Taryn Simon

American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Taryn Simon


Taryn Simon is a multidisciplinary artist who has worked in photography, text, sculpture and performance. Born in 1975 in New York City Simon followed in the footsteps of her father and grandmother who both worked with image and text as she began to explore artistically through many different art forms. Before fully discovering her talents in the arts Simon studied  environmental sciences at Browne University before changing her major to art semiotics whilst continuously taking photograph classes with the Rhode Island School of Design. Simon is a 1999 Guggenheim fellow and has many current pieces in many museums and art galleries worldwide whilst remaining to live and work in New York City.

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII


A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII is a body of work in which Simon researched bloodlines and there related stories over a four year period(2008-2011). In all of the eighteen chapters that the body of works comprise of, the external forces of territory, power, circumstance or religion collide with the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance come into play. Taryn photographed many different subjects in order to get her point across taking her just under four years. Simon documents many different people living different circumstances in order to display the connections between blood, fate and chance including the living dead in India, those victimised by genocide in Bosnia, and the dead body of Suddam Hussein’s son Uday.

Each chapter in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII comprises three different elements. Each chapter comprises one or more panels of portraits of a number of people related by blood. The portraits are systematically ordered as to include the living and dead blood descendants of one single individual. Taryn then followed each panel with text of narratives and footnotes of pieces of photographic evidence to prove each narrative.

Simon used many empty portrait in order to represent the individuals who could not be photographed. These empty frames represented the individuals who could not be photographed due to many circumstances alluding to religion, family, and chance. Some of these ‘circumstances’ include military service, illness, imprisonment and women who could not be given permission due to religious reasons.

One can see that the way in which Simon simplistically photographs each individual that their own circumstances were completely related to their blood ties, religion, and social reasons. In particular one can see how the social and religious aspects of each bloodline effect the amount of empty panels in each chapter as many individuals were unable to be photographed. This varying number of empty panels for each chapter displays how circumstances such as religion and chance and completely connected to blood.


An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar


An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar is a body of works comprising of images and narratives of situations, places and things that the average person would not see of hear of. Simon reveals objects and places pertaining to the daily function of America, its mythology, and its foundations whilst remaining almost unknown and unavailable to the public. For example the above image reveals the process of a hymenoplasty surgery being undertaken by a young Palestinian woman attempting to adhere to cultural and religious expectations due to the need for ‘virginity’ in order to be seen as desirable for marriage. Simon uses images such as this to display the subjects and spaces of areas that many Americans don’t know exist on their own doorstep.

Simon uses images that display such things unknown to show the divide between access and the public in a country seen as “free”. Such images of things such as cryopreservation units,  and nuclear waste encapsulation storage facilities for example display how the everyday American is sheltered from many hidden and unknown areas that make America not so free.

One can see clearly from the images and the narratives that are aligned with them that the most interesting part of the body is the amount of subjects, places and areas that Simon was unable to gain access to. To note, Simon was denied access to specific areas owned by Disney Publishing Worldwide as the company believed that the project took away their ability to protect the magic surrounding characters, parks and other places and subjects seen by the company as valuable.

Simon’s publication not only comprised of seventy colour plates and photographs but included narratives and commentary’s by the likes of Salman Rushdie and Ronald Dworkin. The body was then published by Steidl publishing house and exhibited in the Whitney Museum of Modern Art.

“In a historical period in which many people are making such great efforts to conceal the truth from the mass of the people, an artist like Taryn Simon is an invaluable counter-force. Democracy needs visibility, accountability, light… Somehow, Simon has persuaded a good few denizens of hidden worlds not to scurry for shelter when the light is switched on, as cockroaches and vampires do, but to pose proudly for her invading lens…” — Salman Rushdie


The Innocents


The Innocents is a body of works published by Simon in 2007 and is seen as one of her most incite full bodies. The Innocents features a series of photographs and images of individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes leading to life and death sentences after being eventually vindicated due to DNA evidence.

Simon, through this body of work, used each image to not only display the faults in the justice system of America but in the use of images as evidence. Since the use of photographic’s as evidence began many innocent men and women have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. Simon used these images as a response to the fact that the biggest reason for wrongful conviction is mistaken identity often due to the use of photographs.

In order to display each individual as equals Simon photographed each at wither the site of alibi, the site of the crime, the site of arrest or the site of mistaken identity. Most interestingly, when photographed at the scene of the crime many of the individuals had never even visited the site. On the subject of photographies ability to blur fact and fiction into one Simon has been quoted in saying “Photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction is one if its most compelling qualities… Photographs in the criminal justice system, and elsewhere, can turn fiction into fact. As I got to know the men and women in this book, I saw that photography’s ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another.” (Simon, T. The Innocents:Photographers Forward, 2003)

One can see that Simon’s use of photography as a statement is ever so clear in this body of works as not only does she display how photography can blur the lines between right and wrong, but can also be used to vindicate those who have been wronged.

After  being published by Umbridge editions in 2003, the project was displayed at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre. This body continues to receive praise for Simon today as it responds to the faults within Americas justice system and its every so evident need for change.


One can see that Simon’s approach to photography is not only artistic in its intricacy as each image represents a specific narrative and story whilst remaining beautiful, but is informative as she uses her photographs to respond to certain fundamental problems she see’s within the framework of America. Simon’s photography is both incite-full and astounding as she continues to display the difference between fact and between fiction, the hidden and unknown, and the connection between blood and circumstance.




Simon, T. The Innocents: Photographers Forward (2003) Frontline, PBS [Online]
Available t: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/burden/innocents
(Accessed December 22nd)

Simon,T. Taryn Simon Website [Online]
Available at http://tarynsimon.com/
(Accessed December 22nd)

Rushdie, S (2003) The Innocents, New York, Unbradge Editions

All Images belong to Taryn Simon


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