… I think the inescapable sensation is sadness, sadness for the little trays with the little treats.
Two recent threads in the Photo.net Philosophy of Photography forum, one about voyeurism and the other about empathy (which I won’t link because they weren’t very interesting), both made me think of these photos. (Last meals of death row inmates seem to attract photographers. In addition those of Celia A. Shapiro (that I am using), James Reynolds has a ‘last meal’ series and Jacquelyn C. Black has a book of such photos.)
Voyeurism (loosely defined to go beyond the sexual) should be distinct from empathy. However, in these pictures, at least for me, they’re thoroughly entangled. Here is what Charles Bowden says in his essay, Come and Get It: Last Meals and the People Who Eat Them, that uses Shapiro’s images as illustration; in Aperture 172 (Fall 2003):
… When I was a kid, folks would speculate about things such as what they would want on a desert island if shipwrecked, or what the one book might be if they could, God forbid, have only one. But I don’t recall anyone thinking what their ideal last meal would be. Now there are at least two documentary movies on the subject of dining in by the condemned, plus various sites on the Internet that record the choices of those hung, injected, gassed, or now and then electrocuted.
[ … ]
Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged Arkansas inmate murdered during the governorship of Bill Clinton, famously set aside half of his pecan pie to enjoy after his execution. Ruben Montoya in 1993 asked the state of Texas for barbecued chicken and frijoles and bubblegum. He was denied the bubblegum due to prison regulations. Sometimes the requests are short and sweet. Margie Velma Barfield, who had poisoned her lover’s beer with arsenic, simply wanted a bag of Cheez Doodles, a Coke, and a Kit-Kat bar.
I’ve witnessed only one execution, and in that case, as I sat with the family of the condemned and various prison guards and officials, we were supplied with a large buffet of salads, cold cuts, pop, and the like. The condemned man had been slowly wandering through the legal system, a prime case of someone too crazy to execute. The legal system concluded finally that he was sane enough to murder. When he was offered his last words, strapped to the gurney a few feet from me, he merely said he wanted to get the whole thing over with so that he could have lunch.
There is a dream-walk quality to an execution. No one can be murdered before their appointed hour, and so the whole thing has that frantic and yet slow quality of a big wedding. The prison officials have checklists of protocols they patiently work through. The entire affair is quite orderly and organized. In the one such murder I witnessed, the whole shebang kept more than a hundred guards busy. In that case no one said the word execution out loud, but simply referred to The Event.
… I don’t think anyone who reads the menus of the condemned is likely to get hungry. Nor do I think anyone gazing on such final feeds is likely to get angry about capital punishment. Or feel good about it, for that matter. I think the inescapable sensation is sadness, sadness for the little trays with the little treats. Perhaps, in some cases, also a sadness for the person about to be murdered, though many such diners have sorry and savage deeds charged to their souls. But mainly a sadness for this petty and small thing we do through the instrument of our governments, this calm, cold, premeditated murder that sums up not only the terrible failings of the condemned, but of ourselves.
For a long list of last meals from Texas, see here. For a truly offensive use of last meals, see here.