Following up on my post about Julie Green’s The Last Supper, I think it is necessary to make an overview of the photography and painting projects that consider America’s death penalty by meals of depicting last meals and last meal requests.

Celia A. Shapiro

Shapiro’s recreations of last meals in lurid colour are possibly the best known within this subject matter. She made the series Last Supper in 2001. Of Shapiro’s work, critic Fred Ritchin said it proves the US only executes poor people. Ritchin’s position might be true, but as Julie Green reminded me most inmates, particularly in Southern states are limited to food from the prison kitchen and usually to a budget of $20.  States that rarely employ the death penalty offer a generous $50 or no limit at all.

In all their garishness, Shapiro’s works are reminiscent of Martin Parr’s work. Parr too photographed the food of the poor; fish and chips, cupcakes, bangers and mash and trays of tea. Whatever Parr claims about objectivity there is a snide judgement in his work. Indeed it is his strength that his pictures show us the true absurdity of many of our dietary mores.

Shapiro’s work disgusts me. It disgust me in a good way. It angers me. Each of Shapiro’s images represent a life extinguished … gassed, cooked, fried. It’s hard to stomach. Good art evokes strong response.

John William Rook, age 27, executed by North Carolina, 9/19/86. © Celia A. Shapiro

James Reynolds

James ReynoldsLast Suppers was well received in 2009 but the interest in his birds-eye view still-lives seemed short-lived. I suspect they were appreciated more for their unorthodox view of a infrequently seen subject and for their role as conversation starter, than they were as lasting pieces of art.

The visual discipline of the institutional orange trays of containing in most cases a bizarre allocations of food, fairly reflects the irrationality of a state killing a citizen.

There is something maddening and suffocating about Reynolds’ ordered still-lifes. The demarcated space of the foodstuffs reminds me of aeroplane meals. For the executed it all comes down to a tightly presented meal, and this is meal is absurd.

© James Reynolds

Jonathon Kambouris

Jonathon Kambouris‘ efforts with The Last Meals Project is roughly contemporary with Reynolds (completed over 2009/2010). Judging by the shadows to the chicken legs, cups of coffee, Kambouris places food items ontop of a blown-up mugshot of a (infamous) inmate mugshot and makes the photograph from directly above, looking down.

Kambouris is tying his desire for a debate about the death penalty to the most renowned and media-coveted men and women. I am not convinced this is a good tactic as (whipped up) emotions about serial killers is not the place to begin a rational discussion on the symbolic foolishness of the death penalty. I think a better place to start a progressive debate – at least within the framework of art – would be Taryn Simon’s The Innocents or the painter Dan Bolick’s Resurrected. The existence of innocence on America’s death rows is a powerful argument working in favour of death penalty abolition.

One footnote to add is my astonishment at Kambouris’ statement at Feature Shoot: “In 2010 this photo essay traveled to Singapore to be shown in the Singapore Fringe Festival: Art and the Law. Ironically, Singapore has an extremely strict death penalty stance and I was informed that it is part of school curriculum to watch an execution take place.” Kids spectating murder? Can that be true?

Name: Ted Bundy; Last meal: Steak, eggs, hash browns, coffee; Sentence: Death by electric chair; Executed: January 24, 1989, 7:16am; State: Florida. © Jonathon Kambouris

Mat Collishaw

Mat Collishaw goes all Flemish Master on his last meals. Except it isn’t the girl with the pearl earring chomping down on that lettuce it was Karla Faye Tucker a few hours before she was lethally injected by the State of Texas in 1988. Flemish still lives were part allegories of life, death and cycles of nature but frequently used items of trade as story telling devices. Knowledgable viewers would identify flowers or precious metals from across the globe brought by the Dutch merchants that dominated sea-trade in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the age of supermarkets and year round strawberries, the global food trade and who runs is of little significance. The inference in Collisaw’s work is that America trades in sublime murder.

Found via Art Most Fierce.

Karla Faye Tucker (2010). C-Print, 73 x 60 com (29 x 24 inches) © Mat Collishaw

Jacquelyn C. Black

Black’s … last meal … (Courage Press, 2003) is a curious little publication. It is clearly an act of conscience. The studio photography is very literal without the interpretation we see in other artists’ works. I cannot be sure Black’s prints have ever gone on exhibition. Black pairs images of last meals with text of last statements.

When one is looking at photography in order to draw critical conclusion, it is often the absence if photography (or more precisely, the presence of something unexpected) that can provide the Eureka! moment. I am somewhat desensitised to the issue of state violence; I suspect the emotive response Black and her peers expect of the viewer, I do not deliver. It was therefore, an absent image and text in its place that caught my attention and really drove home the spiteful retribution of execution:



… last meal … includes valuable auxiliary material – on the history of capital punishments; on statements made in landmark legislation; and on US death penalty statistics. Black also lists political resources for anti-death penalty activism.

Name: Anthony Ray Westley
Executed:May 13, 1997
Education: 8 years
Occupation: Laborer
© Jacquelyn C. Black

Barbara Caveng & Ralf Grömminger

Glowing like fast food menu boards but with the deliberateness of illustrations in a noodle bar, Grömminger’s photographs mounted in lightboxes for Caveng’s Final Meals installation are a bit pop. Any illusion of vitality is deflated by the procedural details of the eater’s execution.

Detail from ‘Final Meals’, installation by Barbara Caveng, 2000. Backlit boxes: Steelcases (40 x 40 x 18cm) with a pane on one side to pull, showing the execution protocol. Two audiostations with final statements. Meals photographed by Ralf Grömminger

Kate MacDonald

“The leftover table scraps relate the humanity of the condemned to our own ordinary experience,” says Kate MacDonald of her painted Last Meals series. That’s a bit poetic for me. More powerful is the fact these plates are empty. The remnants of sauce and chicken bone are primordial and bloody. Just as these items were devoured, so too will be the body that consumed them. Despite the polystyrene cup and plastic cutlery there is something very animalistic about MacDonald’s oil paintings.

Last Meals featured in the Texas Moratorium Network’s exhibit Justice For All? Artists Reflect on the Death Penalty, in which MacDonald and peers considered the injustices embedded within the death penalty; “Mental health and lack of advocacy, racial discrimination, poverty, and at the issue’s most basic argument, the possible innocence of the executed.”

The last meal of Ruben Cantu, believed to be wrongfully convicted and executed in Texas. (24 x 20 inches), oil on canvas. © Kate MacDonald

As of May 2009, there had been 1165 U.S. state-sanctioned executions since 1976.

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UPDATE: August 19th 2012

Two more projects.

Helen Grace Ventura Thompson

Ventura Thompson’s website. Her work in The Guardian. My thoughts.

© Helen Grace Ventura Thompson


Julia Ziegler-Haynes

Ziegler-Haynes’ website. Her work.

© Julia Ziegler-Haynes

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UPDATE: December 14th, 2012

Henry Hargreaves

Hargreaves‘ No Seconds is a series of 10 stark photographs that re-create last meals alongside the name, age and conviction of the murdered individual. See more of his work on Raw File,


© Henry Hargreaves

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UPDATE: January 29th, 2013

Patrick Guns

For My Last Meals, 2007-2009, Guns asked 54 chefs to interpret 54 last meals.

“From this list of last meals, I asked renowned chefs to choose a meal according to their affinity for cooking and to recreate these last wills without any fear of asserting their own Humanism. As a tribute to a deceased man, their creations are more concerned about Man than about the Cook,” writes Guns.


© Patrick Guns

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If you have any other projects that need adding to the list, please get in touch.

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