Cover stories: Making the cover for the Forensics special issue

Science  11 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6278, pp. 1109
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf6409

Cover stories offer a look at the process behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

I was thrilled by the challenge of creating a compelling cover photograph for this week’s Forensics special issue. This complex and interesting topic offered many possible approaches. Discussions with other members of the special issue team—editors Tim Appenzeller and Martin Enserink and designers Chrystal Smith and Beth Rakouskas—resulted in a decision to base our cover image on the lead story of the package, which looks at efforts to apply statistics to forensic evidence analysis. Statisticians are now aiming to quantify the strength of a piece of evidence in terms of probability, based on the degree of similarity between patterns left on two samples, such as marks left by a firearm on bullets. Considering their interesting shapes and colors and the striation marks indented in their surfaces after being fired, I knew we could create a captivating cover photograph of bullets.

Armed with little knowledge of guns or how to shoot them, I began exploring possibilities. I called shooting ranges, police departments, researchers, and even the FBI. One shooting range offered to fire a few bullets and send them to me, but I quickly realized that these bullets would be flattened or destroyed due to the steel backdrop used at the range. On the FBI’s recommendation, I contacted a number of local police departments. One department offered their testing facility but was unable to accommodate us before our deadline.

Fortunately, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) came to the rescue. Alan Zheng, a mechanical engineer in NIST’s Surface and Nanostructure Metrology Group, told me about his large collection of toolmarks (impressions left by tools on surfaces). His assortment included bullets that had been shot into water tanks, thus preserving their shape and allowing researchers to study the striation marks created by the gun. This was exactly what we needed. Now I had to find the perfect photographer.

Matthew Rakola photographs bullets at NIST.

Credit: Christy Steele

After a long search, I chose Matthew Rakola—a talented and creative photographer based in Washington, DC—who was very enthusiastic about the assignment. Matthew and I spent a full day at NIST, working closely with two of Alan’s colleagues. Choosing bullets from their amazing collection, Matthew and I experimented with different ways to portray them for the cover. By the end of the day, Matthew had taken hundreds of photographs of at least five different bullet setups. Although only one appears on the cover, two alternate images that we considered are shown here.

Alternate cover candidate.

Credit: Matthew Rakola

Alternate cover candidate.

Credit: Matthew Rakola

Cover images often look deceptively simple, but this is far from the truth. Behind the scenes, making a cover photograph is often the result of many people combining research, expertise, and creativity. Finding the best solution and the right kind of help to bring a cover to life requires time, curiosity, and problem-solving and is thus one of the most rewarding parts of photo editing at Science.

Christy Steele, Photo Editor at Science

Navigate This Article