This Real-Life Ghost Is Made Of A Dead Man’s Body

Joseph Paul Jernigan, executed for murder in 1993, had his body chopped into 1,871 slices and photographed. Now this data has been used to reconstruct his life as a haunting, swirling apparition.

The photographs of the project 12:31 look like ghosts because, in a way, they are.


The elongated specters are actually photographic reconstructions of the body of Joseph Paul Jernigan, executed at 12:31 a.m. of August 5, 1993 for murdering a 75-year-old man during an attempt to steal his microwave. The body is a light painting, made from 1,871 cross sectional images taken after Jernigan donated his body to science and it was cut into one-millimeter-wide slices. The ghost images are of each slice, displayed in sequence on an iPad being waved through the air and captured in a long-exposure photograph. “It is a ghost in as much as it’s representative of a person, but it isn’t actually the person,” says art director Croix Gagnon. “I think that’s a way to look at the data we create all the time.”

The “data” remains of Joseph Paul Jernigan are part of the Visible Human Project, an initiative from the U.S. National Library of Medicine to create “detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies.” But files have not been restricted to medical use. Daniel Holohan, who covered project 12:31 for Australia’s SBS, found “3-D representations, characters in half-life, illustrations and even a Japanese paper art set called ‘Quilling.’” “[Jernigan] donated his body to science,” Gagnon notes, “but I’m sure he had no idea of what would become that decision.” Project 12:31 could be seen as the ultimate example of personal data taking on a life of its own.

To create the images, Gagnon and photographer Frank Schott went into a darkened studio. Dressed in black, Gangnon would wave an iPad while it played through the slices over the course of approximately 20 seconds. Then they superimposed these images into landscapes they photographed of areas around San Francisco that appeared to be abandoned: a parking lot by the airport, the edge of Golden Gate Park. “We wanted a place where the image would convey a sense of absence of human presence, so this sort of specter could be the focal point,” says Gagnon.

Gagnon’s day job is art-directing commercials for clients like Old Spice. (Recently, he was responsible some bizarre NFL jingles.) Lately, that agency work has been his primary creative outlet. But come November, he’s leaving Wieden + Kennedy to go freelance, and may delve into some other personal projects. “I’m hoping that once I have more free time on my hands I’ll get back into it,” he says.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.