What is a super recogniser?
Gail Dixon discovers how 'super recognisers' are helping family historians identify relatives in old images
What is a super recogniser?
The oldest verified person ever to have lived is Jeanne Louise Calment, who was 122 years old when she passed away in Arles, southern France, in 1997. Sceptics began to question her longevity and speculated that Jeanne had actually died decades earlier, and that her daughter Yvonne had assumed her mother’s identity for tax reasons.
Fast forward to 2021, and ‘super recogniser’ Kelly Jo Desborough scotched these rumours by analysing precise facial differences in known images of Jeanne and Yvonne. Pictures taken of Jeanne in youth and later life highlighted her long, slender nose with a slight droop at the tip. Yvonne, in comparison, had a wide, upturned nose with a distinct kink in the bridge. Jeanne Calment was no fraud.
Kelly Jo is the chief operating officer of the company Super Recognisers International, which is based in Orpington in Kent. Its staff work with police forces across Britain, and are now applying their skills to help family historians identify relations in old photographs and paintings.
SRI’s founder Mike Neville explains what super recognition is: “Around one per cent of the population have this innate ability to recognise a person’s face, even if they’ve only seen it briefly several years ago. The name was established by Prof Richard Russell at Harvard University who was studying people who have prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness’, and can’t even recognise themselves in the mirror.
“He deduced that there were outliers at either end of the scale of facial recognition. Therefore there must be some people who are super recognisers.”
How do super recognisers help the police?
Mike used to be a detective chief inspector in the London Metropolitan Police, and in 2007 established an image database of unidentified criminals caught on CCTV. “I asked officers from across the force to try to identify the offenders,” he says. “It became apparent that a small number of them were making the majority of successful identifications, even if they had only seen that person years earlier on CCTV.”
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In 2012, Mike established the first ever Super Recognisers Unit at New Scotland Yard. “Two of the officers I recruited identified the Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects in 2018. The team watched thousands of hours of video showing passengers arriving in the UK from Russia. They then watched CCTV from Salisbury to see if any individuals matched on both sets of film.”
How do super recognisers help family historians?
Mike retired in 2017 and set up SRI. In addition to supporting the police, the team is increasingly working with family historians.
“There is an iconic image of a First World War soldier carrying a comrade through the trenches. He didn’t have a hat or badge to identify him, and about 20 families came forward to claim him as their relative. Then The Times asked super recogniser PC Dale Nufer to study the images. By comparing the shape of the brow, nose, face and ear lobes he was able to identify the most likely candidate. This was Private George Edwin Raine of the Durham Light Infantry.”
The team apply their skills forensically. “Super recognisers work by getting an initial impression of a person’s face. They then ‘dissect’ those features that remain unchanged through the ageing process.” This allows them to connect images of the same person 50 years apart.
“We study eyelid shape, cheek creases, nose contours and the ears. If you draw parallel lines from the top of your ears across to your nose, the point at which those lines meet doesn’t change. Some people’s ear tips are parallel with their eyebrows, while other people’s are below the eyelid.
“We often receive queries from families regarding school or British Army photographs, asking ‘Is this my grandfather or uncle?’ It can be hard for them to draw a conclusion from an old photograph or a group image, and that is where we can help.
“My grandfather served in the British Army and was at Dunkirk. I would love to see a picture of him in uniform, and would pay someone to identify him if one emerged.”
Mike clearly enjoys working with family historians. “It’s so satisfying when people know they have found a picture of a loved one. It gives them a great sense of comfort, assurance and a connection with the past.
“The ancient Egyptians believed that you lived for ever if someone remembered you. If your great uncle was killed on the Somme and you find an image that is definitely him, perhaps the last ever taken, then he lives again.”
Gail Dixon is a regular contributor to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine