NOTE: The writer is a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, a campaign to abolish the death penalty in Singapore.
People who talk about the death penalty are often too detached from the issue for the conversation to be properly meaningful, said Japanese-American photographer and anti-death penalty activist Toshi Kazama at a presentation on Monday night.
Kazama has spent almost two decades photographing death row inmates and travelling the world to tell their stories. “I hope to bring some sense of reality to what is happening in this, and other, countries,” he said.
He has seen it all: met death row inmates, seen execution chambers, spoken to wardens and executioners. Kazama himself was a victim of attempted murder, and has since worked with families of murder victims in a campaign to abolish capital punishment. For him, the death penalty is not just some abstract debate on punishment and morality, but a reality that has had a devastating effect on people’s lives.
“If your country executes someone it means that each one of you is responsible, but we’re so detached from the death penalty,” he said to the small group assembled at The Agora. “Would you pull the trigger? If you don’t have the guts to pull the trigger then why is it right for someone else to do it?”
Kazama’s photographs are all in black-and-white, portraits of death row inmates, electric chairs, lethal injection gurneys and warehouses for shooting found in the US and Taiwan. The process of executions, he said, is often created to provide as many layers of detachment as possible: many people are brought in to carry out particular stages of the execution, from leading the inmate into the room to pushing the button, so that the execution cannot weigh on the conscience of one person alone.
Yet the reality of executions was brought home to him once when he was photographing an execution chamber. On his way into the chamber, Kazama passed the cell holding an inmate scheduled for execution two days later.
“I still can’t get rid of the sight of his face while I was passing through,” he said with a shudder. “They were testing the chair and the electricity currents, and he was just there.”
Meeting death row inmates also subverted many of his preconceived notions on crime. “We think these people [who murder] are like monsters, and that these people deserve to die. But we never see them in person,” he said, describing his meeting with a 16-year-old boy who was on death row after being convicted, under questionable circumstances, of the murder and rape of an old woman. (Due to changes in the law, this 16-year-old will no longer be executed.)
In Kazama’s experience, capital punishment is often not about justice, but about police officers eager to close cases, prosecutors eager to win in court and judges bowing to media pressure. The harshest of punishments is often meted out to the poorest and least educated of society, with little effect on crime rates.
“We often talk about the penalty phase of crime, but I hope we can talk more about prevention,” he said. Societies often rely on punishment as a crutch, yet abolishing the death penalty, Kazama said, could actually encourage policymakers to focus more on crime prevention, rehabilitation and education.
Victims’ families too need support, he said, but not in the form of state-led vengeance. “Victims’ families need to find ways to move on that doesn’t involve hatred. They need financial support and mental support,” he said.
“People often see victims’ families angry and demanding maximum sentences, right after the crime is committed,” he added. “But many say that the worst time is after the execution, when the state says the case is closed and everyone is congratulating them and saying they can now move on with their lives. But their loved one never comes back.”