Meals to die for

Adrian Hatwell talks to Brooklyn-based artist Henry Hargreaves about No Seconds, a series of stark photographs that recreate the last repasts of prisoners on death row

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In holding up a mirror to society, art has the ability to emphasise the injustices and absurdities that fall in our blind spots as we move through the world. Photographer Henry Hargreaves found abundant opportunities to do just that as he navigated the cultural turbulence of moving from New Zealand to the United States. His latest work takes a probing look into one of the American justice system’s most incongruous kindnesses — the freedom to choose any meal your heart desires, before having said heart permanently stopped by the State.

“The death penalty is just one of those things that’s not in the conversation back home,” the photographer explains of his subject choice, “as it isn’t pretty much anywhere else in the West. It’s just one of the things in America that, to me, really culturally separates our two nations.”

It’s a weighty subject for any artist, and with a speciality in food photography, Hargraves might seem an unlikely candidate for the task. But the photographer has developed a portfolio around creative, provocative, thoughtful approaches to cuisine that goes well beyond standard ‘food porn’.

“I think food is capable of doing so much more and telling so much more about people, which is why I like to take it beyond just eye candy and try to use it to convey a message.”

No project embodies that spirit so well as A Year of Killing. Over the course of 2016, Hargreaves dedicated himself to recreating and photographing the last meal requests of every prison inmate executed under the death penalty. The dishes are currently viewable in an online exhibition (ayearofkilling.com), accomapnied by the location, date, inmate name, age, means of death, and length of time served on death row.

You can view the soft tacos, spanish rice and mixed greens generously corralled onto a plate for 33-year-old Adam Ward, who spent eight years on death row; the chunky rib eye steak, baked potato, and garlic bread of 53-year-old Oscar Ray Bolin Jr, who spent 23 years on death row, are arranged into their own separate dishes; while the entire large meat pizza of 54-year-old Steven Frederick Spears, who spent 15 years on death row, sits, pan and all, on a greasy table.

It is a grim portfolio to scroll through, but an undeniably effective way to connect viewers to a story they might already be familiar with in a new and engaging way. It is the sort of opportunity Hargreaves believes artists must take seriously.

“A lot of work on the death penalty is very statistic-based, very boring and very dry, it really doesn’t resonate emotionally with people. I think there is an onus to follow through, and if you have a voice and the ability to do this, there’s a bit of a social obligation.”

And he is a photographer who walks his talk: as intensive as A Year of Killing is, it is not the first time Hargreaves has investigated the subject of last meals. In 2011 he released No Seconds, a precursor to his latest work which featured the recreated final meals of infamous prisoners executed throughout the decades. The collection included the two pints of mint and chocolate chip icecream requested by Timothy McVeigh, and the standard steak-and-egg prison meal given to Ted Bundy after he refused anything special, among others.  

No Seconds, like its spiritual sequel A Year of Killing, quickly spread throughout the internet, being picked up by myriad publishers (Vogue, Wired, CBS, The Telegraph, Vice, The Daily Mail) and viewed widely around the world. Hargreaves was understandably thrilled with the result, but says the attention was not what motivated him to return again to death row for A Year of Killing — there were important themes he felt remained unaddressed in the first project.

“I hadn’t really touched on the frequency of the killings. I think it is something people think only happens very rarely, and only to the worst people, but the reality of it is on average 47 people have been killed every year since the death penalty was reinstated.

“The other thing I wanted to highlight was how much time people spend on death row. On average, between being sentenced and being executed, it is 21 years. To me, that’s a staggering statistic. You’re executing someone who is a very different person to the one who was sentenced.”

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With those disturbing statistics driving the project, the photographer decided he would tackle all the food styling himself. For most of his work he leaves that up to the professionals, but he reasoned the skillset required to plate prison food is probably a fair bit lower than the sort of fare a food photographer tends to deal with.

“I know from working in hospitals that the chefs that work there, they aren’t actually chefs, they’re just cooks. They just get there and dial it in, there’s no training. So I felt like prisons would be very much the same, and I undertook it myself.”

The food is produced based on prison records of last meals, but how exactly these are presented was up to the photographer. The arrangements have been produced in a consistent fashion — shot from above, one light on the ceiling and an umbrella in the top right corner — but each image contains different background and prop elements. While this adds to the visual variance of the series, it turns out there is also a more thematic reason for the changes, as Hargreaves explains.

“There’s never been a picture of a meal served on death row, so with all of these I’m kind of exploring: do they get served on china plates or plastic? Is it a wooden table, or metal? It could even be on their knees. Does the chef take any pride in what he’s doing, or not?

“They are the kind of things of things I wanted to explore with this, so I brought in all the possibilities.”

Asked for the most memorable meal he came across in his research, the photographer points to the last request of Victor Feguer, the final federal inmate executed in Iowa before the state abolished the death penalty in 1965. He asked for a single olive with the pit still inside.

“That’s one that a lot of people read a lot into: is it an olive as in a branch of peace? Or is it about rebirth? Or, as someone pointed out, is it like a full stop at the end of his life? It’s those things that are unexplained which are really going to stay with you and haunt you a bit.”

In fact, there’s plenty that might end up haunting you when you delve as deeply into dark places as frequently as Hargreaves had to for these projects. When he started A Year of Killing the photographer had no way of knowing how many subjects he would end up with, so every meal he assembled, every photo he created, was a reminder that someone’s life had just been taken. That’s something he says takes its toll.

“There’s a lot of second guessing. I often wonder if I’m being insensitive to the victims. You do keep questioning these things.”

Those questions may linger with him forever, but as far as A Year of Killing goes, Hargreaves thinks he’s ready to clear the table.

“I feel like this was that part that had really been burning inside me, that I felt obliged to put in the spotlight. I feel like I’ve done justice to this subject, I’ve done my part.”

He has been approached by publishers about creating a book around the widely-seen death row works, but the photographer says he isn’t interested in continuing for the sake of it, he’d only consider a book if he could find a worthwhile new angle.

For now, he’s looking to explore different elements of society with his uniquely incisive take on food photography. One such project involves recreating the meals given to deployed soldiers by six different armies around the world.

“It is literally the worst food you can imagine, kind of like space food done badly,” Hargreaves says with a chuckle. “And I’ve replated them all as though they were Michelin star meals. The idea is taking the worst food, given to the bravest people, and plate it in the most over-the-top, pompous way possible.”

The long time spent dwelling on the darkness of death row has done little, then, to blunten the ebullient photographer’s sense of humour and mischief, a fact that remains abundantly clear when the photographer is asked how he describes his own distinctive aesthetic.

“I like to think there are four cornerstones to my work — food, bright colours, childhood nostalgia, and dick jokes. Most of the works are a balance between a few of those things.”

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 217 May-June 2017