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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Light describes the body of work, which consists of 13,000 images, as a historical document.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.


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