but Locked in Shadow
New York Times Column
June 25, 2003
Photography has not
been good to these men. Their lives were nearly destroyed by mug
shots, perp shots or ordinary snapshots. So once their ordeals
were over, why in the world did they consent to having their pictures
taken by the photographer Taryn Simon and displayed at P.S. 1
Contemporary Art Center?
The Innocents" is an exhibition of large-scale, color photographs
of men convicted of and jailed for crimes they did not commit
(rape in most cases) and later (many years later in most cases)
exculpated by DNA evidence. For most of the photographs Ms. Simon
posed each man at the scene of the arrest, the scene of the crime,
the scene of misidentification or the scene of the alibi.
This seems odd. You
would think they would do anything to avoid a camera, especially
one that links them again with the crimes. The preface of Ms.
Simon's book "The Innocents" (Umbrage), which accompanies
the exhibition, reports some hair-raising stories of wrongful
One rape victim picked
Marvin Anderson's photograph out of an array of mug shots because
it was the only one in color. Another victim said she tentatively
pointed to a picture of Troy Webb, but then qualified her choice
by saying he looked "too old" to be the attacker. When
the police showed her a shot of Mr. Webb taken four years before
the crime, she identified him as her assailant. Another victim
said she picked out Ronald Cotton's photograph not because he
looked like her attacker but because he resembled a composite
sketch. She then chose the same man out of the lineup, she said,
"because, subconsciously, in my mind, he resembled the photo,
which resembled the composite, which resembled the attacker."
These are classic
examples of how tragically misleading visual evidence, particularly
photographs, can be. So why has Ms. Simon chosen to try to undo
the deviltry of photography with more photographs?
The simple answer
is that she began this project as an assignment for The New York
Times Magazine, which printed a number of her pictures on Jan.
26. Then she was hooked. She went around the country interviewing
and photographing more and more exonerated men. She became the
unofficial photographer of the Innocence Project, a program devoted
to using DNA evidence to help free wrongfully convicted prisoners;
it was founded 10 years ago by the civil rights lawyers Barry
C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School
Clearly the Innocence
Project has been a godsend for wrongfully convicted prisoners.
So far 127 people, including a dozen on death row, have been freed
by DNA evidence.
But what about the
photographs? At the opening of exhibition at P.S. 1, in Long Island
City, Queens, where lawyers and stars mingled with some of the
exonerated men, Mr. Scheck noted that he liked to take Ms. Simon's
portraits to fund-raisers because they brought a human face to
the legal problem. "We always wanted to contrast mug shots
and perp shots, which are depersonalized," he said, with
pictures that "capture something about each man."
But do they? Take
the portrait of Kevin Byrd, who was in prison for 12 years for
a crime he did not commit. In Ms. Simon's picture he is at the
scene of his identification and arrest, in front of a grocery
store. He wears a baseball shirt, pressed khaki shorts, a gold
watch, white socks and red-and-white sneakers. He's unscrewing
the cap of a bottle of water. His brow is wrinkled as he squints
uneasily off to his right. Is he suspicious? Angry? It's hard
to tell. The photo says a lot more about the rundown grocery store.
Cigarette ads dominate the windows. And the sign that used to
say "HOMETOWN FOODS" has been reduced to "TOWN
At the opening of
the show Mr. Byrd said in an interview that the experience of
going to the crime scene and having his picture taken by Ms. Simon
was "kind of scary." Why then did he agree to it? These
pictures, he said, "show the world how the system doesn't
But, again, do they?
Take Ms. Simon's picture of Troy Webb, the man who was said by
the victim to look "too old" to be her attacker. In
the photograph he is shown at the scene of the crime he didn't
commit, in a grove of trees growing in a swamp in Virginia Beach.
Mr. Webb has a sober look on his face. His hands are clasped in
front of him, and he wears a gray pin-stripe suit. His expression
is hard to read.
Mr. Webb's own words,
which appear in the book "The Innocents," are more telling
than his portrait: "She said the guy was light-skinned, 5'6
to 5'7, weighing 130-150 lbs., medium build. I was the only one
in the lineup that was light skinned. Everyone was two to three
tones darker than me. If you'd seen the lineup you'd laugh. It
was funny. It was a setup from the beginning." You can hear
his bitter sarcasm. But you can't see it in the picture.
Ms. Simon's pictures
do, however, give a visceral sense of the settings. The image
of Mr. Webb, for example, shows the creepiness of the crime scene,
that swamp. The sky is a moody blue. There are houses off in the
distance. The trees are nearly bare, save for a few scattered
reddish brown leaves. A feeling of foreboding pervades. And it
appears to rub off on the innocents themselves.
This may be intentional.
The book's introduction and the wall text of the exhibition, organized
by Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at P.S. 1, and Amy Smith Stewart,
an exhibition coordinator, note that Ms. Simon was compelled by
photography's "ability to blur truth and fiction." For
many viewers of the show, running through Aug. 31, that postmodern
point may be lost. What will stick is the feeling of danger and
Whether or not these
photographs were taken at the scene of the crime or at the scene
of an alibi, whether they were taken on a lake, in a swamp, inside
a suburban house or in a rundown parking lot, they bring crime
and criminality to mind. And that is not ideal for a project devoted
to proving innocence.
Ms. Simon's picture
of Roy Criner shows a burly man in a white sleeveless T-shirt
at a logging site, the scene of his alibi. One of his hands rests
on a giant log. The flat ends of some of the logs have red lines
painted on them to indicate, perhaps, where they should be split.
The image evokes thoughts of axes and blood. And that's an uncomfortable
association when the crime for which Mr. Criner was wrongly convicted
was a stabbing.
It's not just because
of their sinister edge that these pictures seem inappropriate
for the Innocence Project. It's also because they feel fabricated.
Ms. Simon's style is most similar to that of Jeff Wall, a photographer
who makes huge color photographs that look documentary but are
fabrications. Is this the best photographic model for someone
trying to help correct an atrocious mistake? Probably not.
Consider the photograph
of Vincent Moto, taken at the scene of his arrest and misidentification
in Philadelphia. He poses with his hands up against the wall of
a burnt-out building. On one side of him sits a pile of garbage
and on the other side sits his son, who was with him at his arrest.
In the staged picture Mr. Moto looks back at the photographer
as if to say, "Is this how I should pose?"
The paradox at work
in all this is almost too much to bear. Many of these men were
wrongly convicted and imprisoned because the line between image
and reality became blurred. The victims who identified these men
as their assailants and the jurors who convicted them as rapists
had confused representations — visual memories, composite
drawings and out-of-date photographs — with the truth. Years
later the men were exonerated because of hard biological evidence,
because the line between representation and truth sharpened.
Now that the men
are free, Ms. Simon has decided to play with the line again. It
is a thought-provoking thing to do, but in the context of innocence
and vindication and truth it is also bizarre.