Taryn Simon at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 8

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Taryn Simon at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 8: July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Taryn Simon is a photographer whose subjects are often as fascinating as her images. This morning, she launches into a series of photographs from her amazing collection An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. She has managed to take shots of decomposing bodies studied by forensic anthropologist and a federally funded marijuana growhouse. She notes that if she seems to jump from governement to science to religion, it’s on purpose. She wanted to cover all these areas.

Simon shows more photos: translatlantic cables carrying millions of voice conversations, a braille edition of Playboy magazine (it only includes the the text), imported birds undergoing quarantine and a caged white tiger. She stops again to note that all living white tigers are the result of genetic inbreeding. Mothers are bred with sons, brothers with sisters and so the majority are not born in a “saleable state” and then killed at birth. It’s a violent business, she sighs. Then she announces that the next photo is of an object from George Lucas’ personal archive — the Death Star, which in reality measures about 4 feet by 3 feet.

Then she comes to a photograph taken at Fort Campbell in Kentucky of the World Church of God. It’s supposed to be a generic site of worship. Along with another artist she manipulated the image to put a wall around the church and superimpose images of a suicide bomber and crowds to make a statement about the situations in the Middle East. To round out the collection, she shows images of a live HIV virus and more.

She moves on to show her heart-wrenching series of portaits titled The Innocents which depict men convicted of crimes they did not commit. The primary reason that these men were convicted was misidentification. Simon notes that after exposure to many photos and sketches, eyewitness testimony can change. The men in her series were convicted of serious crimes, including burglary, kidnapping, rape, sodomy, and murder. Some of them served time for over a decade before their innocence was discovered. In one case, she says, the key witness in the case was found to be perpetrator of the crime.

Simon finishes with a self-portrait. She shows two identical and inverted black and white photos of herself. Then, she flips the photographs and its obvious that one has a mustache and shadows over her eyes, while the other does not. She leaves us with the thought, “Distortion is a constant and our eyes are easily deceived.”