Taryn Simon’s exhibition A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is a fascinating collection of bloodlines that all have a haunting story to tell. Through a combination of portrait photos, bibliographic details and “footnote” images, Simon shows the impact external forces, like governments and religion, can have upon a family and how they survive these trails of life.
Simon’s portrait photos could be considered as somewhat prying. The downward angle in which the shots are taken make the individuals look vulnerable underneath Simon’s photographic gaze. However, publically portraying these families’ lives and the injustices they have suffered ensures that they are heard. Furthermore, those photographed must have been willing subjects as throughout the exhibition Simon indicates where individuals have declined to participate. Rather than concealing or disregarding these gaps, Simon places blank pieces of paper alongside the portraits of those who wanted their photos taken, to indicate where another member of the bloodline should be.
Their concern over being caught on camera shows how significant and dangerous one photo can be.
In several bloodlines these empty spaces become an integral part of the family’s story. One of the most intriguing bloodlines was Latif Yahia’s, who claims Saddam Hussein’s government forced him to become the body-double of Uday Hussein. The bibliographic details outline the terrifying experience he and his family suffered in Iraq and the fear they still live with even after the collapse of the regime. This fear is powerfully communicated by the boundaries Yahia’s family set for Simon. Under his photo, his residence is mysteriously labelled as an “undisclosed location in Ireland” and many family members refused to participate. Their concern over being caught on camera shows how significant and dangerous one photograph can be.
The power of Simon’s work is amazing. However, the pieces were continually hindered by the layout of the exhibition. One piece often covered an entire wall, yet the bibliographic writing was minuscule and as this information was essential to understanding the bloodline there was persistent crowding. This led to an infuriating procedure of queuing to reach the panel, then briefly glancing at the information as others were waiting behind you. By the fourth room of the exhibition, regardless of how interesting the bloodlines were, it was impossible to approach a piece of Simon’s work with immense enthusiasm, as a traffic jam of observers waited.
She allows the facts to speak for themselves…
Despite congestion problems, Simon’s exhibition is well worth going to see. Whilst some may view her work as overly systematic in the families’ documentation, I think this is one of the exhibitions real strengths. Simon presents the bloodlines and their stories without prejudice or opinion. She allows the facts to speak for themselves, whether this is through photographic evidence or absent family members. Ultimately Simon provides these families and their tribulations with a neutral public platform from which their story can be told.
The exhibition runs at Tate Modern until 6 November 2011.
Image courtesy of Taryn Simon