Thursday, July 02, 2009

The human face of the death penalty

In a series of alarmingly frank portraits and accompanying audio interviews, British portraitist Claire Phillips reveals the painful and inflexible sharp end of the U.S. penal system, littered by broken souls who have all known extreme violence.

Tattooed inmates make up only a few of the portraits on show, which also includes those on the sidelines: senators, campaigners, jurors. The recorded interviews often reveal much more than the artworks themselves. Marietta Jaeger-Lane, for example, whose face is both kindly and steely at the same time, stares out from a calming grey ground. Only her voice tells us that her daughter, Susie, was snatched and killed a week later. Later still she became an anti-death row campaigner; once Susie's killer was captured and killed.

Don Cabana stares broodingly from a blood red canvas, an unsympathetic looking warder who has presided over two executions. Only in the audio do we find that he is horrified when an inmate refuses to absolve him; only in the audio does he tell the story of a chemist driven mad by the responsibility of mixing gas for the chamber.

By the end these disarming portraits and utterly contradictory audio together tell of America's complicated relationship with the death sentence and the mixed up, polar lives of those who inhabit the spooky corridors of death row: killers, relatives, lawyers, warders, all.

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