Book Review

Picture Yourself Here


Taryn Simon, a photographer, shoots at the intersection of justice and visual memory to capture the desperate experience of men and women who have been imprisoned because the latter misinformed the former. It takes a while to figure out precisely what Simon’s up to, but once her intentions unravel, you’ll find yourself under the powerful spell of a very smart photographer whose obsession with the ambiguity of memory, contrasted with the concreteness of a criminal conviction, instills beautifully composed photographs with tragic weight. Then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll stay up all night, reading her book, staring at her photographs, and feeling thankful that you can walk through the door in front of you and use the bathroom in private. At least for now.

Simon’s subjects have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned by the U.S. criminal justice system. Most of them are black and Hispanic men who have suffered a Kafkaesque fate of unimaginable pain due to visual memory’s unreliability. Photographs, lineups, composite sketches, Polaroids—identifications that rely on the assumption of precise visual information—altered the course of their lives so thoroughly that even their subsequent freedom suffers under imprisonment’s persistent and tumultuous influence. Simon’s examples are extensive and impossible to summarize, but one subject, Roy Criner, served 10 years of a 99-year sentence for a 1986 rape and murder in Montgomery County, Texas. He says he “felt free†upon leaving prison but quickly found himself dogged by paranoia. “Who’s going to be around the corner tomorrow when I go to work?†he asks in an interview with Simon. “Sometimes I spit on the ground and say, “Well, maybe they’ll scrape that up and put it on a crime scene. They had me ejaculate in a cup and said the vial got broke. They came back and got blood and all this other stuff. You know there’s a lot of me that’s still out there somewhere.†He wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Tim Durham, who served three and a half years of a 3,220-year sentence, tells Simon, “When I was released from prison I had considered developing a device that could be worn just like a pager that could be used to track my movements.â€

For Simon, the testimony of victims like Criner and Durham transformed photography from an act that’s still “beautiful in one context†into one that’s “devastating in another.†That transformation would never have occurred had it not been for the rigors of science. All of Simon’s subjects were exonerated through the retroactive use of DNA evidence. DNA is hard evidence, certainly more solid than the ambivalence of a medium like photography, whose most enigmatic quality is its precise ability to “blur truth and fiction.†So it’s somewhat ironic that, to stress the fragility of the memorized image—a fragility intensified by its use in the criminal justice system—Simon resorts to the very same activity that stunted her subjects’ lives in the first place: capturing an image. Nevertheless, her photos freeze her subjects’ pain—you’ll find that it’s surprisingly difficult to stare in the face of the wrongfully accused and convicted—with more rawness and emotional heft than science could allow. And that too, I suppose, has an irony all its own.

Which brings me to what, in the most general terms, I really like about this book. Photographers who show in contemporary galleries, those who have a tendency to think of themselves as “art photographers,†often indulge in bouts of brainy conceptualism. Especially when they’ve graduated from places like Brown University, as Simon did in 1997. But Simon never succumbs, taking instead a refreshingly pragmatic, photo-journalistic, and even muckraking angle into her material. I was just waiting to roll my eyes at an obligatory window-dressing reference to the philosopher Michel Foucault in the “Photographer’s Foreword,†but instead I found Simon’s short essay soberly summarizing the direct social implications of her work. “The high stakes of the criminal justice system,†she writes, “underscore the importance of a photographic image’s history and context.†Simon wants her portraits—many of which are shot at the scene of the misidentification, arrest, alibi location, or crime—to recast the criminal investigation in a broader light, one diffuse but bright enough to appreciate the potentially lethal inconsistencies inherent in the available evidence. After she shot a few such photos for a New York Times Magazine story in 2000, she secured a Guggenheim grant and traveled across the country expanding her portfolio of personal devastation. Perhaps the most obvious result of her research and work, which was first displayed earlier this summer at P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center in Queens, is the egotistical realization that it inspires: “This could happen to me.†It’s a sentiment that any reference to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish would only have mocked. Her work, at its core, is stripped of all pretension and imbued with a concrete political goal.

Another aspect of Simon’s book, though, demands more clarity. While most of her subjects are black men, and speak openly about the racism behind their conviction, Simon herself handles the glaring question of race delicately—perhaps too delicately. Her reticence is especially evident in the case of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. Thomson, a white woman who was raped by a black man in July 1984, accused Cotton of committing the crime. Cotton served 10 and a half years of a life sentence. Her recollection of the accusation is, in many respects, honest and revealing:

I picked out the nose, the eyes, and the ears that most closely resembled the person who attacked me…From the composite sketch a phone call came in that said the sketch resembles someone they knew: Ronald Cotton. Ron’s name was pulled and he became a key suspect. I was asked to come down and look at the photo array of different men. I picked Ron’s photo because in my mind it most closely resembled the man who attacked me. But really what happened was that, because I had made a composite sketch, he actually most closely resembled my sketch as opposed to the actual attacker….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 to one image that became Ron, and Ron became my attacker.

In terms of the connection between photography and “erroneous eyewitness identifications,†Thompson’s testimony hits the nail on the head. But upon reflection, the excerpt obscures as much as it reveals. It’s impossible, for example, not to wonder about the racial assumptions hiding behind Thompson’s accusation. To what extent did the pervasive stereotypes of black men—stereotypes deeply woven into the South—(the rape occurred in North Carolina)—shape both Thompson’s initial composite sketch and her ultimate photo identification of Ronald Cotton? “In my mind†is a telling phrase and one that she says twice during the excerpt. What racial assumptions does that qualification entertain? Could Ronald Cotton have conformed to Thompson’s preconceived notion of a black rapist rather than to her memory of the traumatic incident?

I’m aware that these questions are complex, not to mention charged, but a photograph of a hulking black man with his arm draped around a dainty Southern belle whom he allegedly raped demands that the issue at least be addressed more directly than the perfunctory mention of “cross-racial identification.†And when a black man like Clyde Charles, wrongly convicted of a 1981 Louisiana rape, recalls “en women and two men, all white jury…The D.A. told me he didn’t care if Santa Claus did it, he was going to convict me for it,†the need for a more explicit focus on race by the author becomes that much more apparent.

But what The Innocents shirks in terms of race it more than compensates for in its brutally honest exploration of the unexpurgated emotional responses to false incarceration. This book is, in many ways, an angry one, and Simon deserves much credit for allowing her subjects to do most of the talking. And boy do they have something to say.

“What ten years of life would you want gone?†asks Eric Sarsfield, who served nine and a half years of a 10-to-15-year sentence. “One to ten? Ten to twenty? Twenty to thirty? …You feel like somebody owes you something. But nobody has nothing for you.†Ronald Jones, who served eight years of a death sentence, seethed, “You’re not gonna see no rich people on death row, very few of them even go to jail…as long as I’m poor, the same thing that they did to me in 1985, they can do it to me again.â€

“United Snakes, I mean States of America,†says Warith Habib Abdal, adding, “’scuse me, my teeth are loose. They kicked them out in Attica when I was busted for rape.†Walter Smith, who served 12 years for robbing a gas station, explains, “I’m going to get mine . If you come at me, come right. Because if you’re wrong, I’m going to get you.†Marvin Anderson lost 15 years of his life to the system but insists, “I still believe in the law 100 percent.†But, he adds, “I don’t believe in the people who enforce the law. They’re human and do some dirty things.†The litany of bitterness goes on and on. So it’s refreshing to come across Verneal Johnson’s testimony. “The day I was released,†he says, “it seemed like the sun came down close to the earth and just started shining. It was the happiest day of my life. I just stood outside under the sun. It was a beautiful day—went and ate me a hamburger and got me a Budweiser.â€

After reading this amazing book, you may very well want to do the same, savoring your freedom while lifting a Bud in celebration of not only Johnson’s freedom but of Simon’s admirable debut.

Contributing writer James McWilliams lives in Austin.