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There are hidden worlds everywhere, worlds just beyond the public one: film studio archives, medical labs that blood gets sent to. Unless you work in one of these areas you’d mostly not get to see them. Taryn Simon, in her project and book An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, takes us to some of these places. The image below, for example, shows European finches imported illegally in quarantine after being seized by authorities.

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[image: © Taryn Simon 2007]

This one here is cannabis being grown for research at the National Centre for Natural Products Research in Mississippi:

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[image: © Taryn Simon 2007]

These images are presented with blocks of text that explain their context (click on the images to see the text from Simon’s website). On their own the pictures are enigmatic, but once they are explained, a whole new realm of inquiry opens up. We’re aware of course that there are hidden networks underneath all the ordinary things around us. The confiscated food at the airport must go somewhere, the forensic investigators must practice on real bodies somewhere. Simon shows us these places. It’s photography not as explanation or an end in itself as but more as a question. These pictures make an interesting contribution to the discussion of how much photographs in general are indexical (like an imprint), iconic (a sign that resembles the thing being referred to), or symbolic (a sign having an arbitrary connection to its referent). The title (An American Index . . .) suggests that these photographs, these imprints off the real, don’t make much sense, and their significance comes from how much they refer to institutions and practices in the world, in other words, things that can’t really be seen in a photograph. So do we still need these photographs? I’d say so, because they ask the question: what’s going on here? And they ask so eloquently.