Henry Hargreaves Photographs Death Row's Final Meals
Apr 25 2013
Henry Hargreaves is no TV chef. Rather than trying to save the country one school dinner at a time or “throw together a crostini”, he’s found a name for himself making and photographing such gastronomical fancies as edible rainbows and deep fried iPads. But it's his No Seconds project that he's become best known for, in which he recreated the last meals of various serial killers on death row and presented them in a chilling photo series.
Looking through the set gives you a tangible, almost sensory window into the minds of condemned men. And in a world where we’re overwhelmed with hundreds of filtered pictures of food every day, it’s pretty amazing to find a photo of mint chocolate ice cream that actually makes you think. I caught up with Henry to discuss his photos.
VICE: Hey Henry. So what made you start photographing serial killer’s last meals?
Henry Hargreaves: I’m really interested in people’s choices with food. It’s one of those things that everyone does several times a day, but you never really see it out of context or think about what it says about someone. I was reading about a campaign to abolish the last meal in Texas, so I went online and researched it. And as I was reading through these records, I felt that I could identify with these people for a brief moment just from what they ordered.
Do you think the meals offer a window into the psyche of the condemned?
I think in general – yes, definitely. The thing that kind of struck me with these last meals was how many of them were these big, deep fried meals, which we like to call comfort food. Here were these people in their last moments and all they really want was a little bit of comfort.
Is the project a statement about the death penalty?
Yeah. I mean, I’m from New Zealand, and when I came to America the death penalty struck me as a really inhumane thing. It’s seen by most of the world as this outdated, barbaric act and it’s strange that it still exists in a country that spends so much time advertising their democracy and morals to the rest of the world. In the process of researching the project I came across claims that reckon there’s about 12 people over the last 20 years who have been executed falsely in America. That’s only hearsay of course, but those people are still gone and they have no hope of a retrial.
There are a few weird requests in there – the Lord of the Rings DVD stands out as one of the weirder ones. Did you focus on the more unusual requests?
Yeah, I didn't want all the meals to be the same when I was recreating them. Also, a really obscure last request illustrates a lot about a person’s character. That was one of the weirder ones and he was granted it, so I thought that was cool and included it. It was the same thing with the pecan pie. The guy wanted to “save it for later”, which has to be so chilling for the guard to hear. That guy was said to be mentally ill, so he probably should have never been executed. That also makes you think; did he actually think he could have it later or did he realise what was going to happen?
Did you prepare all the meals yourself?
I got a chef friend of mine to do about half of them. He made up the more complex meals and the other half – the more simple ones, like the ice cream or the single olive – I just did myself.
The single olive is one of the more poignant images. Do you have any theories about it?
A lot of people have been hypothesising about what the olive could mean. A lot of theories surround the symbolism of the olive tree and purity and making amends. I think there’s something to that and it might be a gesture on his part, but for all we know he might have just thought, 'I’ll just take something weird and people can read whatever the hell they want into it.'
So you think most of the requests are the inmates making a conscious final statement to the world?
Yeah. For me personally, I think I’d want to make some sort of a final statement. You’d like to feel that with your last choice you could say something that would potentially mean something or count to someone, as opposed to, “Let's just get some food, fill my belly up and leave no last words.”
It struck me that Timothy McVeigh’s request might be him making a statement. He murdered a huge amount of people and his last request was two pints of ice cream. Do you think that’s him making a comment on his own selfishness? A kind of “fuck you” to the world?
This is what I love about the project – everyone takes away his or her own interpretations. If that was his intention then I guess he’s clearly pulling that one off. He could be saying how selfish he is, or he could also just be saying he’s got the world’s most unrefined pallet and two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream is heaven to him.
Did you notice that the people who killed the least amount of people requested the smallest meals? Maybe appetite for food relates to somebody's appetite for killing.
That’s an interesting theory. My opinion would be that it probably isn’t related, because I think the guys who killed one or two people would have probably gone on killing if they weren’t caught.
What would you request for your last meal?
An everlasting gobstopper! Honestly, I think if I found myself in that position, I don’t think I could eat anything. I can barely eat breakfast before an exam. If I was on death row I think food would be the last thing on my mind.
Do people ever criticise you for "humanising" serial killers?
I guess that’s a valid point. I’ve kind of carried on this depressing trend of giving serial killers attention. My motivation for the project comes from my own curiosity; I wanted to see what these meals would look like. I wasn’t aiming for shock value or to build my reputation through other people’s sorrow – that definitely wasn’t an intention. I see my job as an artist and a photographer to present something and allow people to draw their own conclusions from it. I don’t think we need to totally solve the mystery for everyone. I think, like all good art, you’re also holding the mirror up to the viewer; they’re seeing something about themselves in their reaction to the pieces.
Yeah. Did you eat any of the meals?
There were a couple of tough choices. I hate letting good food go to waste as much as the next guy, but I thought it was too macabre. I did have a spoonful of the mint chocolate chip ice cream, but I couldn’t enjoy it – it almost had no taste. I just thought, 'Oh God' and put it straight in the trash. It was kind of like going to a hospital and eating the lunch of someone who’s just been pronounced dead.
See more of Henry’s work on his website.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey
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