We believe in the power of images – which is not surprising, coming from a filmmaker and a cartoonist. Images short circuit the intellectual process, they can enter your heart before you start thinking. And, once there, they can help to launch important conversations. Using ink, colored pencils, and brushstrokes applied to paper, cardboard, cereal boxes, and whatever else can be found within a cell, the death row inmates in this exhibition invite you to look inside the prison walls and to start a conversation on capital punishment.
We are Anne-Frédérique Widmann, a television journalist and documentary filmmaker, and Patrick Chappatte, an editorial cartoonist for the International New York Times. This exhibition was inspired by projects Patrick has organized with fellow editorial cartoonists in conflict-ridden countries over the last fifteen years, with the goal of promoting dialogue about human rights issues through cartooning. We were both uniquely interested in the issue of capital punishment. We saw it reenter the public discourse in the United States as, following a European boycott on exporting lethal drugs, a series of botched executions took place that both shocked public opinion and sent states scrambling to establish alternative execution procedures. When we moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2014, we started working on the project that became Windows On Death Row.
To make this exhibition possible, we visited maximum security prisons in four states, met and established relationships with dozens of inmates, and organized an art workshop on death row. We received help along the way from many organizations and dedicated individuals. What we asked from the inmates who accepted our invitation to participate was not just to display their creative skills – some of them were artists, others had never drawn in their lives – we asked them to be witnesses. We wanted them to show us something that we could never see, what death row is like from the inside.
The results may trigger strong reactions. Some may feel uncomfortable just looking at art made by a murderer. After all, most people on death row have committed horrible crimes (Some admitted to their crime and told us about their guilt, others continue to claim their innocence). However, our project is ultimately not about crime. It is about what comes after: justice, punishment, and incarceration. It’s not about what these individuals did, it’s about our collective response.
Believing that humor is sometimes the best way to address serious issues, we have also invited prominent editorial cartoonists to submit their satirical take on capital punishment. We hope that the collection of these images and voices will teach, enlighten, and help start discussions. We hope to contribute modestly to a necessary debate that is not only taking place inside the United States, but also between America and the rest of the Western world. Since all other industrialized democracies, with the exception of Japan and Taiwan, have abolished the death penalty or instituted a moratorium, the United States remains at the center of this great moral question of our time.