The Innocents

TO BE SEEN in a place you never were can be the most consequential event of your life. Most innocent people jailed for violent crimes are victims of mistaken identity—a phenomenon that artist Taryn Simon explores to unsettling effect in The Innocents (Umbrage Editions, 2003). Working with lawyers from the Innocence Project, Simon photographed wrongly convicted defendants in fateful locations: the scene of the crime (that they didn’t commit), say, or the room where they were arrested—sites where a forceful fiction overpowered a fragile reality. Throughout her career, Simon has made the hidden visible. We’re not supposed to see these people, especially not in these settings. Here, she shows us figures who find themselves on the wrong side of the border drawn by the phrase innocent until proven guilty, subjects who have been proven to be something they’re not, and forced to live as if they were. In the image below, Larry Mayes hides under a mattress at the Royal Inn in Gary, Indiana, where he was arrested for rape, robbery, and unlawful deviate conduct after being identified in a photo array by the victim. Inexplicably, she was hypnotized by police before being shown the images. The case against Mayes was built on this shaky testimony, with no physical evidence. His crime: having a gold tooth, the detail that matched the victim’s description of the attacker. Mayes was freed based on DNA evidence in 2001, one of 1,779 exonerations in the US since 1989. He spent twenty-one years locked up, with nothing to do but rue the day he did nothing wrong.

Taryn Simon, Larry Mayes, Scene of arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana, Police found Mayes hiding beneath a mattress in this room (Served 18.5 years of an 80-year sentence for Rape, Robbery and Unlawful Deviate Conduct), 2002, ink-jet print, 48 × 62. © Taryn Simon, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.