Portrait of a Litterer

by Theresa Spranger, Bioethics Program Alumna (MSBioethics 2012)

Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an American information-artist who, for her latest project, roams the streets of New York looking for cigarette butts, chewed gum, or strands of hair.  She collects the samples, extracts DNA, and has the DNA analyzed in a lab for certain genetic characteristics (race, gender, eye color, etc.).  From these results she uses a computer program and 3D printer to create a 3-demensional image of the person’s face.  Ms. Dewey-Hagborg says that her sculpture is more of a loose representation of the person rather than an exact portrait.  The capability to create an exact portrait may be available in the future, but at this time the analysis needed for that is too sophisticated for our technology.

The idea came to Ms. Dewey-Hagborg from a single strand of hair she found stuck in a cracked piece of glass.  She wondered whose hair it was and what that person looked like.  Ms. Dewey-Hagborg has spent the past year designing the computer program and creating her 3D portraits.  She calls her project “Stranger Visions.”

This project sparks many interesting ethical thoughts and issues.  We shed DNA everywhere we go, every time we scratch an itch, sweep our hand through our hair, lose an eyelash, etc.  The “Stranger Visions” project brings up some interesting thoughts on the use of discarded genetic material.  For instance, how could this technology be used by: a government, scientist, or police force?

Could the police force use this technology in their investigations?  Perhaps it could be used instead of or in conjunction with sketches from witness descriptions?

Scientists could use the information for statistical analysis and profiling.  An oversimplified example of this could be the title of this post, “Portrait of a Litterer.”  Litter could be collected as this artist has done, but then analyzed to profile and answer some questions about those who litter.  Who is more likely to litter: men or women?  Are litterers more likely to have blue eyes?  And so on…

Certainly, the usefulness of the littering example is questionable, but the idea could certainly be transferred to other areas, the possibilities are endless.  The question however: is this type of use ethical?  Do we want statisticians to be able to collect genetic information for profiling?  What rights do you have to samples of your DNA if they are no longer attached to your person?  A host of questions spring to mind, questions with few good answers.  It seems evident to me, that our discussion in society is falling behind technology in the area of genetics.

In my opinion, we need to quickly catch up in our discussion of genetics.  As technologies become more and more sophisticated, the use of our personal genes could become a forefront issue for our society.  We cannot help leaving traces of ourselves behind us for anyone to gather and do with as they please.  So, how do we prevent our genetic information from being used for something against our will?  Is there a way to adequately legislate on this issue?  Should we legislate?  Do we own the hair, skin, saliva, etc. that contains our genetic information?  The questions and strange possibilities this project presents to us are truly endless.

While I believe this project is fascinating and harmless in itself, it should spur us to deeper thought and conversation on this issue of genetic material: ownership, and use.  It should also encourage you to find a trash bin for your gum and/or cigarette butts lest you find your face on an art gallery wall…

Want to know more?   Here are links to some interesting articles…



[This blog entry was originally posted in a slightly edited form on Ms. Spranger’s blog on May 9, 2013. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]


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