Taryn Simon / "The Innocents": On the Criminal Justice System, Photography and Wrongful Conviction

Taryn Simon / "The Innocents": The Criminal Justice System, Photography, and Wrongful Conviction
by Kameelah Rasheed (Intern, The Liberator Magazine)

"Photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction is one of its most compelling qualities. But when misused as part of a prosecutor’s arsenal, this ambiguity can have severe, even lethal consequences. Photographs in the criminal justice system, and elsewhere, can turn fiction into fact. As I got to know the men and women that I photographed, I saw that photography’s ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another."
-Taryn Simon (2005, Museum of Contemporary Photography)

Taryn Simon, born in 1975 in New York, is an American fine arts photographer whose work is simply brilliant. Somewhat of an archivist of the hidden and an investigative journalist, her work is a reflection of an intense research process. The conceptual nature of her work is seductive--hidden and unfamiliar American sites, airport contraband, the wrongly convicted, conflict regions, etc.; however, that is not the only reason why I am drawn to her work. The intensity of her research process is a reminder that to be a photographer is to also be a patient and persistent researcher armed with a periscope as well as the ability to accept disappointment. One such disappointment came from Disney. In an interview with Interview Magazine, Simon explains how she was denied access to Disney's underground facilities through a fax,

Especially during these violent times, I personally believe that the magical spell cast on guests who visit our theme parks is particularly important to protect, and helps to provide them with an important fantasy they can escape to.

As Simon comments, while the rejection stalled the photographic portion of her project,"this strange poem and its individual voice escaping a notoriously protective corporate empire perfectly defines the complexities that sustain facades" and turned out to be "better than any photograph I could have ever produced." Despite disappointment and lack of access, Simon has gained access to a community of oft-forgotten members of society: the wrongly convicted.

During the summer of 2000, Simon worked for the New York Times Magazine photographing individuals who were wrongly convicted, imprisoned, then thankfully, freed from death row. Following the assignment, she applied for a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Photography to travel across the United States to photograph and interview people who were wrongly convicted--in most cases--due to mistaken identity. After being awarded, she traveled the United States and began to investigate the intersections between photography, the criminal justice system, the fabrication of truth. While Simon is a photographer, her work also exposes the dangers of the medium. "The Innocents" (2002) explores the "lethal" nature of photography in the criminal justice system, asking the question, Are photographs a fair arbiter of innocence? From the project statement:

"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.

Larry Mayes | Served 181/2 years of an 80-year sentence for rape, robbery and ''unlawful deviate conduct.'' (Photographed at the Royal Inn, Gary, Ind., where he was arrested while trying to hide beneath a mattress.)

Calvin Washington | Wrongfully accused- Served 13 years of a life sentence for murder (C&E Motel, Room No. 24, Waco, Texas where an informant claimed to have heard Washington confess.)

Tim Durham | Served 31/2 years of a 3,220 year sentence for rape and robbery. Eleven alibi witnesses placed Durham at a skeet-shooting competition at the time of the crime.

Ronald Jones | Served 8 years of a death sentence (Scene of arrest, South Side, Chicago, Illinois.)

Larry Youngblood | Served 8 years of a 101/2-year sentence for sexual assault, kidnapping and child molestation. (Photographed in Tucson with Alice Laitner at her apartment building, the scene of his alibi.)

Just how grave of an issue is wrongful conviction? According to the Innocence Project's report, "250 Exonerated: Too Many Wrongfully Convicted," released on February 4, 2010:

• There have been DNA exonerations in 33 states and the District of Columbia.
• The top three states for DNA exonerations are New York (with 25), Texas (with 40) and Illinois (with 29).
• 76% of the wrongful convictions involved eyewitness misidentification.
• 50% involved unvalidated or improper forensic science.
• 27% relied on a false confession, admission or guilty plea.
• 70% of the 250 people exonerated are people of color (60% are black; nearly 9% are Latino; 29% are white).