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The picture of innocence

Photography has not been good to these men. Their lives were nearly destroyed by mug shots, perp shots or ordinary snapshots. So once their ordeals were over, why in the world did they consent to having their pictures taken by photographer Taryn Simon and displayed at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center?

"Taryn Simon: The Innocents" is an exhibition of large-scale, color photographs of men convicted of and jailed for crimes they did not commit (rape in most cases) and later (many years later, in most cases) exculpated by DNA evidence. For most of the photographs, Simon posed each man at the scene of the arrest, the scene of the crime, the scene of misidentification or the scene of the alibi.

This seems odd. You would think that these men would do anything to avoid a camera, especially one that links them again with the crimes. The preface of Simon's book, The Innocents (Umbrage, $34.95), which accompanies the exhibition, reports some hair-raising stories of wrongful identification.

One rape victim picked Marvin Anderson's photograph out of an array of mug shots because it was the only one in color. Another victim said that she tentatively pointed to a picture of Troy Webb but then qualified her choice by saying he looked "too old" to be the attacker. When the police showed her a shot of Webb taken four years before the crime, she identified him as her assailant. Another victim said that she picked out Ronald Cotton's photograph not because he looked like her attacker but because he resembled a composite sketch. She then chose the same man out of a lineup, she said, "because, subconsciously, in my mind, he resembled the photo, which resembled the composite, which resembled the attacker."

These are classic examples of how tragically misleading visual evidence, particularly photographs, can be. So why has Simon chosen to try to undo the deviltry of photography with more photographs?

The simple answer is that she began this project as an assignment for the New York Times Magazine, which printed several of her pictures Jan. 26. Then she was hooked. She went around the country interviewing and photographing more and more exonerated men. She became the unofficial photographer of the Innocence Project, a program devoted to using DNA evidence to help free wrongfully convicted prisoners. It was founded 10 years ago by civil rights lawyers Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City.

Clearly, the Innocence Project has been a godsend for wrongfully convicted prisoners. So far, 127 people, including a dozen on death row, have been freed by DNA evidence.

But what about the photographs? At the opening of the exhibition at P.S. 1, in Long Island City, Queens, where lawyers and stars mingled with some of the exonerated men, Scheck said that he liked to take Simon's portraits to fundraisers because they brought a human face to the legal problem. "We always wanted to contrast mug shots and perp shots, which are depersonalized," with pictures that "capture something about each man," he said.

But do they? Take the portrait of Kevin Byrd, who was in prison for 12 years for a crime he did not commit. In Simon's picture he is at the scene of his identification and arrest, in front of a grocery store. He wears a baseball shirt, pressed khaki shorts, a gold watch, white socks and red and white sneakers. He is unscrewing the cap of a bottle of water. His brow is wrinkled as he squints uneasily off to his right. Is he suspicious? Angry? It's hard to tell. The photo says a lot more about the rundown grocery store. Cigarette ads dominate the windows. And the sign that used to say "HOMETOWN FOODS" has been reduced to "TOWN ODS."

At the opening of the show, Byrd said in an interview that the experience of going to the crime scene and having his picture taken was "kind of scary." Why then did he agree to it? These pictures, he said, "show the world how the system doesn't work."

But, again, do they? Take Simon's picture of Troy Webb, the man who was said by the victim to look "too old" to be her attacker. In the photograph he is shown at the scene of the crime he didn't commit, in a grove of trees growing in a swamp in Virginia Beach, Va. Webb has a sober look. His hands are clasped in front of him, and he wears a gray pinstripe suit. His expression is hard to read.

Webb's words, which appear in the book The Innocents, are more telling than his portrait: "She said the guy was light-skinned, 5'6 to 5'7, weighing 130-150 lbs., medium build. I was the only one in the lineup that was light skinned. Everyone was two to three tones darker than me. If you'd seen the lineup you'd laugh. It was funny. It was a setup from the beginning." You can hear his bitter sarcasm. But you can't see it in the picture.

Simon's pictures do, however, give a visceral sense of the settings. The image of Webb, for example, shows the creepiness of the crime scene, that swamp. The sky is a moody blue. Houses are off in the distance. The trees are nearly bare, save for a few scattered reddish brown leaves. A feeling of foreboding pervades. And it appears to rub off on the innocents themselves.

This may be intentional. The book's introduction and the wall text of the exhibition, organized by Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at P.S. 1, and Amy Smith Stewart, an exhibition coordinator, note that Simon was compelled by photography's "ability to blur truth and fiction." For many viewers of the show, running through Aug. 31, that postmodern point may be lost. What will stick is the feeling of danger and guilt.

Whether these photographs were taken at the scene of the crime or at the scene of an alibi, whether they were taken on a lake, in a swamp, inside a suburban house or in a rundown parking lot, they bring crime and criminality to mind. And that is not ideal for a project devoted to proving innocence.

Simon's picture of Roy Criner shows a burly man in a white sleeveless T-shirt at a logging site, the scene of his alibi. One of his hands rests on a giant log. The flat ends of some of the logs have red lines painted on them to indicate, perhaps, where they should be split. The image evokes thoughts of axes and blood. And that's an uncomfortable association when the crime for which Criner was wrongly convicted was a stabbing.

It's not just because of their sinister edge that these pictures seem inappropriate for the Innocence Project. It's also because they feel fabricated. Simon's style is most similar to that of Jeff Wall, a photographer who makes huge color photographs that look documentary but are fabrications. Is this the best photographic model for someone trying to help correct an atrocious mistake? Probably not.

Consider the photograph of Vincent Moto, taken at the scene of his arrest and misidentification in Philadelphia. He poses with his hands up against the wall of a burned-out building. On one side of him sits a pile of garbage, and on the other side sits his son, who was with him at his arrest. In the staged picture, Moto looks back at the photographer as if to say, "Is this how I should pose?"

The paradox at work in all this is almost too much to bear. Many of these men were wrongly convicted and imprisoned because the line between image and reality became blurred. The victims who identified these men as their assailants and the jurors who convicted them had confused representations _ visual memories, composite drawings and out-of-date photographs _ with the truth. Years later, the men were exonerated because of hard biological evidence, because the line between representation and truth sharpened.

Now that the men are free, Simon has decided to play with the line again. It is a thought-provoking thing to do, but in the context of innocence, vindication and truth, it is also bizarre.