Taryn Simon photographs secret sites


Okay, so 90 percent of my photographic process is, in fact, not photographic. It involves a campaign of letter writing, research and phone calls to access my subjects, which can range from Hamas leaders in Gaza to a hibernating black bear in its cave in West Virginia. And oddly, the most notable letter of rejection I ever received came from Walt Disney World, a seemingly innocuous site. And it read — I’m just going to read a key sentence: “Especially during these violent times, I personally believe that the magical spell cast upon guests who visit our theme parks is particularly important to protect and helps to provide them with an important fantasy they can escape to.” Photography threatens fantasy. They didn’t want to let my camera in because it confronts constructed realities, myths and beliefs, and provides what appears to be evidence of a truth. But there are multiple truths attached to every image, depending on the creator’s intention, the viewer and the context in which it is presented. Over a five year period following September 11th, when the American media and government were seeking hidden and unknown sites beyond its borders, most notably weapons of mass destruction, I chose to look inward at that which was integral to America’s foundation, mythology and daily functioning. I wanted to confront the boundaries of the citizen, self-imposed and real, and confront the divide between privileged and public access to knowledge. It was a critical moment in American history and global history where one felt they didn’t have access to accurate information. And I wanted to see the center with my own eyes, but what I came away with is a photograph. And it’s just another place from which to observe, and the understanding that there are no absolute, all-knowing insiders. And the outsider can never really reach the core. I’m going to run through some of the photographs in this series. It’s titled, “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,” and it’s comprised of nearly 70 images. In this context I’ll just show you a few. This is a nuclear waste storage and encapsulation facility at Hanford site in Washington State, where there are over 1,900 stainless steel capsules containing nuclear waste submerged in water. A human standing in front of an unprotected capsule would die instantly. And I found one section amongst all of these that actually resembled the outline of the United States of America, which you can see here. And a big part of the work that is sort of absent in this context is text. So I create these two poles. Every image is accompanied with a very detailed factual text. And what I’m most interested in is the invisible space between a text and its accompanying image, and how the image is transformed by the text and the text by the image. So, at best, the image is meant to float away into abstraction and multiple truths and fantasy. And then the text functions as this cruel anchor that kind of nails it to the ground. But in this context I’m just going to read an abridged version of those texts. This is a cryopreservation unit, and it holds the bodies of the wife and mother of cryonics pioneer Robert Ettinger, who hoped to be awoken one day to extended life in good health, with advancements in science and technology, all for the cost of 35 thousand dollars, for forever. This is a 21-year-old Palestinian woman undergoing hymenoplasty. Hymenoplasty is a surgical procedure which restores the virginal state, allowing her to adhere to certain cultural expectations regarding virginity and marriage. So it essentially reconstructs a ruptured hymen, allowing her to bleed upon having sexual intercourse, to simulate the loss of virginity. This is a jury simulation deliberation room, and you can see beyond that two-way mirror jury advisers standing in a room behind the mirror. And they observe deliberations after mock trial proceedings so that they can better advise their clients how to adjust their trial strategy to have the outcome that they’re hoping for. This process costs 60,000 dollars. This is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection room, a contraband room, at John F. Kennedy International Airport. On that table you can see 48 hours’ worth of seized goods from passengers entering in to the United States. There is a pig’s head and African cane rats. And part of my photographic work is I’m not just documenting what’s there. I do take certain liberties and intervene. And in this I really wanted it to resemble an early still-life painting, so I spent some time with the smells and items. This is the exhibited art on the walls of the CIA in Langley, Virginia, their original headquarters building. And the CIA has had a long history with both covert and public cultural diplomacy efforts. And it’s speculated that some of their interest in the arts was designed to counter Soviet communism and promote what it considered to be pro-American thoughts and aesthetics. And one of the art forms that elicited the interest of the agency, and had thus come under question, is abstract expressionism. This is the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, and on a six acre plot there are approximately 75 cadavers at any given time that are being studied by forensic anthropologists and researchers who are interested in monitoring a rate of corpse decomposition. And in this particular photograph the body of a young boy has been used to reenact a crime scene. This is the only federally funded site where it is legal to cultivate cannabis for scientific research in the United States. It’s a research crop marijuana grow room. And part of the work that I hope for is that there is a sort of disorienting entropy where you can’t find any discernible formula in how these things — they sort of awkwardly jump from government to science to religion to security — and you can’t completely understand how information is being distributed. These are transatlantic submarine communication cables that travel across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, connecting North America to Europe. They carry over 60 million simultaneous voice conversations, and in a lot of the government and technology sites there was just this very apparent vulnerability. This one is almost humorous because it feels like I could just snip all of that conversation in one easy cut. But stuff did feel like it could have been taken 30 or 40 years ago, like it was locked in the Cold War era and hadn’t necessarily progressed. This is a Braille edition of Playboy magazine. (Laughter) And this is … a division of the Library of Congress produces a free national library service for the blind and visually impaired, and the publications they choose to publish are based on reader popularity. And Playboy is always in the top few. (Laughter) But you’d be surprised, they don’t do the photographs. It’s just the text. (Laughter) This is an avian quarantine facility where all imported birds coming into America are required to undergo a 30-day quarantine, where they are tested for diseases including Exotic Newcastle Disease and Avian Influenza. This film shows the testing of a new explosive fill on a warhead. And the Air Armament Center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is responsible for the deployment and testing of all air-delivered weaponry coming from the United States. And the film was shot on 72 millimeter, government-issue film. And that red dot is a marking on the government-issue film. All living white tigers in North America are the result of selective inbreeding — that would be mother to son, father to daughter, sister to brother — to allow for the genetic conditions that create a salable white tiger. Meaning white fur, ice blue eyes, a pink nose. And the majority of these white tigers are not born in a salable state and are killed at birth. It’s a very violent process that is little known. And the white tiger is obviously celebrated in several forms of entertainment. Kenny was born. He actually made it to adulthood. He has since passed away, but was mentally retarded and suffers from severe bone abnormalities. This, on a lighter note, is at George Lucas’ personal archive. This is the Death Star. And it’s shown here in its true orientation. In the context of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” its mirror image is presented. They flip the negative. And you can see the photoetched brass detailing, and the painted acrylic facade. In the context of the film, this is a deep-space battle station of the Galactic Empire, capable of annihilating planets and civilizations, and in reality it measures about four feet by two feet. (Laughter) This is at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. It’s a Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain site. Essentially they’ve simulated a city for urban combat, and this is one of the structures that exists in that city. It’s called the World Church of God. It’s supposed to be a generic site of worship. And after I took this photograph, they constructed a wall around the World Church of God to mimic the set-up of mosques in Afghanistan or Iraq. And I worked with Mehta Vihar who creates virtual simulations for the army for tactical practice. And we put that wall around the World Church of God, and also used the characters and vehicles and explosions that are offered in the video games for the army. And I put them into my photograph. This is live HIV virus at Harvard Medical School, who is working with the U.S. Government to develop sterilizing immunity. And Alhurra is a U.S. Government- sponsored Arabic language television network that distributes news and information to over 22 countries in the Arab world. It runs 24 hours a day, commercial free. However, it’s illegal to broadcast Alhurra within the United States. And in 2004, they developed a channel called Alhurra Iraq, which specifically deals with events occurring in Iraq and is broadcast to Iraq. Now I’m going to move on to another project I did. It’s titled “The Innocents.” And for the men in these photographs, photography had been used to create a fantasy. Contradicting its function as evidence of a truth, in these instances it furthered the fabrication of a lie. I traveled across the United States photographing men and women who had been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit, violent crimes. I investigate photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction, and its influence on memory, which can lead to severe, even lethal consequences. For the men in these photographs, the primary cause of their wrongful conviction was mistaken identification. A victim or eyewitness identifies a suspected perpetrator through law enforcement’s use of images. But through exposure to composite sketches, Polaroids, mug shots and line-ups, eyewitness testimony can change. I’ll give you an example from a case. A woman was raped and presented with a series of photographs from which to identify her attacker. She saw some similarities in one of the photographs, but couldn’t quite make a positive identification. Days later, she is presented with another photo array of all new photographs, except that one photograph that she had some draw to from the earlier array is repeated in the second array. And a positive identification is made because the photograph replaced the memory, if there ever was an actual memory. Photography offered the criminal justice system a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals, and the criminal justice system failed to recognize the limitations of relying on photographic identifications. Frederick Daye, who is photographed at his alibi location, where 13 witnesses placed him at the time of the crime. He was convicted by an all-white jury of rape, kidnapping and vehicle theft. And he served 10 years of a life sentence. Now DNA exonerated Frederick and it also implicated another man who was serving time in prison. But the victim refused to press charges because she claimed that law enforcement had permanently altered her memory through the use of Frederick’s photograph. Charles Fain was convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder of a young girl walking to school. He served 18 years of a death sentence. I photographed him at the scene of the crime at the Snake River in Idaho. And I photographed all of the wrongfully convicted at sites that came to particular significance in the history of their wrongful conviction. The scene of arrest, the scene of misidentification, the alibi location. And here, the scene of the crime, it’s this place to which he’s never been, but changed his life forever. So photographing there, I was hoping to highlight the tenuous relationship between truth and fiction, in both his life and in photography. Calvin Washington was convicted of capital murder. He served 13 years of a life sentence in Waco, Texas. Larry Mayes, I photographed at the scene of arrest, where he hid between two mattresses in Gary, Indiana, in this very room to hide from the police. He ended up serving 18 and a half years of an 80 year sentence for rape and robbery. The victim failed to identify Larry in two live lineups and then made a positive identification, days later, from a photo array. Larry Youngblood served eight years of a 10 and half year sentence in Arizona for the abduction and repeated sodomizing of a 10 year old boy at a carnival. He is photographed at his alibi location. Ron Williamson. Ron was convicted of the rape and murder of a barmaid at a club, and served 11 years of a death sentence. I photographed Ron at a baseball field because he had been drafted to the Oakland A’s to play professional baseball just before his conviction. And the state’s key witness in Ron’s case was, in the end, the actual perpetrator. Ronald Jones served eight years of a death sentence for rape and murder of a 28-year-old woman. I photographed him at the scene of arrest in Chicago. William Gregory was convicted of rape and burglary. He served seven years of a 70 year sentence in Kentucky. Timothy Durham, who I photographed at his alibi location where 11 witnesses placed him at the time of the crime, was convicted of 3.5 years of a 3220 year sentence, for several charges of rape and robbery. He had been misidentified by an 11-year-old victim. Troy Webb is photographed here at the scene of the crime in Virginia. He was convicted of rape, kidnapping and robbery, and served seven years of a 47 year sentence. Troy’s picture was in a photo array that the victim tentatively had some draw toward, but said he looked too old. The police went and found a photograph of Troy Webb from four years earlier, which they entered into a photo array days later, and he was positively identified. Now I’m going to leave you with a self portrait. And it reiterates that distortion is a constant, and our eyes are easily deceived. That’s it. Thank you. (Applause)

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88 thoughts on “Taryn Simon photographs secret sites

  1. wonderfully perspicacious perspectivism.
    refreshingly meta-textualistic anti-occultism.
    benevolently. rapturously. original.

    cheers. 😉

  2. Uh, oh…Here comes the "uhhhh…..I don't get it" crowd. I really wish people wouldn't be so intellectually lazy. These pictures are as interesting as their subject matter.

  3. Excellent!

    Seeing is NOT always believing.

    Most cops are below average in intelligence. By necessity. This is because a person of higher intelligence won't usually allow themselves to be manipulated into conspiring to convict the innocent. These are the acts of the stupid and the frightened.

  4. Artists/activists are great at raising awareness…but a scattershot approach like that first project, hitting all those issues…not too effective methinks. And not a single suggestion on how to improve anything, just lots of awareness raising….already forgotten. :

    An attractive female can't do anything without "she's hot" comments…I don't know why women don't fight back similarly…take the guys down a peg by objectifying back. Break a social norm! That would be something to see.

  5. she puts alot of thought into the photographs she takes, especially about the story she wants to tell, which is the key to good journalism.

    i enjoyed this immensely.

  6. Capital punishment is not punishment. How is ending a life considered punishment? does that life learn anything after its been snuffed out? Isn't reformation the objective of punishment? Or have we become so desensitised that we just want to do away with our offenders and never see them? If we were to have been disciplined in such a way as children there wont be very many of us left to attain adulthood would there?

  7. See the double standard of legal access in America? How many of you can afford 60 G's to get the verdict tilted in your favor?

    Perry Mason, where are you!

  8. Rather frightening you can be convicted from the testimony of an 11 year old girl, but an 11 year old killer will never serve a sentence. Ironic…

    So they are an adult when they finger a person but not when they kill a person? What's wrong with this picture?

  9. No. What a loser you are. What? Does an intelligent woman threaten you? You probably couldn't understand half of what she said right?
    Sad…

  10. Are you implying that a person can only learn to tell the truth when he/she reaches adulthood? The difference is accountability.

  11. Reading the autobiographies of many great authors like ian flemming, jack keruac, or robert heinlein one will often see reference to selling a story to playboy. Many of a non lurid nature.

  12. Yup, cops are scumbags. Manipulate evidence just to get a conviction. Who cares if its actually the guy who did it or just some innocent? If we get a conviction we did out job. Just one more cell filled.

  13. No implication at all, it's a fact: children often cannot tell the difference between reality and dreams, and we take their tesitmony in a court of law? So you are implying that a person can give testimony without accountability?

    I don't think a child should be treated as an adult if they kill someone, nor do I think they should be taken as an adult in a court of law.

  14. It really depends on the child. While I wouldn't let an 11 yr old drive, I would take his/her word. I know many children that are more honest than adults.

    Eye witness testimony is notoriously unreliable regardless of the age of the person testifying. You can't blame the age of the child.

  15. Eyewitness testimony, regardless of age, is unreliable. You never remember things the way they happened ESPECIALLY in a stressful situation because adrenaline distorts your memory. Just because you saw it doesn't mean it happened.

  16. I know many children that will lie through their teeth and claim they are telling the absolute truth.

    I know many adults that are more honest than children.

  17. Which proves that honesty is a function of character and not age. There are liars of every age. You cannot blame the lie on the age of the liar.

  18. i like her… she is pretty cool.. and smart.. i hope i never get in jail like those people… fuck that must be the worst thing…

  19. The saying is "a picture is worth a thousand words" but the pictures don't have any power if you have to explain them all.

  20. Wiki: "Like all forms of U.S. public diplomacy, the station is forbidden from broadcasting within the U.S. itself under the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act concerning the broadcast of propaganda."

    WTF!?!?!?!? That's not right….

  21. @Alacritous It's all about the message. Her messages consist of the interaction between the pictures and their accompanying texts. Whether the pictures would or should convey all the meaning by themselves is utterly beside the point.
    By the way, I think that the saying you quote is a bit naive (like most folk sayings, anyway).

  22. Regarding the wrongfully convicted, there are now so many more cases of this due to the present sex offenr laws. I worked in child protective services for years& as a therapist have seen examples of too many situations where an angry teen lies to get back at her father/stepfather.There are terrible miscarriages of justice in the legal system but few care about this. So it continues to hurt so many. The sex offender laws must change ! They hurt men who are not dangerous, esp. to children.

  23. i dont get it why is she going from a boy's corpse to a room full with marijuana to a submarine to some other stuff

  24. I transcribed some key quotes:

    Photography threatens fantasy. They didn’t want to let my camera in because it confronts constructed realities, myths, and beliefs and provides what appears to be evidence of a truth, but there are multiple truths attached to every image, depending on the creator’s intention, the viewer, and the context in which it is presented.

  25. I wanted to see the center with my own eyes, but what I came away with is a photograph, and its just another place to observe and the understanding that there are no absolute, all-knowing insiders, and the outsider can never really reach the core.

  26. A big part of the work that is absent in this context is text. So I create these two poles. Every image is accompanied with a very detailed, factual text. What I ‘m most interested in is the invisible space between a text and its accompanying image and how the image is transformed by the text and the text by the image. So at best the image is meant to float away into abstraction, and multiple truths, and fantasy. And then the text functions as this cruel anchor that nails it to the ground.

  27. @TheBigCollapse Sure…if some kids are raped by some paedophile and there are only kids to testify the paedophile should go free. The weight of the kids testimony might be accepted as lighter than that of an adult…but ignoring kids' testimony because they might also believe dreams seems a little extreme. Adults are prone to hallucinations in adverse conditions…should they also be excluded from courts of law?

  28. So a fucked up kid who plans to kill his mother, and does it, is still treated as " a confused child"? What is wrong with you?

  29. This was very interesting look at the use of photography in the propaganda machine, if she intended this or not. The use of photography is everywhere around us in advertising. Reality is twisted to their favor.

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