“Want to learn more about a country? Visit its prisons,” advises Toshi Kazama, a Japanese photographer based in New York City. In Singapore last weekend for a private photo presentation, Toshi photographs death row inmates (mostly young men, sometimes women), though he also photographs their family members, victims and their families, execution chambers, prison landscapes and crime scenes. For Toshi, more than any other prized tourist attraction, a state’s prison – and the state of its prison system – is a “pure reflection” of a country and its society.
A former commercial photographer, 54 year-old Toshi arrived in the United States when he was 15 years old. While watching a Hollywood action flick at the cinema, Toshi recounted how, as such movies go, the “bad guy” was killed at the end – and the audience cheered wildly. Rather than join in, Toshi was disturbed by how someone’s violent death could be celebrated, even “in the name of justice”. At the time, Toshi thought: “Oh well, what do I know? I’m only 15.” That question, though, never resolved itself; the unease gnawed at him through the years till he decided to make that phone call, some 16 years ago.
“Hello, my name is Toshi Kazama, I’m from New York City and I would like to come down to your prison to photograph the 16 year-old inmate on death row.” (I’m paraphrasing)
As Toshi recalls, the prison warden went, “Toshi who?”, instructed him never to call back, and ended the call with a dedicated “F**K you”. Continue reading