trailer, eight people were already dead and a further two would die later while hospitalized. However, the bodies of those who die trying to enter the United States are not always discovered quickly and there are few mechanisms in place that aid in the identification of their remains. Discovered by border patrol officers, humanitarian workers, farmers, and hikers, the bodies are often reduced to bones, adding to the difficulties already present in attempting to identify people who are far from home and whose family members may not know how to or feel comfortable contacting authorities.

In Pima County, Arizona the remains of over 1,000 people found dead remain unidentified, but a small group of them are being given a second chance as part of a class at the New York Academy of Art. Students in the class on forensic sculpture have been working with the 3D printed skulls of eight men whose remains were found on the US-Mexico border. This class represents the first time that art students have undertaken such an effort for presumed migrants as part of their coursework.

[Photograph: Tom Silverstone/Guardian]

The idea behind the class began in 2015 with a course in forensic sculpture that worked to put faces to unidentified skulls in the NY Medical examiner’s office. With the introduction of 3D technologies — including 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and 3D printing — the ability to work with remains in far-away offices is now as easy as sending a digital file. In this case, the skulls were scanned by 3D tech company FARO, which has developed solutions for use in forensics, in the medical examiner’s office in Pima County and 3D printed in New York on a machine housed at the city medical examiner’s office.

The class is led by Joe Mullins who brings 18 years of experience working at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to bear and was able to make the necessary contacts with the Pima County medical examiner’s office. The work is of great value, as Bruce Anderson, the Pima County medical examiner, explained what undertakings such as this one mean:

“If we can’t raise any other leads in any other way, then putting a face on a skull is usually a positive thing to do. We provide answers to families. They are very painful answers, but they are answers owed to families. In our office here, we make no distinction between American citizens and foreign nationals in doing everything we can to identify a person and determine a cause of death.”

The class, available only to advanced students, lasted for five days and by the end, the skulls had been transformed into faces using a variety of materials. Students learned to read the tells of the skull in order to understand the small details that can change the generic into the specific, things such as the way in which a directional change in a bony projection located behind the ear can indicate whether the person had attached or unattached ear lobes. Where concrete evidence is unavailable, the students rely on typical facial proportions, such as the fact that lobe of the ear aligns with the meeting of a person’s lips and that the distance from the brow to the tip of the nose is the same as the overall height of the ear.

An artist helping to reconstruct one of the faces. [Photograph: Tom Silverstone/Guardian]

As the faces began to emerge, the students began to feel the power of the work they were undertaking, as described by student Kathleen Gallo:

“It’s like a God complex. The life and the lives of everyone who knew him are at stake.”

Once the reconstructions are complete, they are photographed and entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Then the waiting begins. Since 2000, the Pima County medical examiner’s office has been able to add 1,812 names to the remains of presumed migrants. There is a horror in the act, but a sense of the possibility of closure as well. Whatever these migrants were leaving behind them, it was rarely that they had no one who loved them waiting to learn of their safe arrival. Some have disappeared without a trace and although the families they were either leaving behind or traveling to join know that they most likely died during the attempt, until there is official word, there is always the weight of not knowing.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at

[Source: The Guardian]


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