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Execution Chamber, Walls Unit, Huntsville (1994), from Texas Death Row @Ken Light

In early October, Ken Light and I sat down to discuss his project and book Texas Death Row (University Press of Mississippi, 1997).

Light was invited to photograph that dark hole of the Lonestar State by Suzanne Donovan, then the Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas. “I said ‘yes’, knowing it would never happen!” Ken was proven wrong when Donovan’s groundwork and contacts sealed access – Light to the cell tiers and Donovan to the visiting room for interviews.

Texas’ death row is no longer located at the Ellis Unit, which murdered people since 1965. In 1999, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) moved death row to the Polunsky Unit, West Livingston, TX.

Light describes the body of work, which consists of 13,000 images, as a historical document. The archive maintains it’s relevance proven recently by the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, of whom Light had “seven or eight photographs.” Light provided an image to the New Yorker for the article Trial By Fire, which explained how bunk arson forensics led to the execution of an innocent man.

Light estimates that between 55 and 65 of the men he photographed have since been executed. He felt a responsibility to inform with his camera. His aim was “to humanise the prisoners; to put a human face on the [death penalty] issue,” says Light “The public face of a death row inmate is the mugshot. When they go to appeal, it’s their mugshot; in the news, their mugshot; and when they’re executed, it’s their mugshot. We wanted to know who these men were. How can you have a discussion about the death penalty when you pathologise these men?”

This issue of invisibility, for Light, extends to prison culture in the U.S. as a whole.

“If the public knew about it and understood it then maybe the culture would change. Maybe we’d invest more in education and in rehabilitation. When it’s out of sight, it is out of mind. If you say someone is going to prison, it doesn’t really mean anything,” says Light.

Even so, Light recognises the limitations of the environment, “The prisoners are going to let you see what they are going to let you see.”

Ken and I talk about his liaison with the TDCJ and then Executive Director Wayne Scott (who now has a prison facility named after him); we talk about the power he asserted on assignment with both inmates and guards; the reactions of staff toward his activity; and his “surreal” meeting with Kerry Cook following Cook’s exoneration after 22 years of wrongful imprisonment. Cook is now a campaigner against capital punishment and prison rape.


Prisoner with mirror (1994), from Texas Death Row © Ken Light

Weight-lifter with makeshift barbells, H-20 wing, work-capable cellblock (1994), from Texas Death Row © Ken Light

Death row inmates in Texas’s Ellis I Unit, with Perry Mason on the TV (1994), from Texas Death Row @ Ken Light

Cameron Todd Willingham on his bunk, in the work-capable cellblock (1994), from Texas Death Row © Ken Light

Inmates playing chess on handmade board, in the administration segregation cellblock (1994), from Texas Death Row. @ Ken Light

Martin Draughon greeting his mother through glass in the visiting room (1994), from Texas Death Row. © Ken Light

Strip Search in the “Shakedown Room” of the visiting area (1994), from Texas Death Row. © Ken Light

Night view of H-Wing cellblock (1994), from Texas Death Row © Ken Light

Bobby West with his cub-scout photograph (1994), from Texas Death Row © Ken Light

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Valley of Shadow and Dreams (2012)

Ken and his wife Melanie have just released Valley of Shadow of Dreams. The book is a photography and literary exploration of California’s Central Valley in the 21st century. Melanie and Ken look at life before, during and after the economic crash and touch upon overlapping issues: the oppression of immigrant workers, agribusiness’ effect upon communities and the environment, unemployment, families, economic volatility and home foreclosures.

Ken Light won Round One in the small claims division of the Superior Court of California in San Francisco on December 23. He claimed unfair business practices under state law because Current TV used his 1994 image of Texas death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham without permission. Light won and Current TV was ordered to pay a retroactive licensing fee and damages to the tune of $588.

Well, Gore survived the count and is up for Round Two. Current TV are claiming their use was “fair use”. Conor Risch of PDN Pulse:

Current TV has appealed to San Francisco Superior Court, where its lawyers will be able to mount a more vigorous defense against Light’s claim.

That will cost Current Media a lot more than simply paying the small claims judgment. But the media company has a self-interested principle to defend: the right to use news photos at will without permission, and without payment. A trial date has been set for April 14.

Again, stay tuned folks …

Ken Light is a career photojournalist and a professor of photojournalism at Berkeley. If anyone is going to push back against the abuse of photographers rights, it’d be him right?

Well, he did. He won a small but symbolic $558

Last year, Light licensed his image of Cameron Todd Willingham to several media outlets coinciding with The New Yorker‘s exposé of dodgy arson forensics and the probable innocence of Willingham.

Current TV was not one of those he dealt with, yet they displayed Light’s image for a couple of months.

Light avoided federal court because it is costly and long-winded and filed a small-claims suit in San Francisco. PDN explains:

Light had charged other users $375 to $400 to license the Willingham image, but he says he would have charged Current TV $2,000 because of how long they displayed the photo. In his claim, he said the $2,000 fee should be tripled as punishment for damages. He added $500 to cover attorney’s fees, for a total claim of $6,500.

What is interesting here, is Light wonders avoiding the impractical, less-reflexive, federal route could be a better option for photographers:

“Yes, I got much less than I thought I deserved. [But] Maybe if we attacked in small claims courts and won, some of these companies might be more careful,”

I think Light has a good point and proven a repeatable tactic.


Postscript: In the summer, I did multiple interviews and one of those was with Light about photographing on Texas’ death row. Everyday, I look at that untranscribed audio file and beat myself up that I haven’t published yet. It’s coming … I promise.

Cameron Todd Willingham in his cell on death row, in 1994. He insisted upon his innocence in the deaths of his children and refused an offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence. © Ken Light.

Read the The New Yorker‘s article Trial by Fire about Cameron Todd Willingham, which asks, “Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?”

Ken Light photographed Willingham fifteen years ago in his death row cell.

Willingham was accused of setting his house alight while his three children slept inside, tried for arson and murder, found guilty and sentenced to death. He always professed his innocence. Willingham was executed on February 17th, 2004. Before and since his execution, evidence supporting his conviction has been brought into question. Eye-witness testimonies conflicted and the fire forensics for the case are considered unreliable.

Recently, I spoke with Ken Light about his Texas Death Row.

The New Yorker only had one photographer to turn to for an image of the incarcerated Willingham. Without Texas Death Row (1994), we would have precious little photographic record of the lives and experiences of Texas’ institutions for the condemned.


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