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Published: Tuesday December 10, 2013 MYT 9:01:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday December 10, 2013 MYT 9:41:46 AM

A photographer's mission to end the death penalty

A picture of the execution chambers that uses the lethal injection method.

A picture of the execution chambers that uses the lethal injection method.

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: TOSHI Kazama has never understood why people applaud when the hero kills the villain in a movie.

"Why are we celebrating death? Is life cheap?” he asks.

"We kill in the name of war, in the name of race, in the name of religion and in the name of justice," continues the 55-year-old Tokyo-born photographer.

Kazama, who has lived in his New York home for the last 40 years, opposes the death penalty and has been campaigning against it through his pictures.

He photographs the faces of juvenile offenders on death row and his black-and-white images have been displayed all over the world.

His interest in the subject arose because when he was raising his three children in the USA, he was compelled to study the local criminal justice system. A near-death experience following a vicious attack only reinforced his commitment to his cause.

Toshi Kazama poses with pictures of a Taiwanese death row inmate.
Toshi Kazama poses with pictures of a Taiwanese death row inmate.

"There so much death and killing in the world that as a father, I thought I needed to do something. I couldn't wait until the next generation.

"I do it for my children so they can live in a better society," he said recently during a talk at an exhibition titled Focus on Life at the Central Market.

He has taken pictures of 22 inmates on death row in the United States and one inmate in Taiwan. He also takes pictures of the victims' and perpetrators' families, survivors and the crime scenes.

The first prison he visited for his anti-capital punishment project was in Alabama. It took him one year to get access to the prison. The first photo he captured was that of an electric chair.

"There was a mark on the seat. It was caused by an inmate's tailbone burning on the chair. There was also the smell of human flesh burning," he recalled.

It was in this prison that he also photographed his first death row inmate - 16-year-old Michael Barnes who was convicted of two murders, including that of a 76-year-old woman.

A picture of Michael Barnes and a letter he wrote to his grandparents.
A picture of Michael Barnes and a letter he wrote to his grandparents.

"I thought he would look like a monster but he looked like an ordinary boy that I could find in my son's classroom," he said.

Kazama said that Barnes' mother had overdosed on drugs when she was pregnant with him, causing him to be born with a mental disability.

He said that Barnes' fingerprints were one of many found at the scene of the crime where the victim had been raped, strangled and then set on fire.

"The police only arrested Michael because he admitted being at the crime scene. It was easy to put the blame on him because of his mental disability," he said.

In this and many other cases, Kazama pointed out that it is usually the most uneducated, underprivileged and racial minorities who are given the maximum sentences.

Another of his photographs was that of Christa Pike who murdered a girl who allegedly tried to steal her boyfriend.

"She bashed the girl's head with a stone. Later she cut off a piece of the girl's skull and kept it in her pocket until her arrest," said Kazama.

Pike committed the crime when she was 18 and was sentenced when she was 20. Kazama, however, discovered why Pike resorted to murder.

"When I met her mother, it made sense. In my opinion, she grew up with very little love. So when Christa thought that someone was snatching love from her, she chose to kill," he said.

While Kazama admits what Pike did was not right, he doesn't think that killing her for her crime is sending the right message.

"The original crime was inhumane. But by giving her the death penalty, they are saying that killing someone is wrong. But yet the state is also killing," he said.

Kazama instead prefers forgiveness to revenge. Ten years ago, an unknown assailant attacked Kazama from behind while walking his daughter home from school.

His head was smashed against the pavement and he suffered from multiple skull fractures.

His hearing has been affected ever since and there is always a buzzing sound in his ear. At first, doctors were unsure of his survival chances but after four days, he came back to life.

"I don't seek anything more than a sincere apology," he said.

Surviving the incident has also made Kazama more determined to get his anti-capital punishment message across to the masses.

Kazama thinks that no one really wants to see another being killed. He recalled an incident in the Louisana prison relayed to him by the guards. In the execution chambers, there are two phones - one connected to the prison warden and the other to the Governor.

The Governor has the prerogative to prevent an execution. The phone is placed in the chamber so that the Governor can make a call in such a case.

There was once when the phone rang five minutes before a convicted murderer was due for execution.

"When the phone rang, everybody cheered because they thought they didn't have to kill anybody that night. However, the Governor said to carry on with the execution in a drunken voice," he said.

Over the years, he has made friends with the inmates and those around them. One inmate he photographed, a Sean Sellers, even asked him to witness his execution as his friend.

Kazama, however, did not go for it, a decision he regretted later.

The main reason why Kazama is against capital punishment is that it is irreversible.

"The justice system is run by people. And people make mistakes," he said.

He photographed Shareef Cousin who was convicted of murder when he was 16 but was later released when he found a good lawyer.

"He was let out and now he's at law school to become a lawyer. The police had people forcefully testifying against him," said Kazama.

He said there was another case where a man witnessed a murder but pleaded guilty so that his sister, who was the actual murderer, could get away.

Kazama also said that killing is not an easy thing, pointing out that in Japan, depending on the execution chamber, three to five guards simultaneously push the button to activate the noose.

In the United States, there are two switches connected to the electric chair and an automated process to inject three chemicals to both arms in the lethal injection.

He said these measures are supposed to provide relief to those operating the switches.

"Do you have the guts to hold a gun in your hand and pull the trigger at an inmate? In reality someone has to kill in your name. No one is happy to kill another human," he said.

Tags / Keywords: Death penalty, photographer, Toshi Kazama

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