What is smuggled into the U.S.? Photog documents what didn't make it past customs

customs agent searching a boxThey've discovered eight-inch-long African snails, hundreds of thousands of fake Viagra tablets and 17 bags of undeclared citrus peels.

At international airports across the U.S.-- and indeed around the world -- customs officials are continually challenged by the astonishing array of goods people try to smuggle past them.

As more travelers fly across borders, they leave in their wake a trail of contraband goods forgotten in cavernous airport store rooms.

Much of it is downright illegal, including flora, fauna, the active ingredient in Botox, and counterfeit purses and jewelry. Other items are downright bizarre, including gold dust, cow manure tooth powder, a plastic pitcher of salami and over-proof Jamaican rum.

All of these and more were cataloged extensively by award-winning photographer Taryn Simon, who was granted unprecedented access to contraband seized by customs agents at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Simon spent five uninterrupted days last November -- only taking brief cat naps on an air mattress stretched out under the hanger's unremitting fluorescent lights -- photographing items detained or seized from international passengers at the U.S.' busiest port of entry for international air passengers.

"The exhaustive pace at which she photographed paralleled the twenty-four-hour rhythm by which goods move across borders and time zones," reads an announcement of the opening of an exhibit Wednesday at Beverly Hills' Gagosian Gallery featuring Simon's work. The show will appear through Nov.6.

The show, entitled "Contraband," features 1,075 photographs of more than 1,000 items seized at JFK. A 500-page book under the same title is due to be released soon. The show will also appear at New York's Lever House from Sept. 30 through Dec. 31.

A sampling of the unusual items included in the exhibition, including dead guinea pigs, unknown meat in a plastic water bottle, bongs, a deer penis and scores of pirated "Lost" DVDs, can be viewed in a slide show compiled by the New York Times.

The stark photographs--all items are pictured against a neutral gray background--are a way to understand American identity through what we're allowed to consume by the federal government and what we're not, Simon told CNN.

"You confront American desire through the endless counterfeit goods that traffic through customs," said Simon, a graduate of Brown University and a Guggenheim Fellow.

"There's a numbing repetition to its mainstays -- Louis Vuitton bags, Nike sneakers, counterfeit gold, counterfeit Viagra, illegal steroids," she added. "The photographs collectively build a portrait of escape and consumerism."
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