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TEDGlobal 2009

Taryn Simon: Photographs of secret sites

July 23, 2009

Taryn Simon exhibits her startling take on photography -- to reveal worlds and people we would never see otherwise. She shares two projects: one documents otherworldly locations typically kept secret from the public, the other involves haunting portraits of men convicted for crimes they did not commit.

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.
Okay, so
00:18
90 percent of my photographic process
00:20
is, in fact, not photographic.
00:23
It involves a campaign of letter writing,
00:25
research and phone calls
00:28
to access my subjects,
00:30
which can range from Hamas leaders in Gaza
00:32
to a hibernating black bear in its cave
00:35
in West Virginia.
00:38
And oddly, the most notable
00:41
letter of rejection I ever received
00:44
came from Walt Disney World,
00:46
a seemingly innocuous site.
00:48
And it read -- I'm just going to read a key sentence:
00:50
"Especially during these violent times,
00:53
I personally believe
00:56
that the magical spell cast upon guests who visit our theme parks
00:58
is particularly important to protect
01:02
and helps to provide them with an important fantasy
01:05
they can escape to."
01:07
Photography threatens fantasy.
01:09
They didn't want to let my camera in
01:12
because it confronts constructed realities, myths and beliefs,
01:14
and provides what appears to be
01:18
evidence of a truth.
01:21
But there are multiple truths attached to every image,
01:23
depending on the creator's intention, the viewer
01:26
and the context in which it is presented.
01:29
Over a five year period following September 11th,
01:33
when the American media and government were seeking
01:36
hidden and unknown sites
01:38
beyond its borders,
01:40
most notably weapons of mass destruction,
01:42
I chose to look inward at that which was integral
01:45
to America's foundation,
01:48
mythology and daily functioning.
01:50
I wanted to confront the boundaries of the citizen,
01:52
self-imposed and real,
01:55
and confront the divide between privileged
01:57
and public access to knowledge.
02:00
It was a critical moment in American history
02:04
and global history
02:07
where one felt they didn't have access to accurate information.
02:09
And I wanted to see the center with my own eyes,
02:12
but what I came away with is a photograph.
02:16
And it's just another place from which to observe,
02:19
and the understanding that
02:21
there are no absolute, all-knowing insiders.
02:23
And the outsider can never really reach the core.
02:26
I'm going to run through some of the photographs in this series.
02:31
It's titled, "An American Index
02:35
of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,"
02:37
and it's comprised of nearly 70 images.
02:39
In this context I'll just show you a few.
02:42
This is a nuclear waste storage and encapsulation facility
02:44
at Hanford site in Washington State,
02:49
where there are over 1,900
02:51
stainless steel capsules containing nuclear waste
02:53
submerged in water.
02:55
A human standing in front of an unprotected capsule would die instantly.
02:57
And I found one section amongst all of these
03:01
that actually resembled the outline
03:04
of the United States of America,
03:06
which you can see here.
03:08
And a big part of the work that is
03:10
sort of absent in this context is text.
03:12
So I create these two poles.
03:16
Every image is accompanied with a very detailed factual text.
03:18
And what I'm most interested in
03:22
is the invisible space between a text
03:24
and its accompanying image,
03:27
and how the image is transformed by the text
03:29
and the text by the image.
03:32
So, at best, the image is meant to float away
03:34
into abstraction and multiple truths and fantasy.
03:36
And then the text functions as this cruel anchor
03:40
that kind of nails it to the ground.
03:43
But in this context I'm just going to read
03:45
an abridged version of those texts.
03:48
This is a cryopreservation unit,
03:50
and it holds the bodies of the wife and mother
03:53
of cryonics pioneer Robert Ettinger,
03:55
who hoped to be awoken one day to extended life
03:57
in good health, with advancements in science and technology,
04:00
all for the cost of 35 thousand dollars, for forever.
04:04
This is a 21-year-old Palestinian woman
04:09
undergoing hymenoplasty.
04:12
Hymenoplasty is a surgical procedure which restores the virginal state,
04:14
allowing her to adhere to certain cultural expectations
04:19
regarding virginity and marriage.
04:22
So it essentially reconstructs a ruptured hymen,
04:24
allowing her to bleed upon having sexual intercourse,
04:27
to simulate the loss of virginity.
04:31
This is a jury simulation deliberation room,
04:34
and you can see beyond that two-way mirror
04:37
jury advisers standing in a room behind the mirror.
04:39
And they observe deliberations
04:43
after mock trial proceedings
04:45
so that they can better advise their clients how to adjust their trial strategy
04:47
to have the outcome that they're hoping for.
04:51
This process costs 60,000 dollars.
04:54
This is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection room,
04:59
a contraband room, at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
05:03
On that table you can see 48 hours' worth
05:06
of seized goods from passengers entering in to the United States.
05:09
There is a pig's head and African cane rats.
05:13
And part of my photographic work
05:17
is I'm not just documenting what's there.
05:19
I do take certain liberties and intervene.
05:22
And in this I really wanted it to resemble
05:25
an early still-life painting,
05:27
so I spent some time with the smells and items.
05:29
This is the exhibited art on the walls of the CIA
05:34
in Langley, Virginia, their original headquarters building.
05:37
And the CIA has had a long history
05:40
with both covert and public cultural diplomacy efforts.
05:43
And it's speculated that some of their interest in the arts
05:47
was designed to counter Soviet communism
05:49
and promote what it considered to be pro-American
05:52
thoughts and aesthetics.
05:54
And one of the art forms that elicited the interest of the agency,
05:56
and had thus come under question, is abstract expressionism.
06:00
This is the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility,
06:06
and on a six acre plot
06:10
there are approximately 75 cadavers at any given time
06:12
that are being studied by forensic anthropologists
06:16
and researchers who are interested in monitoring
06:19
a rate of corpse decomposition.
06:22
And in this particular photograph the body of a young boy
06:25
has been used to reenact a crime scene.
06:28
This is the only federally funded site
06:32
where it is legal to cultivate cannabis
06:35
for scientific research in the United States.
06:38
It's a research crop marijuana grow room.
06:41
And part of the work that I hope for
06:43
is that there is a sort of disorienting entropy
06:46
where you can't find any discernible formula in how these things --
06:49
they sort of awkwardly jump from government to science
06:53
to religion to security --
06:56
and you can't completely understand
06:58
how information is being distributed.
07:01
These are transatlantic submarine communication cables
07:05
that travel across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean,
07:08
connecting North America to Europe.
07:11
They carry over 60 million simultaneous voice conversations,
07:13
and in a lot of the government and technology sites
07:17
there was just this very apparent vulnerability.
07:20
This one is almost humorous because it feels like I could
07:23
just snip all of that conversation in one easy cut.
07:25
But stuff did feel like it could have been taken
07:28
30 or 40 years ago, like it was locked in the Cold War era
07:32
and hadn't necessarily progressed.
07:36
This is a Braille edition of Playboy magazine.
07:39
(Laughter)
07:42
And this is ... a division of the Library of Congress
07:44
produces a free national library service
07:46
for the blind and visually impaired,
07:50
and the publications they choose to publish
07:52
are based on reader popularity.
07:54
And Playboy is always in the top few.
07:57
(Laughter)
07:59
But you'd be surprised, they don't do the photographs. It's just the text.
08:01
(Laughter)
08:05
This is an avian quarantine facility
08:06
where all imported birds coming into America
08:08
are required to undergo a 30-day quarantine,
08:10
where they are tested for diseases
08:13
including Exotic Newcastle Disease
08:15
and Avian Influenza.
08:17
This film shows
08:21
the testing of a new explosive fill on a warhead.
08:25
And the Air Armament Center
08:29
at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida
08:31
is responsible for the deployment and testing
08:33
of all air-delivered weaponry
08:35
coming from the United States.
08:38
And the film was shot on 72 millimeter, government-issue film.
08:42
And that red dot is a marking on the government-issue film.
08:46
All living white tigers in North America
08:50
are the result of selective inbreeding --
08:53
that would be mother to son,
08:55
father to daughter, sister to brother --
08:57
to allow for the genetic conditions
08:59
that create a salable white tiger.
09:02
Meaning white fur, ice blue eyes, a pink nose.
09:04
And the majority of these white tigers
09:08
are not born in a salable state
09:11
and are killed at birth.
09:13
It's a very violent process that is little known.
09:15
And the white tiger is obviously celebrated in several forms of entertainment.
09:18
Kenny was born. He actually made it to adulthood.
09:23
He has since passed away,
09:26
but was mentally retarded
09:28
and suffers from severe bone abnormalities.
09:30
This, on a lighter note, is at
09:34
George Lucas' personal archive.
09:36
This is the Death Star.
09:39
And it's shown here in its true orientation.
09:41
In the context of "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,"
09:44
its mirror image is presented.
09:46
They flip the negative.
09:48
And you can see the photoetched brass detailing,
09:50
and the painted acrylic facade.
09:53
In the context of the film,
09:55
this is a deep-space battle station of the Galactic Empire,
09:57
capable of annihilating planets and civilizations,
10:00
and in reality it measures about four feet by two feet.
10:04
(Laughter)
10:07
This is at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
10:11
It's a Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain site.
10:14
Essentially they've simulated a city
10:17
for urban combat,
10:20
and this is one of the structures that exists in that city.
10:22
It's called the World Church of God.
10:24
It's supposed to be a generic site of worship.
10:27
And after I took this photograph,
10:30
they constructed a wall around the World Church of God
10:33
to mimic the set-up of mosques in Afghanistan or Iraq.
10:35
And I worked with Mehta Vihar
10:40
who creates virtual simulations for the army
10:42
for tactical practice.
10:45
And we put that wall around the World Church of God,
10:47
and also used the characters and vehicles and explosions
10:49
that are offered in the video games for the army.
10:53
And I put them into my photograph.
10:56
This is live HIV virus
11:00
at Harvard Medical School, who is working with the U.S. Government
11:02
to develop sterilizing immunity.
11:04
And Alhurra is a U.S. Government- sponsored
11:08
Arabic language television network
11:11
that distributes news and information to over 22 countries in the Arab world.
11:14
It runs 24 hours a day, commercial free.
11:19
However, it's illegal to broadcast Alhurra within the United States.
11:22
And in 2004, they developed a channel called Alhurra Iraq,
11:27
which specifically deals with events occurring in Iraq
11:30
and is broadcast to Iraq.
11:33
Now I'm going to move on to another project I did.
11:36
It's titled "The Innocents."
11:38
And for the men in these photographs,
11:41
photography had been used to create a fantasy.
11:43
Contradicting its function as evidence of a truth,
11:46
in these instances it furthered the fabrication of a lie.
11:49
I traveled across the United States
11:53
photographing men and women who had been wrongfully convicted
11:55
of crimes they did not commit, violent crimes.
11:58
I investigate photography's ability to blur truth and fiction,
12:02
and its influence on memory,
12:06
which can lead to severe, even lethal consequences.
12:08
For the men in these photographs,
12:12
the primary cause of their wrongful conviction
12:14
was mistaken identification.
12:16
A victim or eyewitness identifies
12:19
a suspected perpetrator
12:21
through law enforcement's use of images.
12:23
But through exposure to composite sketches,
12:26
Polaroids, mug shots and line-ups,
12:28
eyewitness testimony can change.
12:31
I'll give you an example from a case.
12:33
A woman was raped and presented with a series of photographs
12:36
from which to identify her attacker.
12:39
She saw some similarities in one of the photographs,
12:41
but couldn't quite make a positive identification.
12:45
Days later, she is presented with another photo array
12:47
of all new photographs,
12:51
except that one photograph that she had some draw to
12:53
from the earlier array is repeated in the second array.
12:56
And a positive identification is made
12:59
because the photograph replaced the memory,
13:02
if there ever was an actual memory.
13:04
Photography offered the criminal justice system
13:08
a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals,
13:11
and the criminal justice system failed to recognize the limitations
13:14
of relying on photographic identifications.
13:18
Frederick Daye, who is photographed at his alibi location,
13:22
where 13 witnesses placed him at the time of the crime.
13:26
He was convicted by an all-white jury
13:29
of rape, kidnapping and vehicle theft.
13:32
And he served 10 years of a life sentence.
13:34
Now DNA exonerated Frederick
13:38
and it also implicated another man
13:40
who was serving time in prison.
13:42
But the victim refused to press charges
13:44
because she claimed that law enforcement
13:46
had permanently altered her memory through the use of Frederick's photograph.
13:48
Charles Fain was convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder
13:53
of a young girl walking to school.
13:57
He served 18 years of a death sentence.
13:59
I photographed him at the scene of the crime
14:02
at the Snake River in Idaho.
14:04
And I photographed all of the wrongfully convicted
14:06
at sites that came to particular significance
14:10
in the history of their wrongful conviction.
14:15
The scene of arrest, the scene of misidentification,
14:17
the alibi location.
14:19
And here, the scene of the crime, it's this place
14:21
to which he's never been, but changed his life forever.
14:23
So photographing there, I was hoping to highlight
14:27
the tenuous relationship between truth and fiction,
14:29
in both his life and in photography.
14:32
Calvin Washington was convicted of capital murder.
14:37
He served 13 years of a life sentence in Waco, Texas.
14:40
Larry Mayes, I photographed at the scene of arrest,
14:45
where he hid between two mattresses in Gary, Indiana,
14:48
in this very room to hide from the police.
14:50
He ended up serving 18 and a half years
14:54
of an 80 year sentence for rape and robbery.
14:56
The victim failed to identify Larry
14:59
in two live lineups
15:01
and then made a positive identification, days later,
15:03
from a photo array.
15:06
Larry Youngblood served eight years of a 10 and half year sentence
15:09
in Arizona for the abduction and repeated sodomizing
15:12
of a 10 year old boy at a carnival.
15:16
He is photographed at his alibi location.
15:19
Ron Williamson. Ron was convicted of the rape and murder
15:23
of a barmaid at a club,
15:27
and served 11 years of a death sentence.
15:29
I photographed Ron at a baseball field
15:32
because he had been drafted to the Oakland A's
15:34
to play professional baseball just before his conviction.
15:36
And the state's key witness in Ron's case
15:40
was, in the end, the actual perpetrator.
15:43
Ronald Jones served eight years of a death sentence
15:48
for rape and murder of a 28-year-old woman.
15:52
I photographed him at the scene of arrest in Chicago.
15:54
William Gregory was convicted of rape and burglary.
15:59
He served seven years of a 70 year sentence in Kentucky.
16:03
Timothy Durham, who I photographed at his alibi location
16:08
where 11 witnesses placed him at the time of the crime,
16:11
was convicted of 3.5 years
16:14
of a 3220 year sentence,
16:16
for several charges of rape and robbery.
16:21
He had been misidentified by an 11-year-old victim.
16:23
Troy Webb is photographed here at the scene of the crime in Virginia.
16:28
He was convicted of rape, kidnapping and robbery,
16:32
and served seven years of a 47 year sentence.
16:35
Troy's picture was in a photo array
16:39
that the victim tentatively had some draw toward,
16:41
but said he looked too old.
16:43
The police went and found a photograph of Troy Webb
16:46
from four years earlier,
16:49
which they entered into a photo array days later,
16:51
and he was positively identified.
16:54
Now I'm going to leave you with a self portrait.
16:58
And it reiterates that distortion is a constant,
17:02
and our eyes are easily deceived.
17:06
That's it. Thank you.
17:19
(Applause)
17:21

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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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