An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Taryn Simon's photography

Taryn Simon An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy, Southeastern Washington State. Submerged in a pool of water at the Hanford Site are 1,936 stainless steel nuclear waste capsules containing cesium and strontium. Combined, they contain over 120 million curies of radioactivity. It is estimated to be the most curies under one roof in the United States. The blue glow is created by the Cherenkov Effect which describes the electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle, giving off energy, moves faster than light through a transparent medium. The temperatures of the capsules are as high as 330 degrees Fahrenheit. The pool of water serves as a shield against radiation; a human standing one foot from an unshielded capsule would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than 10 seconds. Hanford is among the most contaminated sites in the United States. Southeastern Washington State, USA, 2005/2007.

Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan. This cryopreservation unit holds the bodies of Rhea and Elaine Ettinger, the mother and first wife of cryonics pioneer, Robert Ettinger. Robert, author of TheProspect of Immortalityand Man into Supermanis still alive. The Cryonics Institute offers cryostasis (freezing) services for individuals and pets upon death. Cryostasis is practised in the hope that lives will ultimately be extended through future developments in science, technology and medicine. When, and if, these developments occur, Institute members hope to awake to an extended life in good health, free from disease or the aging process. Cryostasis must begin immediately upon legal death. A person or pet is infused with ice-preventive substances and quickly cooled to a temperature where physical decay virtually stops. The Cryonics Institute charges $28,000 for cryostasis if it is planned well in advance of legal death and $35,000 on shorter notice. Clinton Township, Michigan, USA, 2004/2007.

Hymenoplasty, Cosmetic Surgery, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The patient in this photograph is 21 years old. She is of Palestinian descent and living in the United States. In order to adhere to cultural and familial expectations regarding her virginity and marriage, she underwent hymenoplasty. Without it she feared she would be rejected by her future husband and bring shame upon her family. She flew in secret to Florida where the operation was performed by Dr Bernard Stern, a plastic surgeon she located on theinternet. The purpose of hymenoplasty is to reconstruct a ruptured hymen, the membrane which partially covers the opening of the vagina. It is an outpatient procedure which takes approximately 30 minutes and can be done under local or intravenous anaesthesia. Dr Stern charges $3,500 for hymenoplasty. He also performs labiaplasty and vaginal rejuvenation. Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, 2005/2007.

The Hoh Rain Forest, Understory and Forest Structure, Olympic National Park, Washington. Tangle of branches and mosses including: Sitka Spruce, Vine Maple, Bigleaf Maple, Western Hemlock and understory of Sword Fern. The Hoh Rain Forest is the largest, intact, preserved coastal temperate rain forest in the world. It is considered to be the wettest spot in the continental U.S., receiving 140 to 167 inches (12 to 14 feet) of rain per year. Located within Olympic National Park, the Hoh is fully protected from commercial exploitation. Rain forest beyond the park’s borders has been logged heavily over the past century. The Pacific Yew, indigenous to the region and once considered an insignificant tree, was recently discovered to harbour Taxol, a naturally occurring compound that is now being used to treat ovarian, breast and lung cancer. Olympic National Park, Washington, USA, 2006/2007.

Death Row Outdoor Recreational Facility, “The Cage”, Mansfield Correctional Institution, Mansfield, Ohio. At Mansfield Correctional Institution, death row inmates are permitted one hour of outdoor recreation per day in individual or group containment areas known as cages or bullpens. Inside segregated cages there is only a chin-up bar and inmates are not permitted to bring any items with them. In non-segregated cages there is a stationary basketball net and they are permitted to bring with them items including a basketball, radio, deck of cards and cigarettes. All death row inmates at Mansfield are classified as having “mental health issues”. In Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the execution of persons with mental retardation to be unconstitutional. Defining mental retardation is a controversial issue currently being addressed as part of the proposed Death Penalty Reform Act of 2006. 38 of the 50 U.S. states provide for the death penalty in law.Mansfield, Ohio, USA, 2003/2007.

White Tiger (Kenny), Selective Inbreeding, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and Foundation, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In the United States, all living white tigers are the result of selective inbreeding to artificially create the genetic conditions that lead to white fur, ice-blue eyes and a pink nose. Kenny was born to a breeder in Bentonville, Arkansas, on 3 February 1999. As a result of inbreeding, Kenny is mentally retarded and has significant physical limitations. Due to his deep-set nose, he has difficulty breathing and closing his jaw, his teeth are severely malformed and he limps from abnormal bone structure in his forearms. The three other tigers in Kenny’s litter are not considered to be quality white tigers, as they are yellow-coated, cross-eyed and knock-kneed. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, USA, 2006/2007.

Transatlantic Sub-Marine Cables Reaching Land, VSNL International, Avon, New Jersey. These VSNL sub-marine telecommunications cables extend 8,037.4 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Capable of transmitting over 60 million simultaneous voice conversations, these underwater fibre-optic cables stretch from Saunton Sands in the United Kingdom to the coast of New Jersey. The cables run below ground and emerge directly into the VSNL International headquarters, where signals are amplified and split into distinctive wavelengths enabling transatlantic phone calls and internet transmissions. Avon, New Jersey, USA, 2007.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Contraband Room, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Queens, New York. African cane rats infested with maggots, African yams (dioscorea), Andean potatoes, Bangladeshi cucurbit plants, bush meat, cherimoya fruit, curry leaves (murraya), dried orange peel, fresh eggs, giant African snail, impala skull cap, jackfruit seeds, June plum, kola nuts, mango, okra, passion fruit, pig nose, pig mouths, pork, raw poultry (chicken), South American pig head, South American tree tomatoes, South Asian lime infected with citrus canker, sugar cane (poaceae), uncooked meats, unidentified subtropical plant in soil. All items in the photograph were seized from the baggage of passengers arriving in the U.S. at JFK Terminal 4 from abroad over a 48-hour period. All seized items are identified, dissected and then either ground up or incinerated. JFK processes more international passengers than any other airport in the United States. Queens, New York, USA, 2005/2007.

Infectious Medical Waste Treatment Center, Sanitec Industries, Inc., Sun Valley, California. Shredded, microwaved, disinfected medical waste awaits transfer from Sanitec Industries, Inc. to the Simi Valley Landfill. The U.S. produces between 600,000 and one million tons of medical wasteeach year. To guard against the spread of infectious disease and to limit waste, hospitals and clinics incinerate several tons of infectious waste annually. Alternative waste treatment technologies that do not involve incineration minimise environmental harm. Sanitec’s microwave disinfection system shreds and sanitises infectious medical waste, thereby destroying pathogens and reducing the waste’s volume by 80 per cent. Sanitec employees receive vaccinations against Hepatitis B and Tetanus and are periodically tested for Tuberculosis. When a needle prick occurs while employees are handling the waste, a post exposure emergency control plan goes into effect. The average wage for medical waste technicians is $12 per hour. Sun Valley, California, USA, 2006/2007.

Exploding Warhead, Test Area C-80C, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. This is a test of an MK-84 IM (Insensitive Munition) Warhead conducted at the Eglin Air Force Base Air Armament Center. The warhead was tested by the 46th Test Wing’s 780th Test Squadron in order to collect pressure and fragment velocity data on a new, experimental explosive warhead fill. Eglin AFB was formerly part of the Choctawhatchee National Forest. All 384,000 acres of the forest were transferred to the War Department during World War II for the fast expansion of the Army Air Corps. The Eglin base has access to 86,000 square miles of airspace, allowing for long-range, all-altitude, air-to-air, air-to-surface, surface-to-surfaceand anti-ship evaluation tests and training exercises. The Air Armament Center is responsible for the development, testing and deployment of all U.S. air-delivered weapons. It tripled its production of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Air Force Materiel Command Public Affairs reported in 2006 that the air strike munitions, which killed the Iraq-based al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were developed at the Eglin Air Armament Center. This photograph was taken using a remote sequencer that detonated the warhead from a control bunker. Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, USA, 2007.

Artist's Statement

For this project, Taryn Simon assumes the dual role of shrewd informant and collector of curiosities, compiling an inventory of what lies hidden and out-of-view within the borders of the United States. She examines a culture and its development through careful documentation of diverse subjects from the realms of science, government, medicine, entertainment, nature, security, and religion. Transforming the unknown into a seductive and intelligible form, Simon confronts the divide between those with and without the privilege of access.

Simon makes use of the annotated-photograph’s capacity to engage and inform the public. Through text and image, the work underscores the complicated relationship between a photograph and its context. The visual is processed aesthetically and then redefined by its text.

Her sometimes ethereal, sometimes foreboding compositions, shot with a large-format view camera over a four-year period, vary as much as her subject matter, which ranges from radioactive capsules at a nuclear waste storage facility to a black bear in hibernation. In examining that which is integral to America’s foundation, mythology and daily functioning, Simon creates a collection of works that reflect and reveal a national identity.

About the photographer


1975, New York, United States



Based in

New York, United States

About Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon was born in New York in 1975. Her most recent work, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, reveals that which is integral to America’s foundation, mythology and daily functioning, but remains inaccessible or unknown to a public audience. Her earlier work, The Innocents, documents cases of wrongful conviction in the United States and investigates photography’s role in that process.

Simon’s photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally, including solo shows at: the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum Fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.

Permanent collections include: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum Fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; and Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Brown University and a Guggenheim Fellow. Simon has been a visiting artist at Yale University, Bard College, Harvard University and Columbia University. Her photography and writing have been featured in numerous publications and broadcasts including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker,, CNN, BBC and Frontline. Steidl recently published An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Simon’s book Contraband was released in September 2010. Additionally, Simon is currently working on a global project that will be exhibited and published in Spring, 2011. She is represented by the Gagosian Gallery.