The computer-generated images of how Madeleine McCann may have grown up form a disturbing photo album. For a parent, it is seeing how your missing child may now look – in Madeleine's case five years after her disappearance.
Kate and Gerry McCann commissioned earlier images from the US-based National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, but the latest was produced for the Metropolitan police by forensic artist Teri Blythe. Creating "age progression" images is "a lot more artistic and hands on" than simply stretching a few photographs of a missing person, according to Blythe, who trained in forensic anthropology and anatomy and then studied with the FBI to specialise in constructing such pictures.
Rather than just examine photographs of the missing person, forensic artists use photographs of siblings and parents. In Madeleine's case, Blythe studied photos of her mother Kate when she was young to help build up an image of how Madeleine might look at the same age. Blythe often meets the families because chance remarks – "he's got his mother's nose" – form part of the picture. She then uses her understanding of the science of ageing and photo manipulation software to produce an image.
Clothes and hair are deliberately kept generic and low-key – hence Madeleine's school uniform-style sweater – and unadorned hair so as not to detract from the facial appearance. A rough draft is shown to relatives for further suggestions and Blythe admits it can be upsetting for a family to see an updated image of their loved one.
"It's a very weird experience for a family to see the age progression. They still picture the missing person at the age they were when they disappeared," she says. What do the McCanns think? "They are pleased with it and, obviously, I was working closely with them and the police to do it."
Shortly after Blythe produced an age-progressed image of Nadia Fawzi in 2009, who had been abducted by her father and taken to Libya two years earlier, the six-year-old was foundby the Libyan authorities and reunited with her English mother. Blythe is not taking the credit – police rarely reveal if an image has led to a decisive breakthrough – but often the real power of an age progression image lies in generating publicity, getting people talking and, hopefully, new leads for the authorities.
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