Taryn Simon’s practice is a stringent examination of the uses, non-uses, quasi-uses and misuses of photography in the institutions of society. The Innocents, for example, looks at the place of photography in the U.S. criminal justice system, documenting cases of wrongful convictions in which photography was in part culpable. More recently, An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar looks at hidden and off-limits spaces in the United States. As Simon told me, the series ‘confront(s) the divide between expert knowledge and public knowledge’.
The Innocents documents the stories of individuals who served time in prison for violent crimes they did not commit. At issue is the question of photography’s function as a credible eyewitness and arbiter of justice.
The primary cause of wrongful conviction is mistaken identification.
A victim or eyewitness identifies a suspected perpetrator through law enforcement’s use of photographs and lineups. This procedure relies on the assumption of precise visual memory. But, through exposure to composite sketches, mugshots, Polaroids and lineups, eyewitness memory can change. In the history of these cases, photography offered the criminal justice system a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals. Photographs assisted officers in obtaining eyewitness identifications and aided prosecutors in securing convictions.
Simon photographed these men at sites that had particular significance to their illegitimate conviction: the scene of misidentification, the scene of arrest, the scene of the crime or the scene of the alibi. All of these locations hold contradictory meanings for the subjects. The scene of arrest marks the starting point of a reality based in fiction. The scene of the crime is at once arbitrary and crucial: this place, to which they have never been, changed their lives forever. In these photographs Simon confronts photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction—an ambiguity that can have severe, even lethal consequences.
Exhibition produced with the collaboration of the Gagosian Gallery, New York.
Exhibition venue: Atelier de Mécanique, Parc des Ateliers.