You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘death row’ tag.


Richard Wayne Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the February 1986 kidnapping and murder of Tammy Livingston in Hurst, Texas. Photographed on Aug. 2, 2000, executed Aug. 22, 2000 (AP Photo/Brett Coomer)

Rian Dundon, photo editor at Timeline, has pieced together 20 years of Texas Death-Row Portraits, a photo-gallery depicting some of the men executed by the state of Texas since the early eighties. The images are made by a host of photographers down the years working for the Associated Press (AP).

“As the only non-local news organization with a guaranteed seat at every execution, the AP is granted special access to prisoners, and as a result the agency has accumulated an unusual set of portraits made shortly before inmates’ executions,” writes Dundon.

Never intended to be seen in aggregate, Dundon argues that the portraits assume a weight and significance when brought together. Prisons are a time capsule so regardless of who is shooting, the visiting booths, prison issue uniforms, standard spectacles and prisoners’ pallid skin are constants throughout. The lighting is artificial adding to the sense of unnaturalness in which the subject and photographer operate. Dundon makes comparison to lauded photographers of our time.

The portraits are uncanny for a wire service. Eerily intimate, carefully composed. There are echoes of Robert Bergman or Bruce Gilden,” he writes.

If art exists here, I’d argue it is not in the individual portraits per se but in Dundon’s grouping. A whole greater than its parts. Looking into the eyes of these condemned men provides a view into the soul of a nation. Here’s a gallery of American vengeance. An album devoted to violence in response to violence.

Last week, for her photos of representations of death row prisoners’ last meals, Helen Grace Ventura Thompson won a Sony Photography Award in the Still Life category.

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?

Thompson has a Twitter and blog.

3 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (river)

It may have been her family member sucked into the U.S. prison system or it might be Amy Elkins‘ curiosity about the darker undercurrents of humanity that led her to pick up a pen and write to Americans on death row and serving life without parole.

Four years ago, Amy opened up communication channels with seven prisoners. “My original fascination was with the idea of being pulled away from society and how that affects people; how it affects memories,” said Amy during a sun-drenched interview in the garden of a Portland coffee shop.

“The whole project has been about searching,” says Amy. “I searched out these men on the internet, then I had to search my motives as to why I write these.” Later, Amy searched news clips and court transcripts to piece together the stories of the persons to whom she’d reached out.

26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was). Portrait of a man having thus far served 26 years in prison (18 of which were out of a deathrow sentence), where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

13 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (river)

Unlike the fates of her condemned correspondents, Amy’s project Black is the Day, Black is the Night has no prescribed end-point.

As she has got know her pen-pals, collaborations have developed; common cell-house objects constructed, photographed and bought; portraits made from the last words of the executed; obscured quotes from the poems of her pen-pal friends; pixelated portraits of dead men walking, whose stories are dominated by the narratives of courts and institutions. Black is the Day, Black is the Night contributes new chapters … in some cases they might ultimately double as eulogies.

Of most interest to Prison Photography are Elkins’ composite landscapes. The catalyst for each is the description of a memory by one of Amy’s pen-pals – childhoods spent under cloudless skies, a born-again fascination with baptism rivers of the South, and wide open desert. Inmates had no access to images and Amy had only access to these scenes through their words. If reality exists for them or us, it’s a feeble reconstruction several steps removed. Searching again, this time through Google images.

To create the distorted landscapes and pixelated portraits, Amy uses a couple of mathematical formulas driven through photoshop. The numbers involved in each formula relate to the age of the pen-pal and the numbers of years they’ve been incarcerated. Amy wants to keep the algorithm under her hat, but it appears the longer they’ve been locked-up the more vague the visages become.

13/32 (Not the Man I Once Was)

12 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (Dying Wish Retama Tree)

14 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (Dying Wish Retama Tree)

Currently, there are approximately 1,500 American citizens on death row.

“To be honest I’d never considered that this country has such a huge population of people on death row,” says Amy.

She began her research by signing up to one of the many online prison pen-pal services. The prisoners are categorized; one option ‘DEATH ROW INMATES’. “I clicked it and it was 50 pages; a sea of faces looking back at me. […] to click on one button and get hundreds of people looking for contact with the outside world. […] it’s difficult to describe. Nerve-racking and unnerving?”

Simultaneously engrossed and “freaked out”, Amy was conscientious in how she progressed. “It was never a photo project! I was just writing. I wrote with them for a year before I did anything with it. […] Part of that had to do with creating my own comfort levels,” explains Amy. “I deliberately contacted people who’d been in for 13 years or more. I didn’t want to write with someone who was angry. I wanted to be in touch with people who were at some sort of peace with the situation, who could look back and have some perspective.”

Of her seven original corespondents, three remain.

One was executed. The letters stopped coming and the news was confirmed through internet news stories. “No one went to his execution – no one from his family, no one from the victim’s family. He was poverty stricken. There was doubt in his case. He very well could not have done any of the things he was accused of. Every letter he wrote said ‘I am innocent’.”

Another pen-pal was released after serving 15 years, “He never contacted me [post-release]. He’s getting on with life. I hope he’s doing well,” says Amy.

A third pen-pal in Nevada wrote to explain that he was working on a novel and had developed a romantic writing relationship with another woman. He broke it off. “I was fascinated by that. It’s weird to be out here free and have them in there with relatively nothing and see them decide not to write. I respect that. They have so little, but they are careful about their time,” says Amy.

Amy’s pen-pal at San Quentin is erratic in his letters, writing after long periods of silence and often emerging from one [mental health] crisis or another. Amy has never felt that they’ve been able to develop a sustained relationship.

Her pen-pal in Mississippi writes on the 10th of every month but his letters are shorter now as he presses his last remaining options for appeal against execution. “From his letters he’s describing that it’ll be up before the year is out,” sighs Amy.

The sixth is in Georgia.

17/35 (Not the Man I Once Was) Portrait of a man having thus far served 17 years out of a deathrow sentence, where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

7 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (forest)

9 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (forest)

The most sharing, personal and colorful letters are from a lifer in the renowned Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Pelican Bay was America’s first SuperMax and currently the focus of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. Of all her pen-pals, Amy can predict most this man’s future “The guy in Pelican Bay is going nowhere.”

On any given day in the U.S., there are 20,000 people held in solitary confinement.

“In California, solitary is a 6’x9′ cell with no windows and a steel door. I don’t think anyone would do well in that situation. People are extracted [from general population] and placed into these cells already upset and then they left to themselves. I don’t think prisoners are going to read the bible 30 times and then be okay,” speculates Amy, “I go stir crazy if I’m in my house for a day without going outside.”

Amy describes the Pelican Bay prisoner’s letters of unusual “formal British” tone. Unusual because he is originally from Tijuana, Mexico. “He must have been reading a lot of books?” wonders Amy.

“His first letter was 15 pages long and he said, very poetically, that he sits in his cell 23 hours a day. Once a day, he is shackled, walked down a corridor, on his own, and let into a concrete pen with 25 foot walls and a metal grate over it. He doesn’t describe it like ‘this is all I have, I can’t stand it here.’ He says he has 60 minutes of freedom, where he just gazes up at the sky; the only aspect of the outside world he can have. And even still, he watches the sky through a metal grate so it is not a pure version of open sky.”

Amy put out an open call for people to send her pictures of the sky. “I started making composites and sent them to him,” says Amy. “He didn’t understand the computer or photoshop. He hung them all up in his cell and wrote me back about how excited he felt being surrounded by skies. That was the first person I made something for and got feedback on. It felt like a collaboration. I started pulling images from other people’s letters. Other guys shared things about past experience, in some case decades prior. I’d repeat the process, make composites and send them.”

The prisoner at Pelican Bay has been in prison for 21 years, in solitary for 16 years. He has experienced another of Amy’s intrigues – juvenile offenders sentenced as adults.

“He went to Juvie, and he’s had no break in his incarceration,” says Amy.

“His mugshot was of him as a 13 year old boy. His profile read ’34 year old man, Pelican Bay State Prison’. But that was the last photo taken of him in the system. I’ve never been politically driven or hugely into criminal law. I’m just a portrait photographer interested in psychology and cultural anthropology. There is something about someone in that level of isolation, I just wanted to reach out. If that makes any sense.”

15/30 (Not the Man I Once Was)

4 Years Out of a Deathrow Sentence (ocean). A penpal 26 years into his sentence in a landlocked prison, described an early childhood memory that haunted him, of walking further and further into the ocean during low tide until the sudden depth and darkness before him overcame him with fear.

26 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (ocean)

Questions of whether or not Amy’s project in some way exploits these men have been floated before. She worked on the Black is the Day, Black is the Night “obsessively” during her Lightwork residency earlier this year.

“During my exit interview, the director expressed concern. How could I be this person in the world, who is fortunate enough to live a nice life, have a gallery, have nice things and focus on these individuals? He wanted to make sure I was ready for those types of questions. But, those question could be asked of all documentary work. It’s not about that; it is about getting the stories out in the world and having people think. I don’t know what people have in their minds [about me]. I’m not some “privileged girl” writing to “savage men”. No. I didn’t come in the project with any type of judgement. I like that I can talk about their stories in a way that’s not conventional. I think it’s correct that we can write; be trusting and share. […] I always write them back and I’m pretty open about my life as well.”

And the pen-pals reactions? “I don’t know if it’s that they’re bored or genuinely fascinated, but they’ve always expressed that they find it intriguing,” says Amy. “They’ve been sought out and they’re being interacted with. I’m not a housewife or someone for a church reaching out in those ways. I am their age and I’m reaching out with mail that’s perhaps a little more interesting than the average.”


To date, Amy has never profited from the project, but if – in the future – someone wanted to pay $10,000 for a landscape? “I’d sell. I’d send them the money. I have sent money to my pen-pals in the past. I have become friends with these men.”

The title, Black is the Day, Black is the Night, derives from a quote in a poem Amy received. “It spoke about that environment so well. The idea of being pulled away from anything. Experiencing no variance. Everything is the same; everything is dark. The poem is mind-blowing. Better for him to describe the situation than me.”

As the afternoon sun waned, and Amy and I squinted at the sky, that much was obvious.

All images © Amy Elkins

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.


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.




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.




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.


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.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories