Giving death a face

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TOSHI KAZAMA (pic) was visibly agitated, clearly wishing to cease talking. It was the first overt sign that this serious, stoic New York-based photographer was carrying a heavy burden.

We had been discussing the death penalty before venturing into why he is now travelling the world, and here in Malaysia for the second time to showcase his photographs at his exhibition at the old wing of the 1 Utama Shopping Centre.

Kazama tapped on his iPad to show me one of his exhibits: a pretty young girl with a sweet smile and in a relaxed pose.

“She was the youngest female on death row, only 18 at the time of the crime,” he said. His photos are provoking portraits of inmates on death row, most of whom are young. The prisons they live in, as well as the instruments used to carry out executions are also depicted.

Kazama said the girl, Christa Pike, had peeled the skin off a romantic rival and taken a piece of her victim’s skull to keep in her pocket. “She also mutilated her victim,” he said casually, sharing the gruesome details in a detached tone.

With equal surreal calmness, he related how his first subject raped, murdered and burnt two victims, one of whom was a 78-year-old. Michael Shawn Barnes was 16 when he was convicted of the crimes in 1996. Kazama rubbed his face wearily, and asked if I wanted him to continue. It was then that I was struck by the enormity of the cost that Kazuma had to pay to have intimate access to the brutality of these crimes.

However, his time with the inmates went to make him what he is today — an advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty.

“Once you meet someone, you don’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t care about your life’. I just couldn’t disregard [their] lives,” he said, explaining the responsibility he felt for the life of each of his subjects.

It didn’t start that way.

Kazama began as a commercial photographer who wanted to photograph death-row inmates to gain recognition. But his life was changed forever after meeting them.

The 56-year-old shared how he developed respect for the value of life after his death row project.

After two near-death experiences — once in Africa, where as a young man, he hitchhiked from Morocco to Kenya and contracted an illness and suffered severe malnutrition, and again in 2003, when he was viciously attacked on the street by a mad man and doctors had said he would never walk again — Kazama certainly knows about the value of life.

People who say he is condoning crime and sympathising with criminals will not sway him. “Both crime and executions are heinous,” he had once said.

During the interview he said, “I believe it could have been any of us [who committed the crimes].” The common thread running through his subjects’ lives is a broken family background and a troubled childhood.” When I spoke to Christa’s mum, there was a strong indication that she (Christa) suffered a severe lack of love,” said Kazama. Pike’s victim had sexual relations with her then boyfriend, her first love.

Highlighting the fallibility of the legal process, Kazama said one of his subjects, Shareef Cousin, was later released as his conviction was overturned. Police and prosecutors in that case admitted to false evidence given by witnesses.

Of the 22 inmates he’s photographed, Christopher Simmons (who was sentenced to death for a murder committed at age 17) has since been the figure of a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court in the Roper vs Simmons case, which saw capital punishment reversed for crimes committed under the age of 18.

The portrait of Barnes awaiting his execution on charges of rape and murder.

The ruling also reversed Barnes’ death penalty to a sentence of lifeimprisonment instead. Kazama said Barnes had an IQ of only 67, and had told police he was at the scene of the crime, along with several others. Various sets of fingerprints were also found at the scene. However, only the young man was tried and convicted.

The exhibition, titled Give Life a Second Chance, also captures on camera the inmates’ family members and  scenes of the crimes.

Kazama believes no one should be able to determine that a person has a done a bad thing and deserves to die, as it speaks of ill will.

Speaking against the mandatory death sentence in Malaysia, he said the majority of the people who are sentenced to death are involved in drug trafficking.

He said based on statistics, death penalties don’t deter crime.

The crux of the problem, he said, is the facelessness of it all.

“It’s not so much about the execution as to how it is carried out,” he stressed. “If there is a photograph of the hanging, [with the statement] ‘This is where we killed a human being’, or witnesses are invited to the execution, perhaps things might change.”

And he should know. That first photograph of Barnes, whom he instinctively hugged upon meeting the boy, has led Kazama on a journey of pain and depression.

As we were ready to part, he said, “I wish I can just walk away from it in a sense, but I can’t.” At this point, something the man said earlier came to mind: “Everyone dies. But to know exactly when you will die is tantamount to mental torture.”

The Give Life a Second Chance exhibition is on until Sunday at 1 Utama, then at The Ledge Art Gallery from Oct 15 to 26.


World Day against death penalty facts

  • Malaysia is one of 57 countries still having the death penalty.
  • As at end-2013, there are 992 people on death row in Malaysian prisons, with 76 of them sentenced in 2013. These comprised 47 drug-related cases, 37 foreign nationals and 10 women.
  • Statistics from 2011 show that 441 people have been hanged since 1960.
  • Malaysia practises near total secrecy when it comes to carrying out the death penalty.

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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 10, 2014.