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Julie Green in her studio. Photo Credit: Pete Brook

I recently visited Julie Green at her studio in Corvalis, Oregon. For the past twelve years, between her responsibilities as Professor of Art at Oregon State University, Green has been painting plates. Each plate quietly marks the life of a man or woman executed in the US and each depicts their final meal request.

Green’s The Last Supper has steadily grown down the years. There are now approximately 450 plates in the series and, when exhibited, they come together in a ghostly feast of absent eaters. I imagine a toast to the fury and retribution of US society.

The Last Supper exhibited at Oregon State University (OSU). Photo credit: Doug Russell

Green acquires all her plates from thrift stores and bargain barns. Her preference is plain white plates, but she’ll tolerate flashes of navy or gold. The plates showing the last meals of female prisoners are occasionally a little more elaborate and may include floral decorations.

Two plates partially complete, for The Last Supper series, Julie Green’s studio, Corvalis, Oregon. Photo Credit: Julie Green

In some instances, last meals were refused and a statement was offered instead. Although, Green withholds the identity of the inmates, cursory internet sleuthing can pair meals with murdered prisoners. Writes Kelly Klaasmeyer for Houston Press:

Odell Barnes, Jr. [was] a Texas death row inmate. Barnes’s case caught international attention and caused Pope John Paul II to urge then governor, and presidential candidate, George W. Bush to show “compassion.” Barnes was executed, and Green has painted his last request on a gold-rimmed oval plate: “Justice, equality, peace.”

The Last Supper exhibited with Odell Barnes Jr.’s ‘Justice Equality Peace’ plate in the foreground. Photo credit: Aswin Subanthore

Mineral paint and Julie’s hand. Photo credit: Pete Brook

Green uses mineral paint, sometimes called porcelain paint. “I often add cobalt blue pigment to the mineral paint. Sometimes Nassau blue,” says Green. The paint slides across the reused plates and the effect is one of translucent foodstuffs. To fix the paint, Technical advisor Toni Acock kiln-fires each plate at 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Kiln firing plates, January 2011. Photo credit: Deborah Gangwer

Finding out the last meal requests from across the States is not complicated work. As a matter of process, the last meal is usually included in media coverage. Until 2003, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice published its own online record of last meal requests. Green will also write to state authorities; the information is public record and always forthcoming. The fact that the details of last meals secured as part of procedure, and as part of the service of information to the wider public, is both significant and perplexing to Green. Why our fascination?

The Last Supper: Georgia 26th June 2007. Four fried pork chops, collard greens with boiled okra and “boiling meat”, fried corn, fried fatback, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, lemonade, one pint of strawberry ice cream and three glazed donuts. Mineral paint fired on to porcelain, 9″ x 15″

In keeping with her other projects, The Last Supper is an act of meditation. (Green was diligently painting shells on sheets with fabric paint before, during and after the Gulf oil spill of 2010.) Through the act of painting, Green takes on a critical awareness that – unfortunately – many of us choose to ignore. The Last Supper is both a remarkable dedication to mindful art practice and, for Green, an unsettling focus on violence.

“I think about food, choice, and whether inmates are able to eat the food they order,” says Green. “Specific food requests, often-local specialties, provide clues on region, race, and economic level.”

I don’t think Julie would mind me calling her a foodie (she made some hearty organic soup and bread for us to share), and so to her it is logical that the connection between the body, health and living intertwine with circumstance of education, socialisation and (potential) institutionalisation.

Aware of “the heinous crimes committed, the victims, the individuals executed, the large number of minorities on death row, and the margin for error in judicial process” Green is undoubtedly invested in the politics of prisons and anti-death penalty. And yet her response as an artist is apt, personal and all the more powerful for it. If she is angry, it is quiet anger.

Many photographers have chosen last meals as their subject. Possibly the best known is Celia Shapiro. Critic Fred Ritchin has referred frequently to Shapiro’s work saying that its power lies in the food choices of men and women clearly of lower economic status, but Green corrected this view; often a choice is not ‘choice’. Prisoners in most states have a budget of $20. “Inmates in some states are limited to food available in the prison kitchen,” says Green “There is a great deal of red meat but few lobsters, no sushi, and no Godiva chocolate.” The chocolate is usually Hershey’s.

Julie Green’s self-made reference book of food images. Photo credit: Julie Green

Plate from The Last Supper series waiting to be fired. Firing seals and dries the mineral paint. Photo credit: Pete Brook

The Last Supper plates were first displayed at University of Liverpool Art Museum, UK in 2000.

Later they have been on show at the University of California at Santa Cruz; Copia American Center of Food, Wine and the Arts, Napa, CA; Oregon State University, Corvalis; The Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle; The Hunter Museum of American Art, Tennessee; Living Arts, Oklahoma; Fort Collins MOCA, Colorado; The Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas; The Mulvane University Museum of Art, Kansas; Reed College, Portland, OR; and DiverseWorks, Texas.

Awaiting their next outing, the plates are numbered, ordered and locked in Green’s basement. I found some irony in that.

And when is The Last Supper project complete? “I’ll stop painting plates when the US ceases with the death penalty,” says Green.

Between exhibitions, Green stores the plates in her basement. These sixteen tubs contain approximately half of the collection. Photo credit: Pete Brook

In 2003, Green was interviewed about The Last Supper on the NPR program The Splendid Table.

In 2008, The Last Supper was shown as part of the San Francisco State University show Criminal along with artists such as William Pope. L and Deborah Luster. Green’s work was included in the follow up book PRISON/CULTURE, (Ed. Bliss, Sharon E., Kevin B. Chen, Steve Dickison, Mark Dean Johnson & Rebeka Rodriguez) and published by City Lights. In 2010, I reviewed PRISON/CULTURE as “simultaneously a consolidation of achievement, a fortification of resources and celebration of resistance. PRISON/CULTURE may be a book with a Californian focus, but it has national and international relevance. Succinct, well researched, egalitarian and lively. For me, PRISON/CULTURE is the best collection of works by any US prison reform art community up until this point in history.”

FURTHER READING: FOOD AND DEATH

Cabinet Magazine: Debt, Guilt, and Hungry Ghosts: A Foucauldian Perspective on Bigert’s and Bergström’s Last Supper

Famous Last Meals blog

Dead Man Eating blog

Food in the Arts: The da Vinci Mode: Last Suppers, Old & New

THE DEATH PENALTY ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY

Media and the Aftermath of an Execution: Poring Over the Apparatus of Death

Louisiana Sues Its Own Death Row Prisoners

“I Oppose The Death Penalty”

Photographer Scott Langley talks about the Death Penalty

STATISTICS

On her website, Green provides the following statistics.

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

438 Texas
103 Virginia
90   Oklahoma
67   Missouri
67   Florida
43   North Carolina
45   Georgia
42   South Carolina
42   Alabama
27   Louisiana
27   Arkansas
28   Ohio
23   Arizona
19   Indiana
14   Delaware
13   California
12   Nevada
12   Illinois
10   Mississippi
6     Utah
5     Maryland
4     Washington
3     Montana
3     Nebraska
3     Pennsylvania
3     Kentucky
2     Oregon
5     Tennessee
1     Connecticut
1     Colorado
1     Idaho
1     Wyoming
1     South Dakota
0     New Hampshire
0     Kansas
3     U.S Federal Government

States without the death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington D.C.

Source: The Death Penalty Information Center

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Scott Langley has orbited the protests, prison protocols and politics of execution for over ten years. Judged by sheer coverage, his activism with the camera is without equal.

Capital punishment is one of the major failings of the US criminal justice system – it also remains one of the most divisive. Prison Photography was grateful to pick Scott’s brain about America’s current death industry, the legal landscape and his personal involvement.

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We agreed that it would be wise to focus on Scott’s coverage of Troy Davis’ stay of execution.

Troy Davis‘ case is currently the most high-profile death penalty case in America. It has become a focus for anti-death penalty activists not only because a man’s life is on the line, but also because so many doubts have been brought to bear on the original jury verdict. Through Davis’ case, society is realising that juries are fallible, eye-witness testimonies are unreliable, proceedings can be flawed and fatal errors have been made … continue to be made.

Prison Photography: What were you first, a photographer or an activist against the death penalty?

Scott Langley: I was first a photographer, working for my college newspaper and yearbook. I didn’t become active on the death penalty until a human rights class my senior year that challenged me to use photography as a tool to report on the death penalty.

PP: Your portfolio of images documenting executions, prisons, vigils, families and celebrities is the most comprehensive of any photographer currently working in the United States. Did you envisage your project would become so large, and important?

SL: I never thought it would get this far, cover so many facets, and continue for so long (over 10 years now). As I said, it started as a class project, but I quickly realized the importance of such historical documentation and the effect it could have on an important issue.

PP: This work is obviously borne of your political position, but you also work as a freelance photographer to earn a living. Are your conflicted or compromised by pressures of time and money?

SL: I am proud to say I am not compromised by pressures of time and money. I live a very non-traditional lifestyle, for the sole purpose of maintaining an emphasis on my political activism on a number of human rights issues. I do work for pay as a self employed photographer – picking up news assignments, weddings, and other photo jobs as they come up. But those take up minimal time. Of course working for pay “as it comes up” requires living a bit more simply than the average person. I run my car off of used vegetable oil. I grow much of my own food. I do all my shopping at thrift stores, yard sales, dumpsters. All these things greatly reduce the need for money, which in turn allows me to work on the death penalty photo project and my political action full time, and neither of those pays much, if anything.

PP: You are particularly well connected with the capital punishment abolitionist movements of Texas, Massachusetts and North Carolina. Describe those territories and the current legislative and cultural situations in those states.

SL: My work in North Carolina is the most in-depth and extensive. I was only there two years, but it was two years engrossed full-time in the death penalty debate. North Carolina obviously is a southern state. And it is the southern states that leads in executions and death sentencing. At the time I was there (2004-2006), North Carolina was the number two executing state, only behind Texas. And the death row was 6th largest in the United States.

But the momentum there has shifted. There hasn’t been an execution there in almost 3 years now. And more people have been found innocent on death row. And right now, as I sit here, NC is considering the Racial Justice Act, a bill that provides those on death row the ability to appeal their case due to race discrimination at the time of trial (which is a huge, huge problem in the south).

North Carolina has come close to legislatively putting a moratorium on executions. There is real hope of ending the death penalty in NC in the near future.

In Texas, where my work began, it is a whole other world. Texas executes by far the most people – more than most countries combined. There are some great organizations and activists in Texas, but there is little hopeful movement in the legislature to end or limit the death penalty. In fact, Governor Perry just oversaw his 200th execution. And to think, the media gave Bush a hard time about 152 executions back when he ran for president in 2000.

Massachusetts is in a whole different position. The Commonwealth ended the death penalty in the 1980s, and hasn’t had an execution since the 1940s. Capital punishment came close to reinstatement back in the late 1990s, but has since seen a decline in support in the Governor and legislative bodies. It will be a death penalty free state as far as I can see, although there is the real threat of federal capital prosecutions there.

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PP: Explain precisely your opposition to the death penalty. Is it a religious, moral, political, ethical or philosophical stance?

SL: It started as ethical. I first learned about the death penalty through a human rights history class, where we also studied the holocaust, genocide, war… all those gruesome atrocities carried out by governments – even democratically elected governments. I learned right away the grave danger of giving the state the power to kill – to choose who lives and who dies. The class took me down many roads since then, and so my opposition covers all facets – religious, philosophical (arguments I love, but can never wrap my mind around on my own), moral, political… the whole gamut of reasons. It is now to the point where I just cannot fathom how anyone, for any reason, could justify the taking of a human life.

PP: Bill Richardson recently signed in a moratorium of the death penalty in New Mexico, joining 14 other states to ban the death penalty. How much of a victory is this?

SL: It is a huge victory. It made what happened in New Jersey the year before not just a random occurrence dependent on a liberal governor or a certain regional mentality, but part of a movement and a trend. It will cause waves of effect – and it has. Colorado, Montana, Maryland, Connecticut, North Carolina … they are all very close to drastically changing the way the death penalty will be used – or hopefully, not used.

PP: In banning the death penalty, Governor Richardson put aside his personal opinion (support) for the death penalty cited a lack of trust in the cogs of the criminal justice system to act as “the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and dies”. The death penalty is actually a procedure of criminal justice that affects a small minority of convicted criminals. What are your thoughts on the prison system as a whole.

SL: The whole prison system is a complete failure. We’ve got the majority of people locked up for harsh sentences for mere drug possession. We’ve got a system that has no policy or effort to rehabilitate. We’ve got a system that spits people back out into the exact same environments that put them in prison in the first place. And meanwhile, there is extreme racism, abuse and torture within the whole system and the walls of the prisons. Not to mention that the taxpayers are funding all of this. It is just maddening that we don’t have a better way of doing things. It is obvious that it is not working. We have a higher per capital imprisonment rate than any other country in the world, including China. Prison in the U.S., as it is, serves no positive function for the vast majority of those who go through it.

PP: Describe from personal experience the attitudes toward capital punishment in the US compared to other nations you’ve visited.

SL: During the summer of 2000, I spent six weeks backpacking through Western Europe, with camera gear in tow, to photograph sites connected with the death penalty issue in Europe’s history. This was the summer of the heated U.S. presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Because of the impending election and Bush’s history with state sanctioned killing, the Texas death penalty had become the forefront of much political conversation. When I met folks in Europe and mentioned that I was from Texas (born and raised), the first thing that always came out of their mouth was something about the death penalty. They just could not fathom how a nation, so “advanced” and “great” as the USA, could go about with a barbaric and failed practice of exterminating prisoners – at a rate of nearly 2 per week. It was a stigma that was held against me everywhere I went.

I acknowledge that not all Europeans are whole-heartedly anti-death penalty. There is ongoing talk about whether executions should resume, but it is a real minority view at this point.

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PP: Your project is over 800 pictures deep and touches upon many stories of those affected by the death penalty, but here we have focused on the case of Troy Davis. You were present to document his most recent stay of execution. Give us your thoughts on the case.

SL: Troy Davis‘ case is particularly disturbing. People who support the death penalty are starting to ask questions about this case. Even a former Georgia official publically stepped up to question why there hasn’t been a hearing of the new evidence to prove Troy’s innocence. When you have 7 out of 9 trial witnesses saying they lied, and were even coerced into lying by the police, you have to stop and say there is a problem here. It just baffles (and depresses me) that the courts just won’t hear the new evidence. The system is so caught up in judicial process that there is no humanity whatsoever. But remember, it is human life we are talking about. Real people with real family. The courts need to hear this case, desperately, because it stands for so much that is wrong with our broken system. If we, as a country, fail with the Troy Davis case, we have failed justice, failed humanity and failed all good that could possibly come out of a system designed to right wrongs and keep society safe.

PP: It seems this activism will be with you for life. Is that a fair assumption?

SL: I hope that my activism remains with me for life. There is a great need for people to always be on call to step up and do the right thing. Sometimes that might be little things like challenging the status quo by collecting used grease to run one’s car, and sometimes it might mean crossing a line to risk arrest to stop a greater harm from being done.

PP: What are your hopes for, and activities in, the future?

SL: I hope for an end to the death penalty soon. I hope to always have opportunities to educate people – through photos, through words, and through actions – about these issues of injustice. I have projects in the works to expand the death penalty documentary project and am planning for a cross-country trip in the winter 2010 to make photos in a wider variety of states.

I will continue to follow the Troy Davis case, using my camera as a tool when the opportunity arises.

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View all of Scott Langley’s work here. Scott has also spoken out against sites of incarceration used in America’s global war on enemies. He has presented at the University of North Carolina, partnered with the Innocence Project, worked with Amnesty International, North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, Unitarian Universalists Against the Death Penalty and many, many more. He has also recently started working with video.

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