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Final Words, launched today, is a sprawling documentary project that focuses on the humanity at center of the death penalty in America. It is the brainchild of photographer Marc Asnin known for his brick of a book Uncle Charlie. Well, this project takes Asnin from the personal to the political, but it is no less massive. Asnin’s got form.
Asnin is asking photographers and non-photographers alike to submit selfies as statements against the death penalty. I’ll get to that in a moment but first the project and the cause.
Final Words is a book and traveling exhibition, featuring the final statements of the 515 prisoners executed by the state of Texas since 1982. Final Words will shape and deliver curricula to American high-schoolers. If we can get the youngest generation talking then perhaps we can engineer a future without the barbaric death penalty?
The project statement explains that more than one person every month for thirty-one years has been executed by the Lone Star State:
Just before the execution is completed, each prisoner is given the opportunity to share their final thoughts. [...] It is their words, their final words in this life, that allow the reader to experience the underlining humanity central to the death penalty debate. [...] Final Words comprises a part of the legacy that will live on beyond us and it will stand as a testament to the kind of society we were—who our criminals were and how we implemented our idea of justice. Final Words interrogates our presuppositions about the death penalty. [...] While this book is a document of death—the death of both the guilty and innocent, the criminals and the victims—it attempts to create a dialogue about life.
All this takes a movement. And money. An IndieGogo campaign will launch in a months time.
The editioned Final Words books will cost a pretty penny. Their sales will help raise money to pump simpler versions of the content and curricula into the bloodstream of the education system.
Each page of the book features a prisoner’s mug shot, their age both at the time of the crime and when they were put to death, a description of the crime for which they stand convicted, and their final words.
Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty
In other efforts to corral some cash, Neverland Publications (cofounded by Asnin) and VII Association are collaborating on Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty, an international photo campaign to call for an end to executions in America. Highflying pixelmakers & imagershakers will submitting alongside us flailing Instagram plebs.
Note that the word “selfie” is used as a verb. I like that. Jury’s out as to how much a collection of selfies can effect entrenched moral politics, but it’s worth a try. Social media does nothing if not surprise regularly. And besides, all this just gets people talking ahead of Final Words‘ big fundraising campaign that ignites in October.
As the 501c3 sponsor of the project, VII Photo has asked all its photographers to participate in the selfie campaign. Get yourself in there too:
1. Make a selfie, save it to your computer.
2a. Upload selfie to http://www.final-words.org
2b. Fill out form (name, age, email address, location, how you heard about Photographers Selfies Against the Death Penalty, your preferred photography genre)
2c. Personalize your statement against the death penalty, by completing the following “I stand against the death penalty because …” in 140 characters or less.
Go on, selfie against the machine!
[Oh, if you're wondering how and why Asnin and his colleagues have the last statements of 515 men and women, it is because for some reason the state of Texas keeps a public online database of them. Weird, no?!]
The 15th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty takes place in Houston, Texas on Saturday October 25th at 2pm. Details on the exact location in Houston will be announced later.
Diaz’s left arm had an 11-by-7 inch chemical burn from the lethal drugs. By the time the autopsy began, the superficial skin had sloughed off, revealing white subcutaneous skin. (Source: New Republic)
Yesterday, The New Republic published for the first time a set of photographs of a chemically burnt corpse. The body was that of Angel Diaz, a man executed by the state of Florida in December of 2006.
As author of the piece, Ben Crair explains, “The execution team pushed IV catheters straight through the veins in both his arms and into the underlying tissue.”
Diaz sustained horrendous surface and subcutaneous chemical burns.
“As a result,” Crair continues, “Diaz required two full doses of the lethal drugs, and an execution scheduled to take only 10 to 15 minutes lasted 34. It was one of the worst botches since states began using lethal injection in the 1980s, and Jeb Bush, then the governor of Florida, responded with a moratorium on executions.”
The photographs were made by a Florida medical examiner during Diaz’s autopsy. Crair discovered the photographs in the case file of Ian Lightbourne, a Florida death-row prisoner whose lawyers submitted them as evidence that lethal injection poses an unconstitutional risk of cruel and unusual punishment. While the details of Diaz’s botched execution have been known since 2006, this is the first time visual evidence of the injuries sustained from the lethal injection has been presented publicly.
I’d like to tell you that such images are anomalous, but sadly that is not the case.
I, myself, have seen a set of images of a burnt corpse post execution. The victim in that case was executed in the electric chair. Similarly, in that case, the images were in the possession of a lawyer (who had acquired them through family of the executed) and used in court in argument against the electric chair as cruel and unusual punishment.*1
May I suggest that the photographs of Angel Diaz’ corpse, and all those images like them, be accessioned into the Library of Congress?
If the Library of Congress’ mandate is to preserve those things that are central to American culture; central to the American conscience, dear to this nation’s body politic and truly reflective of our culture, then I hold there is no better collection of images than these.
Between 1890 and 2010, the U.S. has executed 8,776 people. Of those, Austin Sarat, author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty says 276 went wrong in some way. Of all the methods used, lethal injection had the highest rate of botched executions — about 7%.
Photographs of a botched execution are as American as apple pie.
Whether an execution is considered officially “botched” or not, the torture imposed on a body in the minutes before death is unconscionable. Crair pursued the story and the publication of the images, rightly so, in the aftermath of the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.
“The execution team struggled for 51 minutes to find a vein for IV access,” writes Crair, “eventually aiming for the femoral vein deep in Lockett’s groin. Something went wrong: Oklahoma first said the vein had “blown,” then “exploded,” and eventually just “collapsed,” all of which would be unusual for the thick femoral vein if an IV had been inserted correctly. Whatever it was, the drugs saturated the surrounding tissue rather than flowing into his bloodstream. The director of corrections called off the execution, at which point the lethal injection became a life-saving operation. But it was too late for Lockett. Ten minutes later, and a full hour-and-forty-seven minutes after Lockett entered the death chamber, a doctor pronounced him dead.”
CLOSING THE BLINDS
The single detail about the Oklahoma debacle that really stuck in my mind was the state’s decision — upon realising the execution was being botched — to drop the blinds.
The gallery of spectators including press, victim’s family and prisoner’s family lost their privileged view.
In that instance when the blinds dropped, the scene switched from that of official, public enactment of justice to the messy, sick, complicit torture of a human. In that instance, the barbarity of the state revealed itself fully. And the state was ashamed. The public were no longer allowed to see.
The notion — indeed the internal logic of the state — that viewing one type of execution is acceptable and another is not is astounding. By virtue of its actions during Lockett’s botched execution, the state has distinguished between what types of torture (execution) it is acceptable to see. Quick, quiet, seemingly painless = good. Noisy, drawn out, demonstratively torturous = not good.
The distinctions are petty. All executions are cruel and unusual.
At this point, I can only presume those who still support the death penalty are those who subscribe to some pathological eye-for-an-eye illogic. Wake up! The state shouldn’t be involved in murdering people. Especially when we have seen 1 in 10 people locked up for life or on death row for capital offenses later exonerated due to DNA evidence or prosecutorial misconduct. The state shouldn’t be involved in murdering innocent people.
*1 People are under the misconception that the electric chair zaps a person and kills them instantly. This is not the case. Electricity takes the paths of least resistance which is outside of the body. Therefore, tens of thousands of volts serve only to burn the points at which they are attached, namely the lower leg and the skull. Death by electric chair is in fact just boiling the victims brain for 7 seconds. Boiling the brain alive.
Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.
Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?
Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.
Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.
The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.
PP: What was the impulse then?
AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.
PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?
AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.
A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions. But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.
I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.
That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.
PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?
AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.
PP: Are you afraid of death?
AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.
PP: Where do we go when our time is up?
AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.
PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?
AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them. This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.
PP: Thanks, Amy.
AE: Thank you, Pete.
In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.
A single wall representing the meals of men and women executed in Texas, part of Julie Green’s The Last Supper: 500 Plates exhibited at Marylhurst University, Oregon (April 16 – May 17, 2013). Photo: Pete Brook.
In The Make — a new(ish) website that celebrates artists in their crafty environments with dedicated studio visits and conversations — has a smashing feature on my friend and fellow Oregonian Julie Green. It sure beats the 2011 write-up of my visit to Julie’s studio!
I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity and it’s obstacles recently and I think Julie maintains an incredible output. Part of that is the security of teaching for her but mostly it is passion and commitment to connections and getting the work seen. What use is studio time if the products are not then widely shared?
Julie’s The Last Supper which is now 552 plates deep, is broad and grasps solidly the size of the issue it takes on. Bravo to Julie for leveraging the agency she has as an artist.
Pop over to In The Make and read what makes Julie tick. Here’s a snippet:
Shipping and installation of fragile ceramics is quite an undertaking. I am looking for a library or a university or a museum- in Texas would be great—to donate the project on a ten-year loan. The Last Supper is not for sale.
I plan to continue adding fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished. A poet asked if I ever get tired of painting lumpy blue food. No, I don’t.
Oklahoma has higher per capita executions than Texas. I taught there, and that is how I came to read final meal requests in the morning paper. Requests provide clues on region, race, and economic background.
Why is this important? It is because the death penalty is applied unequally depending on the race of the defendant and the victim, not to mention access to adequate counsel, jury bias, prosecutorial misconduct and a whole plethora of factors that make wrongful convictions too frequent to dismiss. End the death penalty and we’ll end the murder of innocent people. As Bryan Stevenson brilliantly puts it, the question isn’t so much does a person deserve to die, it is do we deserve to kill?
Coincidentally, I edited a story for Wired about the work of Klea McKenna who is editor of In The Make. Check out Crumpled and Abused Photo Paper Makes for New Landscape Photography
Death Row with Inmate Mural (Sad Clown) in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York, 2011.
My parents are thinking about moving out of the house I grew up in. They asked me how I felt about it. In truth, I don’t mind one bit. Still, I appreciate them asking. Places hold memories, for sure, and it was mindful of them to ask my brothers and I how we felt about the house, its relationship to our memories, and a future without it. We Brooks, though, are a pragmatic bunch and feel that as soon as the house is vacated it stops being a home and just bricks and mortar for others to occupy and make their own memories. Likewise, we Brooks will make newer memories in my parents’ new home when we gather for holidays and so forth.
This occurred to me as I was browsing Emily Kinni‘s series Sites Of Execution. Kinni is interested in how quickly the function and memory of places change and her pictures demonstrate how rapidly change can occur. She has photographed not just former sites of execution in the U.S. but, specifically, the former sites of execution in the 17 states that have abolished capital punishment. If the places in Kinni’s hold memories they are violent, sad, retributive and final.
Original Execution Chamber. Electric Chair and Lethal Injection. Now Unused Conference Room in the New Jersey State Prison. New Jersey, 2011.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Lobby of the State office Department. Alaska, 2011.
I noted Kinni’s work 18-months ago, with criticisms that the series was not complete and that her statement was unintentionally misleading. I am pleased to report that my ‘Watch This Space’ caution has been met with a well-rounded project. Kinni’s survey of the sites (which took over two years) is thorough and her elusive images require work by the viewer to decipher what’s going on. The variety of reused spaces are convincing reminders of how fleetingly history and memory deal with even the most traumatising events.
Interestingly, Kinni is not a crusader for the abolition movement; her images are not intended as a call to challenge death penalty laws in 33 states … and nor do they read that way.
“My affinity for these sites, cannot be considered without the political and historical issues of the death penalty, but it isn’t where it begins,” says Kinni. “My interest is in the evolution of these sites – how places for execution are changed and what the sites become eliminating their historical relevance.”
Many photographers have dealt with memory and landscape by contrasting their images of seemingly benign sites with captions that describe past horrors or crimes. Four worth mentioning would be Eva Leitolf‘s Looking For Evidence – a survey of hate crimes in Europe; Jessica Ingram‘s A Civil Rights Memorial – photographs of hate crimes in America; Joel Sternfeld‘s Landscape In Memoriam – photographs of interpersonal, corporate and environmental crimes; and Taryn Simon‘s The Innocents – an obfuscation of memory and testimony.
Tensions between apparently innocuous images and their factual captions will always capture my attention. Such purposeful tensions are engaging.
Old Sparky, West Virginia Penitentiary. 2011 (left); Leather Mask and Three Switches, West Virginia Penitentiary. 2011 (right).
Gas Chamber on the Spectator Side. Gas Chamber. Still sits in the now abandoned New Mexico State State Penitentiary. New Mexico, 2011.
Original Execution Chamber. Electric Chair. Now a Vocational Space in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York, 2011.
Some of Kinni’s sites are no longer prisons and she was helped with her research by local experts.
“I was fortunate enough to meet people among a select few – if not the only people living – who possess facts and documents about where the last executions took place,” says Kinni. “They owned historical evidence within their personal collections and homes that didn’t exist elsewhere. Without their knowledge, I would have been at a huge loss.”
In other cases, where prison space has been repurposed, Kinni experienced the same labyrinthine negotiations common of prison photography projects.
“The level of negotiation varied state by state,” she says. “The hardest negotiations were in states where people I had begun communication with particular officials, who changed positions or retired unbeknownst to me.”
I like this project. Take a look.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a Janitorial Break Room. Minnesota, 2011.
The Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a parking lot in the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Hawaii, 2012.
Original Site of the Last Execution. Hanging. Now a Department Store. Rhode Island, 2012.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a Residence. Wisconsin, 2012.
Original site of the Execution Chamber. Was last used as a basketball court for inmates until the Prison closed. The chamber has been recreated using original materials inside the prison walls in its own museum. Electric Chair. West Virginia Penitentiary, 2011.
Original Site of Execution, Hanging. The prison was torn down and buried below the field which is now in it’s place. A Sign raises a question of what will be next for the site. Maine, 2012.
Original Site of Execution. Electric Chair. Now a Retirement Home. Vermont, 2012.
Original Site of Execution, Electric Chair. The prison was torn down and is now a highway lane. Massachusetts, 2012.
Gas Chamber, Closed, New Mexico State Penitentiary. 2011 (left); Gas Chamber, Open, New Mexico State Penitentiary, 2011 (right).
Site of the Original Execution Chamber, Hanging. Now Empty Space inside Iowa State Penitentiary. Iowa, 2011.
Photo: Leah Nash for The New York Times. Plates in “The Last Supper,” a show that features Julie Green’s plates depicting death-row meals.
A couple of years ago, I visited the studio of artist Julie Green. I was compelled to do so because I was convinced that her The Last Supper project was more relevant and hard-hitting than the many, many photo projects about the last meals of the executed.
Kirk Johnson has written The Last Supper for the New York Times:
The underlying and compelling theme of the work is choice. What do people who may have lived for years in prison with virtually no choices at all do with this last one they’re offered? Do they reach back for some comforting reminder of childhood? (Professor Green suspects as much in the cases of meals like macaroni and cheese or Spam.) Do they grasp for foods never tried, or luxuries remembered or imagined? (One condemned man ordered buffalo steak and sugar-free black walnut ice cream; another, fried sac-a-lait fish topped with crawfish étouffée.)
As Green says she won’t stop painting until the death penalty is abolished, there’s a long way to go with this project. It’s great to see it going from strength to strength and pressing the issue to the fore. Bravo, Julie.
Accompanying the show is a 520-page lunker of a book. The Arts Center received sponsorship assistance to publish a full color catalog of the 500 plates. The catalog will be for sale during the exhibit for an introductory price of $50 (after February 16, 2013 the price will go up). To purchase a catalog, please contact Hester Coucke and let her know a good time to contact you during the business week.