Last year, I listed a swathe of projects that photographed similar representations.
© Helen Grace Ventura Thompson
Despite these numerous projects, execution is still an invisible act. Perhaps rightly so – it is very gory. But it is gory paid for by tax dollars. The many projects focusing on last meals are reflex actions to this invisibility.
Sometimes the most interesting discussions can arise from the most left-field of questions. In that spirit: We can learn the last words of the executed, but what if we saw a last photo?
A Guardian gallery explains Thompson’s work, “The idea behind the project was to juxtapose the morbid context surrounding the meal with the relative mundanity of the food itself.”
The dissonance between morbid and mundane may jolt people. I hope that a jolt may kickstart conversations, because without a debate to follow then Thompson’s images and those like them are little more than studio experiments.
Food unites us all so we should be compelled by these images, one would think. What would you choose to eat before being fried or poisoned? Yet, for me, food photography is so ubiquitous it’s boring – I’m as uninterested by commercial gigs with painted food-props as I am by Instagram shots of my friend’s friend’s appetizer.
I also feel a little uncomfortable with the reverence laid over the photos of last meals, especially in light of the ultimate act of violence unleashed shortly after that last bite. Prisoners I have spoken to always talk about the inescapable noise of prisons. Photography is a quiet medium and these photographs are quieter than most.
I accept that Thompson’s job wasn’t to meet my unorthodox wandering thoughts, but I feel short-changed by her images. I wonder who makes the meals that Thompson references? And where do they get eaten? We’ve seen photographs of electrocution and gas chambers; bullet-ridden firing squad chairs; video tours of death houses; portraits of condemned men; and a photograph of a stainless steel table at which a last meal is eaten, but never see a photo of someone actually chowing down their last meal. Does anyone sit down with them?
Thompson’s style mimics fine art painted still lives and as such the reality, the noise, and the act of eating (or in some cases, a prisoner’s choice not to eat) are lost. Time is lost. Scott Langley has done the best job of reinserting time into a body of images documenting the most final of events.
Would a photographer following the acts (and meal) of a condemned man or woman be as distasteful as people witnessing his or her death from behind mirrored glass? If so, what’s the alternatives? Could we imagine allowing a condemned man or woman – with a disposable camera – to document his or her own murder, should they choose to? We see images of, and by, dead people all the time. The environment for executions is so controlled and sanitised they’d be quite boring pictures … until the subject turned the camera on him or herself. That’d be dripping with emotion; that shot would have a time stamp. That type of shot falls the other end of the scale to Thompson’s distantly crafted images.
Think about it. The media formula for executions is to report the last meal, the last words, the last breath and the last body spasms. Wouldn’t you be far more interested in seeing the last image? An image made by a person who knew they were about to die? Isn’t that the shot that no one else could ever get?