By Joe Cameron
Kudos for TOP's recent piece on tips from readers, especially with regard to "Dubya" as an art critic. Art is nothing if not personal. I'm no fan of the Pres, but it seems to me he has more imagination here than all of the critics combined.
This reminds me of a photography show I wandered into a few years back at a gallery on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. The entire show was made up of larger-than-life mug shot style frontal portraits of men (mostly) against a neutral background. Preferring to see the pictures first, I read only enough of the wall text to learn that these subjects had been convicted of heinous crimes against other human beings and had been released after many years in prison.
I walked around the room spending a lot of time studying each face, on which every pore and hair was excruciatingly clear. I was, frankly, terrified. These were obviously the faces of evil, heartless, cruel, and possibly deranged beings.
But when I got near the end, reading the wall text more thoroughly revealed the purpose of this show. Every person shown, it turns out, had been found innocent of their purported crimes by virtue of DNA evidence. It was a profound lesson for me regarding the assumptions we make, the suggestive power of context, the biases we carry and the innate mystery and complexity of even the simplest of images.
A sad but interesting twist on this story is that most of the ex-cons in these images had been convicted, in part, because of eyewitness mis-identification of photographs of the accused. The photographer, Taryn Simon, who made the pictures in this exhibition (it was called "The Innocents: Headshots"; there is also a related book) speaks to this paradox:
"In these cases, photography offered the criminal justice system a tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals, assisted officers in obtaining erroneous eyewitness identifications, and aided prosecutors in securing convictions. The criminal justice system had failed to recognize the limitations of relying on photographic images."
Seen in an entirely new and different context, the photographs that had originally frightened me now seem softer and more empathetic.
Artist Joe Cameron is Professor Emeritus of Photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.