In a sense, Taryn Simon’s photographs of “The Innocents,” 44 men and one woman who were convicted and jailed for crimes they did not commit, are beyond criticism. Although they’re considerably less interesting and less inventive than the fashion and editorial work Simon did previously, they have the undeniable authority of documents, however manipulated and manipulative. Working closely with Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project, whose pro bono work helped exonerate all her subjects on the basis of new DNA evidence, Simon spent much of 2001 photographing former prisoners, frequently at the scene of their alleged crime.
The resulting environmental portraits, artfully staged and carefully lit, are typical of current color photojournalism in that they owe a lot more to Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Gregory Crewdson, and Justine Kurland than they do to Larry Burrows, Sebastião Salgado, or Susan Meiselas. And maybe that’s where the problem lies: Simon’s pictures have the aura and ambition of art but very little of its freedom or substance. There’s no questioning their value as information, especially when presented alongside the photographer’s harrowingly matter-of-fact case histories and brief interviews, as they are at P.S.1 and in a new book from Umbrage Editions. Simon shines a steady, unforgiving light on a system of injustice so entrenched that it’s a wonder anyone escapes alive, much less with their humanity intact. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect her photos to be as compelling as the stories behind them, but that’s exactly what the material demands.
In fairness, Simon has made a number of photos that would stop you dead if you came across them on a magazine spread, and several of them survive their large-scale blow-ups at P.S.1. It will come as no surprise that the majority of those imprisoned as the result of eyewitness misidentifications are brown-skinned men. Not all of them agreed to be photographed at the scene of the crime, mostly because they hadn’t been there in the first place, so Simon used a number of alternate sites: the sidewalk where they were arrested, the bar their alibi witnesses placed them in, the motel room where an informant claimed to have heard them confess. (Due to the nature of DNA evidence, virtually all these men had been accused—and exonerated—of rape, usually in conjunction with other crimes.) Working with a combination of natural and artificial light, and a sympathetic palette that tends toward hot reds, bleached tans, and rich wood tones, Simon posed her subjects in these otherwise ordinary settings and let them steep in latent narrative.
Although all these people owe their freedom to the project whose good works Simon was documenting, many of them are clearly wary of the camera’s attention. After all, as Simon points out in the introduction to her book, photographs were often what got them into trouble in the first place. In too many cases, she writes, “photography offered the criminal justice system a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals, assisted officers in obtaining erroneous eyewitness identifications, and aided prosecutors in securing convictions. The criminal justice system had failed to recognize the limitations of relying on photographic images.” One victim, who agreed to be photographed alongside the man she mistakenly sent to prison, described the process by which her memory of her rapist was gradually eroded and replaced with a conveniently available substitute in a police lineup: “I picked out Ronald because in my mind he resembled the photo, which resembled the composite, which resembled the attacker. All the images became enmeshed in one image that became Ron, and Ron became my attacker.” Ronald Cotton served more than 10 years of a life sentence before being exonerated through DNA evidence found in the original rape kit.
Anthony Robinson, who also served 10 years before being proven innocent of rape, allowed Simon to take him to the scene of the crime, a bathroom at the University of Houston, but refused to enter the building, fearing that any familiarity with the actual site might somehow compromise him. She photographed him, bathed in a pale golden afternoon light, peering in through a glass wall papered with exam results, and lets him explain why he’s wearing a shirt, tie, and neatly pressed khakis: “Since the incident occurred, I’ve taken on the affectation of making sure I’m presentable when I go somewhere. It’s kind of stifling for me ’cause I’m really a casual guy. But if you don’t dress up in such a manner as to say, ‘Okay, I’m a normal person,’ the opportunity is there for them to say whatever they want: ‘He fits the description.’ . . . I keep records and tabs on where I was, what I was doing, and how long I was there. It’s a small price to pay for my freedom.” Robinson’s paranoia, while utterly futile, is justified: He was arrested on the testimony of a young woman who told officers her attacker had a moustache and was wearing a plaid shirt. The clean-shaven Robinson, wearing an unfortunate plaid shirt, was presented to the victim within minutes of the attack and she ID’d him without hesitation.
Simon’s photographs draw a good deal of power from these terrible, maddening stories. Here are men and women who’ve been through—well, let Larry Youngblood, imprisoned for eight years before being fully exonerated, tell it: “Hell is here, heaven is when you die—you don’t have to deal with society. This is hell, being on earth.” But, perhaps because she was dealing with such loaded material, Simon puts much of the drama on hold. There’s a striking nighttime image of a man standing in the brush between the blazing headlights of a car (the victim’s body was found in a ditch nearby), a bizarre motel room interior with a guy staring out at us from between two grimy mattresses (he’d hidden there, unsuccessfully, from the police), and a weirdly beautiful overhead shot of a man with a rifle sitting amid the bright shards littering a skeet-shooting range (11 witnesses placed him at a range in Dallas the day a little girl was raped in Tulsa; he went to jail anyway). But most of Simon’s subjects just stand and confront the camera in far from picturesque locations. Maybe their variously haunted, furious, anxious, sullen, stubborn, and astonishingly forgiving presence is enough. They don’t need to perform for the camera the way celebrities and models are expected to do; they don’t need to entertain us.
Neither, I suppose, does Simon. But she can’t merely deliver the news. Too often the photos in “The Innocents” feel stiff and stifled—careful, skillful exercises rather than genuine expressions. Simon made her reputation with tough, sexy, smartly staged photos, so her tentativeness here is uncharacteristic and uncomfortable. You can understand why she’d hesitate to set her subjects in the sort of faux film stills that fill editorial pages these days. After all, they’d already endured more than their fair share of trumped-up fiction. Still, because Simon hasn’t really found an alternative to the slick stylization she helped make so popular, she seems lost somewhere between sincerity and artifice. It’s not likely she’ll remain there for long. Her best pictures already point the way back to a darker, stranger place.