My mind wanders in large crowds or in department stores. "What is the worst thing anybody here has ever done?" I wonder. "Murder? Multiple murders?" The companion conjecture to these thoughts is proximal: "What is the worst thing that has ever happened in this room?" Last week, the Toronto Bureau of Investigations put an uncanny graphic face to these musings while changing the face of evidence photography.

The Toronto Police released a group of digitally altered photographs to the public, asking for help in determining where they were taken. The photographs were part of a series of pictures that Canada's Globe and Mail described as "collector's items in the sordid world of child pornography." In the photographs, however, Investigator Bill McGarry digitally removed the acts of abuse from the pictures, showing only empty hotel lobbies, arcades, and beds. Rather than just blocking out or eliminating the critical parts of the image, McGarry made the rooms vacant--he turned crime photographs into crime scene photographs with the help of Photoshop's Clone and Rubber Stamp tools.

The resulting images are equally disturbing and terrifying. While the Photoshop job was admirable, it's not going to win any CGI awards anytime soon. The shots contain broad expanses of obviously manipulated pixels, betraying the cover-up. The aura of torture and a ruined life seeps out from the photos, which depict little more than fancy hotel rooms with a few smeared sections.

Of course, I knew the story of the images as I viewed them, and this external knowledge that we bring to photographs, documents, and art has long been a point of debate. In an essay about ex-MoMA photography curator John Szarkowski in Vanity Fair a few months ago, writer Vicki Goldberg recalled debating with him about the merits of Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills. She argued for the "importance of looking at Sherman's work in the context of the history of images of women." Feminism, Szarkowski replied, "has nothing to do with what makes a great photograph." After seeing these newly released images from the Toronto Police, I'm inclined to agree with Goldberg--sometimes, it's the knowledge that we bring to images that give them the impact of a gunblast.