Friday, October 22, 2004

Taryn Simon's "The Innocents"


So, recently I went on a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark to visit my brother. Yeah, yeah, yeah there's a lot of nice stuff to see there and them Europeans sure do got some o' that there "culture" and blahzay blah, but hands down the most interesting thing I saw in Denmark (besides way too many beautiful, beautiful blonde women) was Taryn Simon's "The Innocents" photography exhibit in the Nikolaj Platz Contemporary Art Museum. I know it's pretty American-centric of me to go to Europe and proclaim the hottest shit I saw there to be a contemporary American art exhibit, but what can you do? Anyway, fuck it. The shit was hot.

So, as a bit of background, directly before appearing in Copenhagen, Simon's exhibit was displayed in New York's PS1 MoMa and they describe the exhibit on their website like this:

The Innocents... documents the stories of individuals across the country who served time for violent crimes they did not commit. These works question photography’s use as eyewitness account, acknowledging that unjust convictions often result from a victim’s response to photographs and lineups in law enforcement’s identification process... 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 have been assigned 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.

At the time I was reading Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" so the whole exhibit was especially heartbreaking with respect to Foucault's central thesis that the modern penal system no longer attempts to simply punish the criminal's body through imprisonment, but that that it should "strike the [criminal's] soul." Of course, Foucault goes to greath lengths to make a very solid argument for this thesis throughout his wonderful book, but it struck me that nowhere is this "conviction of the soul" more clear than in the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. Accompanying the actual photographs at the exhibit was a short film that contained video-taped excerpts of interviews that Simon conducted with the wrongfully convicted men after photographing them. Needless to say, the interviews were some of the most heartbreaking testimonials I have ever wtinessed and without fail, each and every interview expressed the inexroable sense of hopelessness and dread that their time in jail had hammered into them..

But, even without the somewhat marginal Foucault linkages, the exhibit is an extremely powerful illustration of the clear disjunction between the absolute search for "Truth" (yes, with a capital "T") that our criminal justice system assumes is possible and the subjective "truths" (yes, plural, with a lowercase "t") that are available in our perpetually subjective world.

But, enough talking... Look at some of the pictures. Some are remarkably beautiful, and the beauty of the images makes them that much more frightening and heartbreaking.

Taryn Simon Art Images: 8 Pictures from "The Innocents" Exhibit

LARRY MAYES: Scene of arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana -- Police found Mayes hiding beneath a mattress in this room --
Served 18.5 years of an 80-year sentence for Rape, Robbery and Unlawful Deviate Conduct, 2002

RONALD JONES: Scene of arrest, South Side, Chicago, Illinois -- Served 8 years of a Death sentence.

LARRY YOUNGBLOOD: Alibi location, Tucson, Arizona With Alice Laitner, Youngblood's Girlfriend and alibi witness at trial -- Served 8 years of a 10.5-year sentence for Sexual Assault, Kidnapping and Child Molestation

TROY WEBB: Scene of the crime, The Pines, Virginia Beach, Virginia -- Served 7 years of a 47-year sentence for Rape, Kidnapping and Robbery

Buy the book with all 45 pictures and interviews here


At 10:09 AM, Blogger rollie said...

i learned a lot here: hiding under a mattress doesn't quite scream 'i'm innocent and also, not crazy'.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger emynd said...

Well, yes, I too found that piece to be quite an intense pedogogical moment. Furthermore, at the very least, it's proof that stuff like that doesn't just happen in the movies.

At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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