Fried chicken. Grilled cheese. Ice cream. The foods that photographer Henry Hargreaves captured in this photo series are ordinary enough, except for one thing: Each was the last meal of an inmate on death row.
Hargreaves began the series a few years ago after reading that Texas had decided to end the state program for “special meals” before someone is executed. He started wondering what people actually order. The details, it turned out, were easily accessible online. “You can see everything about anyone who’s executed,” he says. “As I was going through and reading about what they ordered, for a moment they became people, instead of just statistics. Food was the connection between us and them, someone you can’t really relate to. Through their culinary tastes, for a moment, you can sort of sympathize a little bit.”
Most prisoners choose deep-fried foods. “It’s comfort food, and here they were at this moment trying to get a little bit of comfort,” Hargreaves says. “And I also thought it was representative of a class thing—to me, one of the things that’s really tragic about death row is the number of people who end up there simply because they couldn’t afford proper legal counsel.”
He points to the example of Ricky Ray Rector, who ordered pecan pie and then told a guard, just before he was executed, that he was “saving it for later.” “He was actually mentally disabled,” Hargreaves says. “He shouldn’t have been on death row in the first place. But his lawyer never argued this simple fact, so away he went.”
As he created the series, Hargreaves hoped to photograph meals in person at a prison, but no prison would allow it. “There’s actually never been a photo of a last meal served in a prison,” he says. “So, this is how I imagined the different scenarios. Do they get served on china plates, or do they get served on plastic plates? Does the chef take any pride in his work, or does he not? These were the things I was thinking about.”
He worked with a chef to recreate the meals of a small group of prisoners, choosing a variety of foods—one convicted murderer chose to eat a single olive, while Timothy McVeigh asked for two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. One prisoner refused a last meal, and when he was given the standard prison meal of the day, also refused to eat that.
Hargreaves, who is originally from New Zealand (where capital punishment was abolished in 1989), hopes that the series might lead others to think harder about the death penalty. “It’s hard to understand how the death penalty still exists here when it seems to be such a remnant of a bygone era, and a different set of morals,” he says.