Death Row: Without Glass

By Francesca G. Bewer, in collaboration with Lou Jones
January 13, 2022
This black and white photograph shows a door that opens into a brightly lit room where a Black man in a white t-shirt sits at a table. His shackled hands rest against his temple. He peers out past the camera.
P1997.53 Lou Jones, American, Ed Kennedy, Starke, Florida, June 1992, from Death Row: Without Glass, 1996. Gelatin silver print. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Davis Pratt Fund, P1997.53.

Have you ever peered into the eyes of another human who knows they are—and whom you know is—legally sanctioned to be killed?

Photographer Lou Jones spent years capturing the gaze and humanity of death row inmates across the United States with his cameras and tape recorder, compelled by a deep-seated belief that capital punishment is morally wrong. 

“Basically, the idea is to give you an identity,” Jones explained to Marko Bey, one of the inmates who agreed to be photographed for the Death Row series. Jones’s assistant and key collaborator, Lorie Savel, who conducted the interviews of the 27 prisoners while Jones photographed, notes that the project aimed to find “a way to get the pro-[capital punishment] thinkers to open their minds.”

This black and white photograph shows a Black man sitting against a white wall, his legs crossed. The soles of the man’s shoes take up the right half of the image.
Lou Jones, American, Marko Bey, Trenton, NJ, August 1992. Gelatin silver print. Artist’s collection.

Marko Bey’s case was appealed on grounds that racism was a factor in the jury’s verdict. While Jones presents a multiracial selection of inmates in his portrait project to show that capital punishment affects people of all races, he is well aware of the numerous studies that have exposed the complex link between politics, race, and capital punishment throughout U.S. history (see, for instance, Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker’s “The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of the Death Penalty in the United States,” in the Annual Review of Criminology [2020]). Racial discrimination is omnipresent in the process of capital litigation and influences who is sentenced to death and who is ultimately executed. Data also point to the fact that the death penalty is disproportionately meted out in cases where the victim is white and the defendant is Black or a person of color. For example, according to the ACLU, by October 2002, 12 people had been “executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.” And in 2003, approximately 98 percent of prosecutors among the states that still had the death penalty were white. Furthermore, there is clear overlap between states that were most implicated in slavery and lynching and those that maintain the death penalty and have the highest rate of execution. 

The seed of Jones’s preoccupation with capital punishment was planted at age 14, when he found himself in deep moral disagreement with his father about the issue. His perseverance stemmed from that opposition and from his experience as a Black man. “I was frothing at the bit against the restrictions imposed on me because I am Black,” he said. This included being told throughout his life that he was “not the right sort” or “not smart enough.”

This black and white photograph shows a middle-aged Black man in a white prison uniform leaning against a door frame, looking down. The doorway frames a hallway, where another young Black man walks by, in front of a closed door.
Lou Jones, American, Abdullah Bashir, Texas, June 1993. Gelatin silver print. Artist’s collection.

Once he became established as a photographer, Jones wondered how he could use his camera to make a difference. What did he want his legacy to be? He found himself returning to the issue of the death penalty. The documentary Fourteen Days in May, which follows the weeks leading up to a Black man’s execution, was one call to arms. Another was the demonizing impact inherent in photographs the press routinely used to portray criminals, which were often of poor quality; this further galvanized him to create a more humane, thoughtful photographic portrayal of such subjects. Jones also noted people’s powerful emotional response to his 1990 exhibition of life-size portraits of contemporary African American women (Sojourner’s Daughters, in the Museum of Afro-American History, now the Museum of African American History). And it was at that museum where he met future key partners in the Death Row project. 

Jones overcame seemingly insurmountable hurdles along the way. He was told it was impossible to photograph prisoners on death row. He had difficulty identifying inmates willing to participate as well as convincing prison authorities to give the team not only access, but also the chance to speak to the prisoners without physical barriers between them. Once inside the prisons, Jones had to contend with mundane logistical complications, such as how to light a prison space without easy access to an electrical outlet.

This black and white photograph shows a Black man sitting on a bench in a narrow room, his left arm resting across the back of the bench. The photograph is tilted dramatically to the left. Behind him is a wide glass window, through which can be seen another room. In that room are silhouettes of two people walking, small rectangles of light from windows, and a floor fan on the right.
Lou Jones, American, James Roane, State Farm, Virginia, December 1993. Gelatin silver print. Artist’s collection.

Such difficulties were compounded by the emotional and mental challenges of figuring out how to behave with—and relate to—individuals who had been incarcerated for violent crimes and lived with the constant specter of death. Jones had to learn which questions were the right ones, and he had to capture some essence of the prisoners’ humanity in the limited time he had with them.

After speaking with and photographing a few prisoners, Jones had his studio produce close to 80 small art prints, each sized 5 × 5 inches. These were “part of the methodology of pushing open the doors just a crack,” Jones explained. The signed, numbered, and dated photos were sent to lawyers, heads of abolitionist groups, and advocates—in other words, to people he’d hoped would introduce his team to other inmates who might agree to participate in the project. When the project was finished, he had 27 portraits, all of which he considers “environmental portraits,” because they show the men in relationship to the spaces they inhabit.

Life-size prints of the images have been exhibited in numerous venues, and 15 of the smaller prints are included in the artist book Death Row: Without Glass, which is in the Harvard Art Museums collections. Jones also published Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row, which pairs his photographs with the prisoners’ own words about their personal experiences and questions about capital punishment.

This black and white photograph shows a bearded, dreadlocked Black man sitting at a table, his hand clenched in a fist on the table. The man stares past the camera, and his left hand grasps the table’s edge, blurred in the dark foreground.
Lou Jones, American, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Huntingdon, PA, January 1994. Gelatin silver print. Artist’s collection.

Jones’s early question of whether art could make a difference was answered in part by his own assistant, Lorie Savel. As Jones recounts in an artist talk recorded by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Savel’s experience with the inmates led to a radical shift in her thinking about state-sanctioned killings. Her belief in the project was key to its success. 

Photographs from Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row can be seen on Lou Jones’s website

I am most grateful to Lou Jones for the illuminating conversations that we’ve had in preparation for this article.

 

Francesca G. Bewer is research curator for Conservation and Technical Study Programs and director of the Summer Institute for Technical Studies in Art at the Harvard Art Museums.