Taryn Simon: a living man declared dead

It has become obligatory for articles about American photographer Taryn Simon to begin with a few preliminary facts. Firstly, that Steven Spielberg has been known to attend the openings of her exhibitions. Secondly, that she is married to Jake Paltrow, the younger brother of Gwyneth. Thirdly, that she is as thick as thieves with Salman Rushdie. And finally, that she is illogically, impossibly beautiful. W Magazine quotes a ‘smitten male’ gushing about her ‘stunning [beauty]’, and a profile on The Guardian begins by commenting on her ‘matching check dress’, that the writer knowledgeably informs us is ‘probably designer-Amish’.

Though these tidbits about Simon are ‘factual’ in one sense, one also gets the feeling that they’re diversionary tactics to frame and undermine any discussion about her work. What these articles are really saying is that the enthusiastic embrace of her work comes on the heels of trumped-up celebrity endorsement; that her ability to woo such celebrities is nepotistic; and that her intellectual credibility is a charade maintained by rubbing shoulders with those who are actually quite smart. And then there is the fact that she is ‘beautiful’, which isn’t ‘factual’ at all. In truth, what these articles are actually saying is that a woman could not have garnered such a reputation on the basis of her own merits, much less her work.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Simon’s latest exhibition, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters: I-XVIII is an interrogation into the ways in which ‘truth’ is constructed. The exhibition presents a procession of portraits organised by bloodline and displayed in a neat grid of perfectly aligned rows and columns, like a page from a scientific journal. Among the subjects of the bloodlines are the Muslim victims of the genocide in Bosnia, a Filipino man exhibited in a ‘human zoo’, the descendants of Hitler’s lawyer, and an Indian farmer who was declared dead by his relatives so they could claim the deed for his land, though he was very much still alive. The photographs are accompanied by text which explains with minimal fuss the family’s circumstances. The accompanying text to a family of albinos living in Tanzania reads: ‘Albinos in Tanzania are under constant threat of attack from human poachers seeking their skin, hair, body parts, blood and organs for traditional healers who maintain and promote the belief that albinos have magical powers.’

‘Bloodlines interested me as they represented an absolute order that everyone accepts,’ Simon tells us when we finally speak. ‘I wanted to explore the possibility of that same order and patterning potentially being present in the chaos of the narratives that surround our lives.’ The photographs in A Living Man Declared Dead are arranged according to a scientific discourse of genealogy. ‘I began collecting data and photographing at a very young age under the influence of my father and grandfather,’ Simon explains. ‘Those early days were dedicated to explorations of the natural world: minerals, rocks, flowers, the stars. We would all go on adventure in the mountains and come back with lots of photos of leaves.’

Her use of the word ‘data’ is telling. By presenting the portraits in A Living Man Declared Dead in the form of a scientific archive, they take on status of neutral documents of ‘truth’. But the accompanying text undermines this: just as a mug-shot is taken as evidence of guilt because of its convention as a photograph (an idea Simon explored an earlier exhibition, The Innocents), the text reveals that the truths that the subjects of the photographs live under are constructed by cultural contexts and ideologies – such as the belief that albinos possess magical proper ties. ‘One arrives at the work with their own cultural perceptions and judgments and creates their own narrative,’ Simon explains. ‘Then they read the [accompanying] text, which anchors any fantasy or misinterpretation.’ The truths that photographs purport to prove are in fact constructed by the dynamics of power – the power to say what is of value and what isn’t, the power to say what is or isn’t true. It is the way power constructs ‘truth’ in our own culture – for example, the way that Simon has been portrayed by the media to uphold a particular ‘truth’ about men and women – that her exhibition asks us to question.

‘Power,’ Simon tells us, ‘is at the root of A Living Man Declared Dead. It is no longer top-down, [it’s] hard to locate.’ The power of A Living Man Declared Dead is its power to question. ‘We live in a time where the certainty of bloodlines is starting to crumble,’ Simon explains. ‘No matter how mapped out anything is – it’s always subject to translation, memory, gaps, individual judgment and experience – and therefore always out of control. It’s the invisible space between text and image where all those mutations occur that interests me.’

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