Q: I am interested in a career doing facial approximation, but It seems that all the jobs go to those in law enforcement. I really want to help victims and families,
so where do I start?

A: Here’s the short version:

1) Possess art talent: If you don’t have any innate skill in drawing and sculpting, then you will be at a severe disadvantage. Don’t spend your money taking a forensic art or facial approximation class… yet.

2) Research to see how many unidentified victims (UIDs) are in your city/state: One site to check out is NamUs. If there aren’t many, there is likely not much need for your services (so you may have to move if really want to pursue this). But if there are:

3) Become employed by a law enforcement (LE) agency or medical examiner’s (ME) office in some capacity.
This is because a skull is evidence, and part of a LE investigation, and they will NOT hand it over to anyone that is not an employee of an agency.  There are a handful of artists that are the exception to this rule, and trust me, they have earned that spot. If you’re just starting out in the  field, the skulls won’t be going to you.

4) Learn the inner workings of the agency: If you took a facial approximation class, would they let you do a facial approximation? This is where you might hit a brick wall: *Not every agency or medical examiner believes in facial approximation so they may give an emphatic NO!* And they’ll likely stick to their guns.

Many artists already in LE have run into this, and they will never do a facial approximation unless they move somewhere else, or the people that said “no” move somewhere else, or retire.

5) If they say YES, take several facial approximation classes: One 1-week class is generally not enough to do this work and do it justice. There’s no sense in spending hundreds or thousands of dollars taking classes before you know whether the agency will let you do one. Plus, you will probably have to pay out of your own pocket. Every artist I know has had to pay for their own classes at some point…another reality of the field.

6) If they say NO: you will probably have to move to find an agency that will allow you to do facial approximation.

This is why it is so hard to get into forensic art: The work is in law enforcement. You generally need to join first, then dig in your heels from there.

And...even then, you will have do it as a sideline to your regular job in LE. There are probably less than 50 full-time forensic artists out there, and they do all facets of the work (composites, age progressions, etc), not just facial approximation. ,

I would STRONGLY advise anyone reading this to NOT attempt to volunteer in this capacity! Facial approximations are the victim’s last chance to be identified; this work should only be done by highly trained people working within a team of anthropologists and other LE professionals.

This is another requirement of forensic artists: let go of your ego and desires. They don’t matter.

Only the victims matter in this line of work.  If any artist forgets that, they are doing a disservice to the victims, and to the field as a whole.