This Photographer Tells The Stories Of Death Row Inmates Through Food

You’ll see food in many of Henry Hargreaves‘s photographs, but the man is no ordinary food photographer. He uses it to create artistic images which are at turns whimsical, poignant, and thought-provoking. Food is his entry point for discussing and thinking about complex issues or ideas — a way to connect with people he feels a literal or metaphorical distance from.

Whether Hargreaves is comparing the feast of a dictator to the meals of his starving people, exploring the actual contents of fast food items, or chronicling the last meal requests of death row inmates, his work feels accessible and personal; almost voyeuristic. Using food as touchstone, it feels much simpler to look at complicated issues that we might normally distance ourselves from.

Recently, Hargreaves returned to the subject of the death penalty for a series called, “A Year Of Killing.” He originally broached the subject a few years ago with his series “No Seconds” — a project that found him taking photos of the last meals of some of history’s most notorious killers. As he looked at the subject a second time, he felt that the first series missed showing people the sheer number of human beings that we execute every single year.

“On average there are 46 people who have been killed every year,” Hargreaves said. “I think that there’s a real feeling that the executions are saved for the worst, most heinous crimes imaginable and they happen once in a blue moon. So I wanted to illustrate that it’s actually a really common, much more common occurrence than you think.”

In “No Seconds” Hargreaves used recognizable names — people like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and Timothy McVeigh. These killers have become almost story book villains, distant and unredeemable in our collective minds. They may as well be Mike Myers, Patrick Bateman, or Hannibal Lecter; they inspire the same revulsion and terror.

“I felt like the first one was names that you recognize from media or pop culture,” Hargreaves said. “This time, I really just focus on the anonymous faces of the people who are executed.”

“A Year of Killing” is a powerful project — sure to stir people emotionally, no matter what they think about the death penalty.

I recently spoke to Hargreaves about his work and the artist offered insight into his motivations, his creative process, and the unique ways he plays with food.

Steven Frederick Spears, 54, was the 8th person Georgia executed in 2016. He refused all post-conviction appeals and was killed by lethal injection.

What made you feel passionate about shedding light on death row prisoners?

One of the big things is being a foreigner and coming to America. I grew up in New Zealand, and culturally we’re pretty similar and have more or less aligned values. But, pretty much any western country in the world doesn’t have the death penalty. To me, it’s just such a peculiar, odd, dark relationship that the country has with executing its own people.

Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, was killed by lethal injection in Alabama.

You looked into the lives of these prisoners through their last meals. What kind of feelings did that evoke in you?

When I was a bartender, people would eat at the bar, and you could tell so much about a person and identify with them just by what they ate, what their drinks were. You could pop them into a little box and get a glimpse inside them.

That’s what I felt like with these meals. Suddenly being able to empathize with these prisoners as if they were real people and not just statistics. It’s a really, really sobering thing to be working with. It’s pretty macabre/meditative. It’s food and death, two things that happen to us all.

Richard Masterson, 43, was killed by lethal injection in Texas.

Was there a meal that you found you connected with the most, or you found the most heartbreaking?

With “No Seconds” I picked a lot of those meals because they resonated with me. More so than with “A Year of Killing” which was just what everyone ordered this year. The ones that really resonated with me with No Seconds were, you know, the single olive with the pit still on it, for obvious reasons. Like, what does it mean? It created a lot of conversation.

The other one that really hit me was Ricky Ray Rector. He’s the one who saved the pecan pie (from his last meal) and told the guard the he was going to have it later. He was mentally disabled. He never should have been on death row in the first place. To me, he is such a metaphor of a broken system.

All the people (who were executed) in 2016, not one of those people could actually could afford their own defense. It was all public defenders who defended those people. And a lot of those public defenders will have like 30 cases a month, and they’re really ill-equipped. The lawyer who defended Ricky Ray Rector didn’t even argue the simple point that he was mentally disabled, and therefore should not be tried for the death penalty. I’ve got a mentally disabled brother, so I’m able to empathize a lot with people who just don’t make choices and decisions that are in line with what we think is normal.

I was also trying to illustrate with the new series that one in ten people who are sentenced to be executed are found to be innocent while on death row, and are exonerated. With that kind of a statistic — that one in ten people who are sentenced end up being innocent — to me, there shouldn’t even be any conversation.

John Conner, 60, was killed by lethal injection in Georgia. He spent 34 years on death row.

Yeah. And yet, it’s such a polarizing issue in America. Did you find response to the series to be mostly positive or negative?

I found quite a lot of people felt like I was trying to immortalize the prisoners. It did create a lot of emotions. To me, the purpose of any good art is to be able to hold a mirror up towards the viewer, and they can read whatever they want into it.

I wanted to create something that gets people thinking and stirs emotions. I get it, I can see why people thought that I was trying to celebrate these people because I’m focusing on them and not, for instance, their victims. It’s a valid point. But, I was trying to just empathize as people, not condone.

I think once you’re able to see them as people, you’re able to view the system in a different light.

Daniel Lucas, 37, was killed in Georgia by lethal injection.

Christopher Brooks, 43, was killed by lethal injection in Alabama.

You did a series a couple of years ago that I thought was great. The “Ready For Dinner” Post-Apocalyptic series. What made you reach out to Apocalypse preppers?

I did a Ted talk at Ted Manhattan And initially, I was actually going to compare prison food to hospital food to school food. Basically, the biggest catering company in America does all three. Everyone said I could come and photograph inside all these institutions, but then they all slowly said no as they realized that no one would be made to look good.

So I was sort of scrambling as to what could be my unique talk and perspective. I decided I wanted to expand upon the No Seconds series and also the series of band riders (musicians backstage requests). So, I wanted to take that idea and turn it into a bit of a trilogy. To me, doomsday preppers are another one of those people outcast from society who I can’t relate to one on one, but (I wondered) would I be able to understand them more if I was able to relate to their food? That was how it started. Initially, I was actually going to go travel around and photograph them at their locations, but then I was advised not to as they’re all pretty extreme and paranoid, and usually armed. So I talked to them on the phone.

Did you learn any skills that you’ll use when the apocalypse comes?

I think I learned how ill-equipped we are. I mean, living in the middle of Brooklyn, when we get a big snowstorm, suddenly within two days the convenience store’s got no food and all the restaurants are closed. One of the big things, also, was this thing called aquaponics that a lot of people did, which is a circular system of breeding fish and, like, spinach. They fuel each other indefinitely. There were a lot of those sort of things.

What was the weirdest theory of how the world was going to end that you talked to someone about?

One guy was convinced that a volcano in Yellowstone was going to go off and create a smoke cloud over America, that’s going to cut the sun off for years, and everything’s going to die. He was a firefighter in New York. I couldn’t help but think with that guy there was some post 9/11 trauma as well, and he was kind of connecting that.

There was one guy who was completely hysterical, who was convinced Obama was doing an inside job to bring down the US government, and he was in cahoots with the Chinese.

You’ve done so many different kinds of food shoots. What would you say was the most challenging shoot you’ve done?

Maybe the most challenging was the gingerbread art gallery. I did those with my friend Caitlin in Miami. It like, let’s bring the food world and the art world together, so we made these really elaborate gingerbread houses. I thought it was going to be much easier and quicker than it was. I was like, “I think we could probably knock these out in a couple of days” and three weeks later, we were still working on them. I guess that also ended up being one of the most satisfying ones, because they came together beyond my expectations.

Are there shoots that you’ve done that just didn’t work out? Where you had an idea in your head that just kind of fell apart?

Yeah. When we did the fruit map series, we tried to do the walls out of sugar and that didn’t work. We were doing each continent in a different type of sugar, and it was the middle of summer in New York, and everything just started running and getting gross. At that point, we said, “Let’s cut our losses and stick with what we’ve got now.” There have actually been quite a few other shoots that I’ve started and just been like, you know, this is not as impactful as I hoped it would be, let’s just scrap it.

I think that is one of the things that probably makes me stand out from a lot of people. I’m not afraid for failure. Actually, I come to anticipate it a lot of the time. But I don’t see that as a hurdle to doing something. I don’t say, you know, “If this doesn’t work, it’s going to be a waste of my time.” I’m more frustrated if I don’t try something.

What projects are you working on now?

Got a few cooking. One of them is a project on military meals. When you’re in the military, you get these things called MREs which is for, basically, when you’re in the field. They give you this pre-packaged meal, kind of like space food. They’re literally the worst meals that you can imagine. I got a whole bunch of MREs and we worked with a chef to remake them as Michelin star meals. We’re taking the lowest food that’s given to the bravest people, and reinventing it as the most overproduced precious plating imaginable.

Oh and I’ve got my first cook book coming out.

Oh wow.

Yeah. There’s a restaurant that I’m a part owner of in New York, called Jack’s Wife Freda. So, our cook book is coming out.

So you photograph food, but part of your knowledge of it comes from cooking?

No! I am actually a horrible cook. One of the reasons I did the prisoners’ last meals as one of my early series was because I felt I could cook as well as the prison cook. I don’t do elevated things, it’s always more about the object of food or food that’s really shit that I can manage. I don’t do well with the higher end of cooking.

Wait, so what is your cook book then?

Oh, so the cook book, it’s the restaurant cook book, but I’m an owner. I’m not the chef at the restaurant.

So if people buy it, they’ll get delicious recipes and can be assured that they’re not by you.

Yeah , they’ll have photos by me, but not recipes by me.

You can follow Henry Hargreaves at his website or on Instagram!