First published in 2003, Taryn Simon’s The Innocents examines photography’s role in criminal legal systems. Through powerful portraits of 46 exonerees, along with interviews, letters, case documents, and court transcripts, the book gives voice to their stories while revealing how photography can limit and distort criminal investigations.
The result of a close collaboration with the Innocence Project, the project was built upon an assignment Ms. Simon undertook for The New York Times Magazine in 2000. That summer, the multidisciplinary artist photographed people who had been wrongfully convicted, imprisoned, and later released from death row. She went on to gain a deeper understanding of how photography can draw innocent people into the crosshairs of flawed criminal legal systems.
Many of the exonerated people featured in Ms. Simon’s book were wrongfully convicted as a result of a mistaken identification that stemmed from law enforcement’s use of photographs and lineups. The identification of a suspect relies on the assumption of precise visual memory. But through exposure to composite sketches, mugshots, Polaroids, and lineups, eyewitness memory can change. As Ms. Simon poignantly explains in the foreword of The Innocents, the stories of these exonerated individuals are, therefore, evidence of photography’s ambiguous nature: “beautiful in one context …. devastating in another.”
“Making this project was something I had to do. I was a witness to a broken criminal legal system that relies on fractured practices,” Ms. Simon said. “In many of the cases I researched, that system had failed to account for the limitations of relying on photographic images. At that time, wrongful convictions were often reported as isolated incidents, if they were reported at all. I thought of the project as a collective record of individuals impacted by a dysfunctional system, and of the predatory policing, corruption, racism, and coercion behind the arrests, sentencing, and convictions of so many imprisoned people in America.”
Whereas the photography and lineups used in criminal investigations led to the wrongful incarceration of the people featured in the book, Ms. Simon’s photography serves a different purpose. Each person is photographed at a site that came to hold particular importance following their wrongful conviction. In some cases, people are pictured at the scene of their arrest or the scene of misidentification; in others, they are photographed at the alibi location or at the scene of the crimes they did not commit. Unlike the mugshots and photo arrays that law enforcement took to criminalize these individuals, Ms. Simon’s project allows these exonerated people to share their stories, pain, and courage on their own terms.
In one striking photo, for instance, Christopher Ochoa — who was coerced into pleading guilty to a a murder he did not commit and was then incarcerated for 13 years of his life — stands next to the mother of the victim in his wrongful conviction case, Jeanette Popp, in front of the Pizza Hut where the victim and Mr. Ochoa worked. Mr. Ochoa, who was freed and exonerated in 2002 and fought closely alongside Ms. Popp for criminal legal reform for many years after, said returning to the scene of the crime for Ms. Simon’s project helped put into perspective his relationship with the three most important people in his life: his grandfather, his father, and Ms. Popp.
“I found that it was a cleansing of sorts for me, in that it allowed me to look back at my wrongful conviction and my life since then,” Mr. Ochoa said. “It gave me the answer to the question I had been asking myself, which was, ‘What was the meaning of my wrongful conviction, for my life?’ Not only did it allow me to appreciate the three significant people in the three different stages of my life since my wrongful conviction, it also showed me that my wrongful conviction was preparing me to fight for justice and that I am strong enough to help the unfortunate of society who suffer injustices everyday, fight for justice.”
In another photo, Calvin Johnson — who served as a member of the Innocence Project’s inaugural board of directors and wrongfully spent 16 years for a rape he did not commit — is seen next to his father. Mr. Johnson was exonerated in 1999.
“I’m standing there next to my father, and the emotions well up when you think about the effect that [my wrongful conviction] had on my father and my mother and her life and my fiancée at the time of her life and how all these different people’s lives were changed because of me being incarcerated,” Mr. Johnson said as he looked back on the photo. “I mean, it’s always emotions stirring within you, but, at the same time, it’s good to be able to acknowledge and to recognize and to even discuss or talk about it because that’s like therapy.”
Upon its initial release, The Innocents was instrumental in reshaping public conversations about the United States’ criminal legal systems.
When the Innocence Project began collaborating with Simon in 1999, the then law clinic was just seven years old and the organized effort to end wrongful convictions was in its early stages. DNA testing, which had primarily been used to prove guilt, exonerated just 82 people nationwide at the time. The photographs and narratives of wrongful conviction in The Innocents documented America’s fractured criminal legal systems at a moment when science was confronting and challenging the systems’ supposed “infallibility.” As Innocence Project co-founders Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck note in the introduction to the book’s 2021 edition, Ms. Simon’s work “stands as a profoundly important photographic and textual record of some of the earliest DNA-based exonerations in the United States, and as a searing condemnation of the country’s criminal legal institutions and processes.”
Two decades following its original publication and nearly 300 DNA exonerations later, The Innocents continues to challenge the purported integrity of the nation’s criminal legal systems. The latest edition builds on the first by including previously unpublished images, original police reports, court transcripts, and correspondence that detail the procedures behind many of the misidentifications and wrongful convictions documented in the book. It also features a compelling essay by Nicole R. Fleetwood based on a conversation with Tyra Patterson, who served 23 years of a 45-to-life sentence for a murder she did not commit, alongside Ms. Patterson’s artwork, photographs of Ms. Patterson, and a photograph of a plaster sculpture that holds a special meaning for Ms. Patterson and her brother.
“It’s a blessing to share my story … These types of stories must be told in hopes that they mitigate wrongful convictions and promote humanity for everyone who has been directly impacted by incarceration. I appreciate the time and the lengths Taryn and her contributors went to make sure we were humanized,” Ms. Patterson said of her experience with Ms. Simon’s project. “Everyone deserves humanity and everyone has rights. Everyone. I don’t put my energy and time into fights of innocence or guilt. It’s about fighting a system that refuses to address racism, sexism, classism, trauma, abuse, poverty and the lack of education, the true causes of mass incarceration in this country.”
Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black individuals by American police, a large sector of the American public is contending with the deep, systemic injustices in American criminal legal systems, including a long history of police terrorism against Black people. In centering the wrongfully convicted and documenting photography’s contribution to wrongful convictions, the book’s stories have helped to advance the movement for changes in criminal legal systems across the U.S.
“The book,” Mr. Neufeld said at the MoMA PS1 event, was part of a process that “… [helped] the exonerees to reclaim their personhood, and that’s just an extraordinary feat and great accomplishment and for which we’ll always be grateful.”