With a large-format camera and a knack for talking her way into forbidden zones, Taryn Simon photographs portions of the American infrastructure inaccessible to its inhabitants.

Why you should listen

Taryn Simon is a multidisciplinary artist working in photography, text, sculpture and performance. Guided by an interest in systems of categorization and classification, her practice involves extensive research into the power and structure of secrecy and the precarious nature of survival. Simon’s works have been the subject of exhibitions at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen (2016-17), The Albertinum, Dresden (2016), Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague (2016), Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2016), Jeu de Paume, Paris (2015), Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2013); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012); Tate Modern, London (2011); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2011); and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2007). 

In An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Taryn Simon gains entrance to places as diverse as a white tiger breeding facility, the JFK Airport quarantine area, a nuclear waste treatment site and virus-research labs. In doing so, she brings to light that which is integral to America's foundation, mythology and daily functioning, but remains inaccessible or unknown to a public audience. In her earlier book, The Innocents, Simon documents cases of wrongful conviction in the US, calling into question photography's function as a credibly witness and arbiter of justice. 

In A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, Simon captures the essence of vast, generation-spanning stories through photography, text and graphic design. To create this ambitious project, she spent four years traveling the world, researching and recording bloodlines. The subjects that Simon documents include victims of genocide in Bosnia, test rabbits infected with lethal disease in Australia, the first woman to hijack an aircraft, and the living dead in India. In her second TED Talk, Simon delves into several of these "chapters", investigating the nature of genealogy and the ways in which our lives are shaped by the collision of external forces, including territory, power, circumstance and religion, with the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance.

After premiering at the Tate Modern in London and at Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, Simon's A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII exhibited at MoMA in New York, followed by the Ullens Center in Beijing, where the work was subject to censorship despite one of its chapters having originally been developed by the artist in collaboration with China's Office of Foreign Propaganda. 

Permanent collections include Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, the Guggenheim Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her work was included in the 56th Venice Biennale (2015). Simon’s installation, An Occupation of Loss (2016), co-commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Artangel, premiered in New York in 2016. The performance will be held again in London in 2018. Simon is a graduate of Brown University and a Guggenheim Fellow. She lives and works in New York. 

Read design mind's Q&A with Taryn Simon >>

What others say

“"In a historical period in which many people are making such great efforts to conceal the truth from the mass of the people, an artist like Taryn Simon is an invaluable counter-force. Democracy needs visibility, accountability, light ... Somehow, Simon has persuaded a good few denizens of hidden world not to scurry for shelter when the light is switched on, as cockroaches and vampires do, but to pose proudly for her invading lens ..."” — Salman Rushdie

Taryn Simon’s TED talks

More news and ideas from Taryn Simon

In Brief

A celebrated building turns 50…and other TED news

May 5, 2017

Behold, your recap of TED-related news: Habitat turns 50! First conceptualized in 1961 as part of architect Moshe Safdie’s thesis at McGill University, Habitat 67 has gone on to inspire several generations of architects. Combining high-rise living with community connection, Habitat’s concrete cluster of homes challenged the contemporary notions of apartment complexes and Brutalist architecture. […]

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Photographing secret sites: Taryn Simon on TED.com

September 24, 2009

Taryn Simon exhibits her startling take on photography — to reveal worlds and people we would never see otherwise. She shares two projects: one documents otherworldly locations typically kept secret from the public, the other involves haunting portraits of men convicted for crimes they did not commit. (Recorded at TEDGlobal 2009, July 2009, in Oxford, […]

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Taryn Simon at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 8

July 23, 2009

Taryn Simon at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 8: July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson Taryn Simon is a photographer whose subjects are often as fascinating as her images. This morning, she launches into a series of photographs from her amazing collection An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. She […]

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