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selfie

Final Words, launched today, is a sprawling documentary project that focuses on the humanity at center of the death penalty in America. It is the brainchild of photographer Marc Asnin known for his brick of a book Uncle Charlie. Well, this project takes Asnin from the personal to the political, but it is no less massive. Asnin’s got form.

Asnin is asking photographers and non-photographers alike to submit selfies as statements against the death penalty. I’ll get to that in a moment but first the project and the cause.

FINAL WORDS

Final Words is a book and traveling exhibition, featuring the final statements of the 515 prisoners executed by the state of Texas since 1982Final Words will shape and deliver curricula to American high-schoolers. If we can get the youngest generation talking then perhaps we can engineer a future without the barbaric death penalty?

The project statement explains that more than one person every month for thirty-one years has been executed by the Lone Star State:

Just before the execution is completed, each prisoner is given the opportunity to share their final thoughts. […] It is their words, their final words in this life, that allow the reader to experience the underlining humanity central to the death penalty debate. […] Final Words comprises a part of the legacy that will live on beyond us and it will stand as a testament to the kind of society we were—who our criminals were and how we implemented our idea of justice. Final Words interrogates our presuppositions about the death penalty. […] While this book is a document of death—the death of both the guilty and innocent, the criminals and the victims—it attempts to create a dialogue about life.

All this takes a movement. And money. An IndieGogo campaign will launch in a months time.

The editioned Final Words books will cost a pretty penny. Their sales will help raise money to pump simpler versions of the content and curricula into the bloodstream of the education system.

Each page of the book features a prisoner’s mug shot, their age both at the time of the crime and when they were put to death, a description of the crime for which they stand convicted, and their final words.

Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty

In other efforts to corral some cash, Neverland Publications (cofounded by Asnin) and VII Association are collaborating on Photographers Selfie Against the Death Penalty, an international photo campaign to call for an end to executions in America. Highflying pixelmakers & imagershakers will submitting alongside us flailing Instagram plebs.

Note that the word “selfie” is used as a verb. I like that. Jury’s out as to how much a collection of selfies can effect entrenched moral politics, but it’s worth a try. Social media does nothing if not surprise regularly. And besides, all this just gets people talking ahead of Final Words‘ big fundraising campaign that ignites in October.

As the 501c3 sponsor of the project, VII Photo has asked all its photographers to participate in the selfie campaign. Get yourself in there too:

1. Make a selfie, save it to your computer.
2a. Upload selfie to http://www.final-words.org
2b. Fill out form (name, age, email address, location, how you heard about Photographers Selfies Against the Death Penalty, your preferred photography genre)
2c. Personalize your statement against the death penalty, by completing the following “I stand against the death penalty because …” in 140 characters or less.

Go on, selfie against the machine!

[Oh, if you’re wondering how and why Asnin and his colleagues have the last statements of 515 men and women, it is because for some reason the state of Texas keeps a public online database of them. Weird, no?!]

PROTEST

The 15th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty takes place in Houston, Texas on Saturday October 25th at 2pm. Details on the exact location in Houston will be announced later.

 

AmyElkinsPartingWords

Amy Elkins‘ latest body of work Parting Words is a visual representation of every execution in the state of Texas since the ban on capital punishment was overturned in 1976.

Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.

Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?

Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.

Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.

The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.

PP: What was the impulse then?

AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.

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PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?

AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.

A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions.  But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.

I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.

That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.

PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?

AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.

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PP: Are you afraid of death?

AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.

PP: Where do we go when our time is up?

AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.

PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?

AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them.  This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.

PPAnything else you’d like to add?

AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.

PP: Thanks, Amy.

AE: Thank you, Pete.

AmyElkinsPartingWords

ELKINS ELSEWHERE

In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.

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