Camera in hand, the bit-part actor steps forward for his moment of glory. His archaic flash puffs away as he records the jumbled room, the bloody knife, the white outline of a sprawled body chalked on the floor. The police photographer may be a familiar figure from dozens of hackneyed crime movies but, according to the men who do the job for real in Hong Kong, what you see in the cinema is not an accurate portrayal of the profession. Reality is often much more horrifying. Of the 45-strong police photographic section, an iron-stomached one-third are field photographers visiting crime scenes, while the rest work in processing and administration. Once an all-civilian force, now 30 are police officers recruited to the photographic section from within the force. 'It's hard to recruit civilian photographers,' admitted Chief Inspector Shaun Dove, 35, a soft-spoken Briton, who has headed the photographic section for the past four years. 'Nobody likes to do shift work and the civilian photographers have to do the same shifts that police officers do. And the nature of the duties can be rather, uh . . . rather nasty.' If there is a case of murder, arson, rape or armed robbery, the men of the photographic section are called in to record it in grim detail. Last year they attended more than 3,000 crime scenes, and processed more than a million photographs. They also take pictures during the post-mortem examinations conducted on crime victims. The first murder scene he attended was the most stressful for Special Constable Shek Chak-ming, 38, who became a police photographer 11 years ago after eight years as a constable on the beat. 'I was nervous and afraid of being alone at the scene. I hated the smell,' Mr Shek recalled, pulling at his nose. The Garley Building came a close second in terms of horror. Assigned to help the 'disaster victim identification team', Mr Shek marched into the building the morning after the inferno killed 40 people last November. Weighed down with a stills camera, a video camera and two spare batteries, he gingerly climbed to the 15th floor, where 26 of the charred victims still lay. 'It was like hell,' Mr Shek said. 'I went into every room to take photos and video. I think the way they died was terrible.' It is hard to see what motivates the police photographers. When asked to describe their job, words such as horrible, terrible and nasty crop up repeatedly. 'Last year, one of our new civilian photographers quit within three months,' said Mr Dove. 'He said he could do everything except the mortuary work. What can you say? It's a house of horrors. 'Sometimes it's really horrible, especially in the heat if there's no air-conditioning. The body may have been left around for a week.' The pay is hardly enticing either, starting for civilian recruits at $11,000, less than they could earn if they joined the police as a beat constable, up to a maximum of $20,000. Constables who join the section follow the police pay structure. Instead the job must hold some morbid fascination - the civilians have on average been in the unit for 17 years, the police officers for 15. 'One part of you doesn't want to see it, but another part of you does,' Mr Dove said. 'Being a photographer you do get to go everywhere. You go to the homes of the rich and famous and the poor. You get to go all over Hong Kong. That's the interesting part.' Special Constable Yu Kwok-cheung, 47, became a police photographer 19 years ago after eight years working as a beat constable. His recent assignments include attending the post-mortem examinations of all three victims of last month's Shau Kei Wan flat fire, to record them in grim detail, focusing on wounds and unusual marks which may be evidence. '[Post-mortem examinations] are the worst job,' said Mr Yu. 'It's worse than anything you can see in the movies. You have to take a picture of the body before the pathologist starts work, then as he's opening the body you take photos of any unusual marks. 'You must stay until he finishes his work. 'I can't remember how many [murdered people] I've seen,' Mr Yu said. 'I've attended so many I don't really have much feeling anymore, although I often feel sorry for the victims. I have to pay attention to my work, so I can't think too much.' That is the best advice for newcomers, according to Mr Dove. Concentrate on the task at hand. 'When you are doing your work you just concentrate on the technical details,' he said. 'You don't look at the body and imagine it as a human, animated talking mother or father or whatever. It's just like a shop dummy that's not in a good state. 'Maybe the worst aspect is if you're there trying to do your work while there are some [of the victim's] relatives around who are obviously in a bad state of grief. 'But you can't let that affect you, you have to get on with your job. 'I don't think I'm somebody who's particularly brave, I don't like to see my own blood. 'But I surprise myself, so long as I concentrate on the job. I can get by on that.' Police photography is not work you can take home to the family. 'When I go home I just want to forget it, and enjoy my private life,' Mr Shek said. Mr Yu never tells his wife about what he sees: 'I'm in the police and this kind of work is my job. It's not my wife's job, so I don't want to burden her.' He also keeps the details from his friends. 'They don't really know what kind of work I do,' Mr Yu said. 'Only that I'm a police photographer, maybe taking aerial pictures from helicopters of crime scenes.' Mr Dove added: 'There's not much point talking about it to a school teacher, or a bus driver, somebody who hasn't seen this kind of thing. What help can they give you?' Nor do the photographers feel the need to talk to the force's psychological counsellors about their experiences, according to Mr Dove. 'After the Garley fire, they did interview a load of my men, but none were interested in having a discussion group,' Mr Dove said. 'They all thought: 'This is what I have to do. I can't think about this dead body or how really terrible it is, because if that's how it affects me, I cannot do my job.' 'And I guess, in Hong Kong you can't get much more macho than being in the police force, so generally people will tend not to voice their inability to cope.' Instead the photographers and their colleagues recording violent death share a macabre sense of humour, according to Mr Dove. 'I remember a pathologist once said, when he saw maggots crawling over a body: 'You see, there is life after death,' ' Mr Dove said. 'Sometimes things do happen in a very peculiar, strange or even funny way. You have to have a sense of humour, otherwise you can't cope.' As a fingerprint expert before he took over the running of the photographic section, Mr Dove was a regular at violent crime scenes across Hong Kong. Today he only attends the major cases, about once a month, to direct his men. 'I wish I was still going out doing more,' he said. 'I don't enjoy sitting behind a desk answering telephones and doing paperwork that much. I do enjoy getting out and about, seeing different scenes.' A gentle man, it is hard to imagine the horrors his kindly eyes have gazed upon since he saw his first dead body in the mortuary as a recruit at the Police Training School fresh from Britain 14 years ago. Mr Dove, who has two young children, admits the sights affect him. 'Seeing some of the things that I've seen makes me wonder more about what it's all about,' he said. 'The people who crashed in the plane in Shenzhen recently, one minute they all had plans, they were going to get a taxi from the airport, and they were going to go here, there and everywhere. The next half of them were dead. 'Life is very fragile. This world's not a pleasant place. 'I tell [my children] that bad guys are out there doing all sorts of bad things, so they need to be careful. When I take my children out, I'm always very careful. 'Not so much because Hong Kong is a dangerous place; the world's a dangerous place.'