In July, photographer Taryn Simon gave a TED talk about her project The Innocents, a touring exhibit and book of portraits focusing on people wrongly convicted of crimes, mostly through photographic misidentification. Simon’s talk is spectacular; her insight into the use of photographs in criminal investigations is startling and demonstrates a disturbing bias in the way law enforcement officials sometimes steer victims toward identifying their assailants. Simon sums the issue up nicely in the forward of The Innocents:
The criminal justice system had failed to recognize the limitations of relying on photographic images.
Simon notes that memory is malleable– it can easily be influenced (intentionally or unintentionally) by sources other than photography, especially composite sketches and lineups. Take this example Simon presents in her talk:
A woman was raped and presented with a series of photographs from which to identify her attacker. She saw some similarities in the first photo, but couldn’t quite make a positive identification. Days later, she’s presented with another photo array of all new photographs– except that one photo that she had some draw to from the earlier array is repeated in the second array, and a positive identification is made, because the photo replaced the memory, if there ever was an actual memory.”
In many of these cases profiled by Simon, the accused individual had a solid alibi confirmed by multiple witnesses– yet identification by the victim took precedence in the courtroom. In other cases, damning factors beside photographic misidentification work against the wrongfully convicted– such as in the case of Frederick Day, an African-American man who was convicted of rape by an all-white jury, despite an alibi confirmed by thirteen people. Simon’s work, sponsored by The Innocence Project, highlights significant flaws in the criminal justice system that have led many innocent men and woman to long terms of imprisonment, and sometimes even execution.
Check out some of Simon’s photographs below alongside the stories of the wrongfully convicted:
Who: Tim Durham
Where: skeet shooting, Tulsa, Oklahoma
What: 11 alibi witnesses placed Durham at a skeet-shooting competition at the time of the crime. Served 3.5 years of a 3,220 year sentence for rape and robbery
Who: Charles Irvin Fain
Where: the Snake River in Melba, Idaho, where he allegedly kidnapped, raped, and murdered a young girl walking to school. When it was discovered he was wrongfully convicted, authorities learned that Fain had never even been to the location before.
What: Served 18 years for murder, rape, and kidnapping
To learn more about Taryn Simon and her current project, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, visit her website. All photographs © Taryn Simon.