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TEDSalon London Fall 2011

Taryn Simon: The stories behind the bloodlines

November 10, 2011

Taryn Simon captures the essence of vast, generation-spanning stories by photographing the descendants of people at the center of the narrative. In this riveting talk she shows a stream of these stories from all over the world, investigating the nature of genealogy and the way our lives are shaped by the interplay of many different forces.

Taryn Simon - Photographer
With a large-format camera and a knack for talking her way into forbidden zones, Taryn Simon photographs portions of the American infrastructure inaccessible to its inhabitants. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
This is Shivdutt Yadav,
00:16
and he's from Uttar Pradesh, India.
00:18
Now Shivdutt was visiting the local land registry office
00:21
in Uttar Pradesh,
00:24
and he discovered
00:26
that official records were listing him as dead.
00:28
His land was no longer registered
00:30
in his name.
00:32
His brothers, Chandrabhan and Phoolchand,
00:34
were also listed as dead.
00:37
Family members had bribed officials
00:39
to interrupt the hereditary transfer of land
00:41
by having the brothers declared dead,
00:44
allowing them to inherit
00:46
their father's share of the ancestral farmland.
00:48
Because of this, all three brothers and their families
00:51
had to vacate their home.
00:54
According to the Yadav family,
00:57
the local court has been scheduling a case review
00:59
since 2001,
01:01
but a judge has never appeared.
01:03
There are several instances in Uttar Pradesh
01:06
of people dying
01:08
before their case is given a proper review.
01:10
Shivdutt's father's death and a want for his property
01:13
led to this corruption.
01:16
He was laid to rest in the Ganges River,
01:19
where the dead are cremated along the banks of the river
01:21
or tied to heavy stones and sunk in the water.
01:23
Photographing these brothers
01:27
was a disorienting exchange
01:29
because on paper they don't exist,
01:31
and a photograph is so often used as an evidence of life.
01:33
Yet, these men remain dead.
01:36
This quandary led to the title of the project,
01:39
which considers in many ways
01:41
that we are all the living dead
01:44
and that we in some ways represent
01:46
ghosts of the past and the future.
01:48
So this story is the first of 18 chapters
01:53
in my new body of work titled "A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters."
01:55
And for this work,
02:00
I traveled around the world over a four-year period
02:02
researching and recording bloodlines
02:04
and their related stories.
02:06
I was interested in ideas surrounding fate
02:09
and whether our fate is determined
02:12
by blood, chance or circumstance.
02:14
The subjects I documented
02:19
ranged from feuding families in Brazil
02:21
to victims of genocide in Bosnia
02:23
to the first woman to hijack an airplane
02:25
and the living dead in India.
02:27
In each chapter, you can see the external forces
02:30
of governance, power and territory or religion
02:33
colliding with the internal forces
02:36
of psychological and physical inheritance.
02:38
Each work that I make
02:42
is comprised of three segments.
02:44
On the left are one or more portrait panels
02:46
in which I systematically order
02:49
the members of a given bloodline.
02:51
This is followed by a text panel, it's designed in scroll form,
02:53
in which I construct
02:56
the narrative at stake.
02:58
And then on the right is what I refer to as a footnote panel.
03:00
It's a space that's more intuitive
03:03
in which I present fragments of the story,
03:05
beginnings of other stories, photographic evidence.
03:07
And it's meant to kind of reflect
03:10
how we engage with histories or stories on the Internet,
03:13
in a less linear form.
03:15
So it's more disordered.
03:17
And this disorder is in direct contrast
03:19
to the unalterable order of a bloodline.
03:22
In my past projects I've often worked in serial form,
03:27
documenting things that have
03:30
the appearance of being comprehensive
03:32
through a determined title and a determined presentation,
03:34
but in fact, are fairly abstract.
03:37
In this project I wanted to work in the opposite direction
03:40
and find an absolute catalog,
03:42
something that I couldn't interrupt, curate or edit by choice.
03:45
This led me to blood.
03:49
A bloodline is determined and ordered.
03:51
But the project centers
03:54
on the collision of order and disorder --
03:56
the order of blood butting up against the disorder
03:58
represented in the often chaotic and violent stories
04:01
that are the subjects of my chapters.
04:04
In chapter two, I photograph the descendants of Arthur Ruppin.
04:07
He was sent in 1907 to Palestine
04:11
by the Zionist organization
04:14
to look at areas for Jewish settlement
04:16
and acquire land for Jewish settlement.
04:19
He oversaw land acquisition
04:22
on behalf of the Palestine Land Development Company
04:24
whose work led to the establishment
04:27
of a Jewish state.
04:29
Through my research at the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem,
04:32
I wanted to look at the early paperwork
04:35
of the establishment of the Jewish state.
04:37
And I found these maps which you see here.
04:39
And these are studies
04:42
commissioned by the Zionist organization
04:44
for alternative areas for Jewish settlement.
04:46
In this, I was interested in the consequences
04:48
of geography
04:50
and imagining how the world would be different
04:52
if Israel were in Uganda,
04:54
which is what these maps demonstrate.
04:57
These archives in Jerusalem,
04:59
they maintain a card index file
05:01
of the earliest immigrants and applicants for immigration
05:03
to Palestine, and later Israel,
05:06
from 1919 to 1965.
05:08
Chapter three:
05:13
Joseph Nyamwanda Jura Ondijo
05:15
treated patients outside of Kisumu, Kenya
05:18
for AIDS, tuberculosis, infertility,
05:21
mental illness, evil spirits.
05:24
He's most often paid for his services
05:26
in cash, cows or goats.
05:29
But sometimes when his female patients
05:32
can't afford his services,
05:34
their families give the women to Jura
05:36
in exchange for medical treatment.
05:39
As a result of these transactions,
05:41
Jura has nine wives,
05:43
32 children
05:45
and 63 grandchildren.
05:47
In his bloodline you see the children and grandchildren here.
05:49
Two of his wives were brought to him
05:54
suffering from infertility
05:56
and he cured them,
05:58
three for evil spirits,
06:01
one for an asthmatic condition and severe chest pain
06:03
and two wives Ondijo claims he took for love,
06:06
paying their families a total of 16 cows.
06:09
One wife deserted him
06:12
and another passed away during treatment for evil spirits.
06:14
Polygamy is widely practiced in Kenya.
06:18
It's common among a privileged class
06:21
capable of paying numerous dowries
06:23
and keeping multiple homes.
06:25
Instances of prominent social and political figures
06:27
in polygamous relationships
06:30
has led to the perception of polygamy
06:32
as a symbol of wealth, status and power.
06:35
You may notice in several of the chapters that I photographed
06:40
there are empty portraits.
06:43
These empty portraits represent individuals,
06:45
living individuals, who couldn't be present.
06:47
And the reasons for their absence are given in my text panel.
06:50
They include dengue fever,
06:53
imprisonment, army service,
06:55
women not allowed to be photographed
06:57
for religious and cultural reasons.
06:59
And in this particular chapter,
07:02
it's children whose mothers
07:04
wouldn't allow them to travel to the photographic shoot
07:06
for fear that their fathers would kidnap them during it.
07:08
Twenty-four European rabbits
07:14
were brought to Australia in 1859
07:16
by a British settler
07:18
for sporting purposes, for hunting.
07:20
And within a hundred years,
07:23
that population of 24 had exploded to half a billion.
07:25
The European rabbit has no natural predators in Australia,
07:29
and it competes with native wildlife
07:32
and damages native plants
07:34
and degrades the land.
07:36
Since the 1950s,
07:38
Australia has been introducing lethal diseases
07:40
into the wild rabbit population
07:43
to control growth.
07:45
These rabbits were bred at a government facility,
07:47
Biosecurity Queensland,
07:50
where they bred three bloodlines of rabbits
07:52
and have infected them with a lethal disease
07:54
and are monitoring their progress
07:56
to see if it will effectively kill them.
07:58
So they're testing its virulence.
08:01
During the course of this trial, all of the rabbits died,
08:03
except for a few, which were euthanized.
08:06
Haigh's Chocolate,
08:09
in collaboration
08:11
with the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia,
08:13
stopped all production of the Easter Bunny in chocolate
08:16
and has replaced it with the Easter Bilby.
08:19
Now this was done to counter
08:22
the annual celebration of rabbits
08:24
and presumably make the public more comfortable
08:26
with the killing of rabbits
08:28
and promote an animal that's native to Australia,
08:30
and actually an animal that is threatened
08:32
by the European rabbit.
08:34
In chapter seven, I focus on the effects
08:38
of a genocidal act
08:40
on one bloodline.
08:42
So over a two-day period,
08:44
six individuals from this bloodline
08:46
were killed in the Srebrenica massacre.
08:48
This is the only work
08:50
in which I visually represent the dead.
08:52
But I only represent those
08:54
that were killed in the Srebrenica massacre,
08:56
which is recorded as the largest mass murder in Europe
08:58
since the Second World War.
09:01
And during this massacre,
09:04
8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys
09:06
were systematically executed.
09:08
So when you look at a detail of this work,
09:11
you can see, the man on the upper-left
09:14
is the father of the woman sitting next to him.
09:16
Her name is Zumra.
09:18
She is followed by her four children,
09:20
all of whom were killed in the Srebrenica massacre.
09:23
Following those four children is Zumra's younger sister
09:26
who is then followed by her children
09:29
who were killed as well.
09:31
During the time I was in Bosnia,
09:34
the mortal remains of Zumra's eldest son
09:36
were exhumed from a mass grave.
09:38
And I was therefore able to photograph
09:40
the fully assembled remains.
09:42
However, the other individuals
09:44
are represented by these blue slides,
09:46
which show tooth and bone samples
09:48
that were matched to DNA evidence collected from family members
09:50
to prove they were the identities
09:53
of those individuals.
09:55
They've all been given a proper burial,
09:57
so what remains are these blue slides
09:59
at the International Commission for Missing Persons.
10:01
These are personal effects
10:06
dug up from a mass grave
10:08
that are awaiting identification from family members
10:10
and graffiti at the Potochari battery factory,
10:13
which was where the Dutch U.N. soldiers were staying,
10:16
and also the Serbian soldiers later
10:19
during the times of the executions.
10:21
This is video footage used at the Milosevic trial,
10:25
which from top to bottom
10:27
shows a Serbian scorpion unit
10:29
being blessed by an Orthodox priest
10:31
before rounding up the boys and men
10:34
and killing them.
10:36
Chapter 15 is more of a performance piece.
10:40
I solicited China's State Council Information Office in 2009
10:44
to select a multi-generational bloodline
10:48
to represent China for this project.
10:51
They chose a large family from Beijing for its size,
10:54
and they declined to give me
10:57
any further reasoning for their choice.
10:59
This is one of the rare situations
11:01
where I have no empty portraits.
11:03
Everyone showed up.
11:05
You can also see the evolution of the one-child-only policy
11:07
as it travels through the bloodline.
11:10
Previously known as the Department of Foreign Propaganda,
11:14
the State Council Information Office
11:17
is responsible for all of China's external publicity operations.
11:20
It controls all foreign media and image production
11:24
outside of China
11:27
from foreign media working within China.
11:29
It also monitors the Internet
11:31
and instructs local media
11:33
on how to handle any potentially controversial issues,
11:35
including Tibet, ethnic minorities,
11:38
Human Rights, religion,
11:41
democracy movements and terrorism.
11:43
For the footnote panel in this work,
11:46
this office instructed me
11:49
to photograph their central television tower in Beijing.
11:51
And I also photographed the gift bag they gave me
11:54
when I left.
11:56
These are the descendants of Hans Frank
12:02
who was Hitler's personal legal advisor
12:04
and governor general of occupied Poland.
12:07
Now this bloodline includes numerous empty portraits,
12:10
highlighting a complex relationship
12:13
to one's family history.
12:15
The reasons for these absences
12:18
include people who declined participation.
12:20
There's also parents who participated
12:23
who wouldn't let their children participate
12:26
because they thought they were too young to decide for themselves.
12:28
Another section of the family
12:31
presented their clothing, as opposed to their physical presence,
12:33
because they didn't want to be identified
12:36
with the past that I was highlighting.
12:38
And finally, another individual
12:40
sat for me from behind
12:42
and later rescinded his participation,
12:44
so I had to pixelate him out so he's unrecognizable.
12:46
In the footnote panel that accompanies this work
12:52
I photographed an official Adolph Hitler postage stamp
12:54
and an imitation of that stamp
12:58
produced by British Intelligence
13:00
with Hans Frank's image on it.
13:02
It was released in Poland
13:04
to create friction between Frank and Hitler,
13:06
so that Hitler would imagine
13:08
Frank was trying to usurp his power.
13:10
Again, talking about fate,
13:14
I was interested in the stories and fate
13:16
of particular works of art.
13:18
These paintings were taken by Hans Frank
13:20
during the time of the Third Reich.
13:23
And I'm interested in the impact of their absence and presence through time.
13:25
They are Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine,"
13:29
Rembrandt's "Landscape With Good Samaritan"
13:32
and Raphael's "Portrait of a Youth,"
13:35
which has never been found.
13:37
Chapter 12 highlights
13:41
people being born into a battle that is not of their making,
13:43
but becomes their own.
13:46
So this is the Ferraz family
13:48
and the Novaes family.
13:50
And they are in an active blood feud.
13:52
This feud has been going on since 1991
13:55
in Northeast Brazil in Pernambuco,
13:58
and it involved the deaths
14:01
of 20 members of the families
14:03
and 40 others associated with the feud,
14:05
including hired hit men, innocent bystanders
14:07
and friends.
14:10
Tensions between these two families date back to 1913
14:13
when there was a dispute over local political power.
14:16
But it got violent in the last two decades
14:19
and includes decapitation
14:22
and the death of two mayors.
14:24
Installed into a protective wall
14:26
surrounding the suburban home of Louis Novaes,
14:28
who's the head of the Novaes family,
14:31
are these turret holes,
14:33
which were used for shooting and looking.
14:35
Brazil's northeast state of Pernambuco
14:38
is one of the nation's most violent regions.
14:41
It's rooted in a principle of retributive justice,
14:44
or an eye for an eye,
14:46
so retaliatory killings
14:48
have led to several deaths in the area.
14:50
This story, like many of the stories in my chapters,
14:53
reads almost as an archetypal episode,
14:56
like something out of Shakespeare,
14:59
that's happening now and will happen again in the future.
15:01
I'm interested in these ideas of repetition.
15:04
So after I returned home, I received word
15:09
that one member of the family
15:11
had been shot 30 times in the face.
15:13
Chapter 17
15:18
is an exploration of the absence of a bloodline
15:20
and the absence of a history.
15:23
Children at this Ukrainian orphanage
15:25
are between the ages of six and 16.
15:27
This piece is ordered by age
15:30
because it can't be ordered by blood.
15:32
In a 12-month period when I was at the orphanage,
15:34
only one child had been adopted.
15:37
Children have to leave the orphanage at age 16,
15:40
despite the fact that there's often nowhere for them to go.
15:43
It's commonly reported in Ukraine
15:48
that children, when leaving the orphanage
15:50
are targeted for human trafficking,
15:52
child pornography and prostitution.
15:54
Many have to turn to criminal activity for their survival,
15:57
and high rates of suicide are recorded.
16:00
This is a boys' bedroom.
16:05
There's an insufficient supply of beds at the orphanage
16:07
and not enough warm clothing.
16:09
Children bathe infrequently
16:11
because the hot water isn't turned on until October.
16:13
This is a girls' bedroom.
16:16
And the director listed the orphanage's most urgent needs
16:18
as an industrial size washing machine and dryer,
16:22
four vacuum cleaners, two computers,
16:25
a video projector, a copy machine,
16:27
winter shoes and a dentist's drill.
16:30
This photograph, which I took at the orphanage of one of the classrooms,
16:33
shows a sign which I had translated when I got home.
16:37
And it reads: "Those who do not know their past
16:40
are not worthy of their future."
16:43
There are many more chapters in this project.
16:47
This is just an abridged rendering
16:49
of over a thousand images.
16:51
And this mass pile of images and stories
16:53
forms an archive.
16:56
And within this accumulation of images and texts,
16:58
I'm struggling to find patterns
17:01
and imagine that the narratives that surround the lives we lead
17:03
are just as coded as blood itself.
17:07
But archives exist
17:11
because there's something that can't necessarily be articulated.
17:13
Something is said in the gaps
17:16
between all the information that's collected.
17:18
And there's this relentless persistence
17:21
of birth and death
17:24
and an unending collection of stories in between.
17:26
It's almost machine-like
17:29
the way people are born and people die,
17:31
and the stories keep coming and coming.
17:33
And in this, I'm considering,
17:36
is this actual accumulation
17:39
leading to some sort of evolution,
17:41
or are we on repeat
17:44
over and over again?
17:46
Thank you.
17:49
(Applause)
17:51

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Taryn Simon - Photographer
With a large-format camera and a knack for talking her way into forbidden zones, Taryn Simon photographs portions of the American infrastructure inaccessible to its inhabitants.

Why you should listen

In An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Taryn Simon gains entrance to places as diverse as a white tiger breeding facility, the JFK Airport quarantine area, a nuclear waste treatment site and virus-research labs. In doing so, she brings to light that which is integral to America's foundation, mythology and daily functioning, but remains inaccessible or unknown to a public audience. In her earlier book, The Innocents, Simon documents cases of wrongful conviction in the US, calling into question photography's function as a credibly witness and arbiter of justice. 

In A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, Simon captures the essence of vast, generation-spanning stories through photography, text and graphic design. To create this ambitious project, she spent four years traveling the world, researching and recording bloodlines. The subjects that Simon documents include victims of genocide in Bosnia, test rabbits infected with lethal disease in Australia, the first woman to hijack an aircraft, and the living dead in India. In her second TED Talk, Simon delves into several of these "chapters", investigating the nature of genealogy and the ways in which our lives are shaped by the collision of external forces, including territory, power, circumstance and religion, with the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance.

After premiering at the Tate Modern in London and at Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, Simon's  A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII exhibited at MoMA in New York, followed by the Ullens Center in Beijing, where the work was subject to censorship despite one of its chapters having originally been developed by the artist in collaboration with China's Office of Foreign Propaganda. 

 

Read design mind's Q&A with Taryn Simon >>

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