|Texas Death Row
University Press of Mississippi
The raw and austere photographs and the accompanying text of Texas Death Row reveal what we have created in the hopeless world of court-ordered death. Whomever opens this book will want to look away, for the pictures and words force us to gaze intimately into the eye of death. With 82 dutone images, Texas Death Row shows us how the men in America's most active death house eat, sleep, recreate, work, visit and exercise while waiting to die.
Listen to Ken Light and Peter Brook discuss his Texas Death Row project here:
Click on any of the photos below to see a larger version.
photographs ©1994-1996 Ken Light
Interviews with photographers who’ve documented America’s prisons
by Peter Brook/PrisonPhotography.org
Ken 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 Suzanne 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Light describes the body of work, which consists of 13,000 images, as a historical document.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.