“There’s nothing like the smell of death,” says Jolene Lupo, Photography ’11. “They say you never get used to it, but you get past it.”

As a senior photographer for the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, one of eight full-time forensic photographers for the agency, Lupo smells a lot of death. She photographs corpses on the autopsy table. Some are freshly dead from gunshot wounds or an overdose, others discovered weeks or months later, decomposing, covered in maggots, or even partially mummified. Lupo describes the scent of the “decomps” as sweet, pungent, and repulsive. After her first day on the job, she sat in a diner and thought, “If I take this job, I’m never going to eat again.” But she got past it.

The medical examiner performs autopsies in cases of sudden, violent, or suspicious death—about 6,500 per year. “We’re making sure we know why this person died,” Lupo explains. Suspicious deaths receive additional care and documentation in case the autopsy is needed as evidence in a criminal trial. Wearing full PPE to protect both herself and the bodies from contamination, Lupo snaps clear, evenly lit photographs of bloody clothes and bullets, wounds and organs. If the deceased is unknown, she documents tattoos or scars to aid identification. This visual record of the autopsy sometimes reveals more information than the examiner sees.

The power of photography to see more than the human eye, and therefore its use as documentation, has long appealed to Lupo. Human perception is limited and can be biased, whereas a photograph reveals all. She also values the methodical process and protocols of her work, and the way it blends art and science. And she loves uncovering the stories of people she would never have otherwise met.

“It’s a very intimate look at how people live and how people die.”
— Jolene Lupo

She became fascinated by forensics in high school in Suffolk County, Long Island. Not only did her forensics teacher stage mock crime scenes that captured the attention of the whole campus, Lupo also participated in a 50-school regional competition. For college, she was accepted into a biomedical photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology but ultimately chose FIT because she wanted to study in New York City. “It was really exciting to wake up and be in Manhattan,” she says.

After a few years working in product photography and then at the Penumbra Foundation—which teaches historical photographic processes, another of her passions—she recalled those early forensics activities and yearned to explore that field. She signed up for a forensics convention run by the International Association for Identification, and she took workshops in blood spatter analysis and lifting fingerprints. She even won the convention’s photography contest. She returned the next year—and attended events in New York as well—and then applied to an online job listing with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Her employment began in March 2020, a month forever associated with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Brooklyn and Queens locations of the medical examiner’s office were packed with bodies, and the agency set up refrigerated trucks for the overflow. People died not just from Covid but also from pulmonary embolisms and other ailments caused by isolation and lack of exercise. The work gave her a sense of purpose in a chaotic time. 

“Anytime there’s a mass fatality event in New York City, our office is running overtime,” Lupo says. “While a lot of people felt helpless, I was able to serve the city.”

Four years later, very little fazes her. “I’ve seen so many hangings and homicides and motor-vehicle accidents, that at this point, a death would have to be pretty weird to shock me.” 

But the accumulation of bodies has changed her. After seeing how many people die from preventable causes, she takes her health more seriously. And she no longer jaywalks.

“You know people get hit by cars, but until you’re seeing it every day, it’s not so much of a reality. Now, even if there are no cars coming, I’ll wait for the light to change. Really, where am I going? Is it worth the risk?” —Jonathan Vatner

Hue commissioned Lupo for a series of photographs using new and old technology. Learn more and see the images here.