Choosing Life, Choosing Love—An Evening with Toshi Kazama

“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”.

Amused, Toshi actually called him back immediately. (Whatever you call this quality, I would appreciate some – no, make that bucketloads – of it. I would have cussed violently – and pointlessly – at the dial-tone then given up, thinking: ‘This ain’t ever gonna work, what was I thinking?”)

Toshi, meanwhile, got a free lesson in the multiple uses of the “F” word – that warden was pretty pissed off. Incredibly, in between the expletives, Toshi gleaned an important bit of information – if the warden’s superior gave Toshi the permission to shoot in the prison, the warden would have to abide.

Ten months later, Toshi rang the warden again. In between the first phone call and this one, Toshi managed to garner support from a group of lawyers as well as a well-known photographer – they established that there was no law prohibiting Toshi from taking photographs in the prison. They also threatened legal action if Toshi was barred from doing so. The campaign worked – Toshi managed to get the permission he required, and promptly called the same warden. Though Toshi insisted he was granted two days for the shoot, the warden replied: “Hell no, I’ll give you two hours.”

That, in a dense nutshell, is how Toshi got to visit his first prison, photograph his first death row inmate, develop a friendship with someone who cursed him, and grow acquainted with that indescribable smell of burnt human flesh.

This was one of the first photographs displayed in Toshi’s presentation (for copyright reasons, not all can be shared).

Toshi remembers the goosebumps he got when he first walked into the execution chamber. (Yes, he was shown in by the same warden – a man who, in person, turned out to be “a really nice guy”. As Toshi says, “It’s completely different when you meet a person eye-to-eye and you shake hands.”) I almost stopped breathing when he struggled to describe how the room smelt – is there any way to convey to an audience what the lingering odour of despair and charred flesh resembles? The room fell silent as Toshi narrated the entire gory process – first, a headpiece is attached to the top of the inmate’s head, then another to both legs.

Pointing to the electric chair, Toshi explains the otherwise innocuous spot in the middle of the seat. “That is the result of inmates’ tailbones burning onto the chair,” he informs us grimly. Human eyes? They pop out of the head (hence the head gear). The human body turns into charcoal and, from the anus, charred liquid flows out.

As I squirmed through the descriptions, it struck me as absurd and perverse how we pay to be entertained by graphic on-screen violence and yet, as a society, prefer to avert our gaze from the gruesome deaths we sanction (through the death penalty, and also through the carnage of war).

Toshi unleashes yet another startling fact – there are two executioners per execution. They “pull the plug” at precisely the same time, though only one connection is actually “live”. Such synchronicity means they won’t actually know which one of them really killed the person who was just alive minutes ago. It buys the hollow assurance that, perhaps, “someone else did it”.

This astounded me – how far we will go to insulate ourselves from the guilt of killing, because it feels wrong and it feels bad… but we won’t stop.

Michael Shawn Barnes by Toshi Kazama

Michael Shawn Barnes is the 16 year-old inmate Toshi first photographed many years ago. He has an IQ of 67 and was born with a part of his brain dead; his 16 year-old mother was a drug addict.

“I expected to meet a monster,” admits Toshi – after all, this was someone on death row. When they finally met face-to-face, Toshi realized, “He’s only a boy.” As his preconceived notions fell away, Toshi wondered: “What if I was born him and him me?” It could have been a “strange Japanese man” sitting there instead, being photographed by a young white photographer. Making a conscious decision to “treat him how I wanted to be treated”, Toshi greeted Michael with a handshake. Then, finding that he couldn’t contain himself, he hugged Michael – a significant gesture, as even family members aren’t allowed to touch inmates. Toshi still remembers Michael’s first words to him: “I’m a bitch.”

It took some time for Toshi to understand the context of this statement – to put it crudely, Michael was being f**ked by other inmates. Being a 16 year-old white boy in a teeming prison made him the “perfect target” for the other inmates’ sexual frustrations. “You would think that prisons are where people are protected,” says Toshi, “but they don’t give a damn what is happening.”

Michael was convicted of murdering two victims – an elderly woman and elderly man. He admitted to being at the crime scene, but named several others. While other fingerprints were found, he was the only one incarcerated. This is a boy whose IQ is low enough for him to be considered “mentally retarded”.

Toshi shared several stories of innocents on death row, men who are fighting hard to live. The problem, Toshi identifies, is that the police are keen to close a case as quickly as possible – even resorting to ‘cutting deals’ with false witnesses – while the prosecution is single-mindedly focused on winning.

He also detailed some horrific crimes committed by dark criminals – one so savage my madly scribbling hand froze over my notepad. I couldn’t bring myself to even write down what she did – or reconcile the crime with the sweet-faced 18 year-old girl Toshi photographed, the one with the tentative smile and butterfly pins in her hair.

This bewilderment was shared by Toshi when he first met Christa. Then Toshi photographed her mother, and understood a little bit more. Christa’s mom would express her sorrow at her daughter’s plight in one moment, then be laughing with her boyfriend and discussing their next drug hit in the next. When asked if she visited Christa, she replied: No, not much. It was clear to Toshi that Christa grew up in a family with very little love – like many of the families of inmates he had seen. Their living environments were harsh, and they were frequently neglected; some abused.

Toshi clarifies he is not excusing Christa’s behaviour – and it was a horrible, horrible crime – but he also sees a problem with a system that metes out harsh punishments without looking into how and why such crimes happen in the first place. “When a person kills,” Toshi reminds us, “they don’t think of the consequences.” In fact, Toshi’s belief is that with the death penalty, we often become a “worse society” – our reliance on it breeds false hopes it will rid our societies of crime. If we didn’t have the death penalty, argues Toshi, perhaps greater focus will be placed on prevention.

The system is also problematic because it is fraught with inequalities. “Justice is in line with how rich you are,” asserts Toshi. “If you can afford a good lawyer, you will never be sentenced to death. The poorer you are? Your life is cheap.” Such inequalities are intertwined with racism, for minority races are disproportionately represented when it comes to rates of incarceration.

So, yes, it’s complicated. We accept that life is complicated, love is complicated, marriage/divorce, illness/recovery, war/peace is complicated and, oh yes, we are always reminded by state elites how utterly complicated policy-making is.

Yet we readily apply simplistic solutions and judgments to really complex social realities – you kill (or we suspect you did)? We kill you back. Does this really make our societies better and safer, or ensure that potential criminals – typically the poor, the addicted, the disenfranchised – do not express themselves through hate and violence?

But What if it Were You?
It is typical, at some juncture, for a question of this nature to arise: What if it was you or your loved one who fell victim to a violent crime? In fact, Toshi himself was brutally attacked nine years ago while on the way home with his nine-year old daughter. It was a vicious but “random act of violence” – one that left him on the sidewalks of New York with a cracked skull and blood shooting from his head. Unconscious and in ICU for four days, the doctors warned his wife: “Don’t expect him to come back”. Even if, against all odds, Toshi awakened, doctors predicted he would be spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

But awaken Toshi miraculously did – to the rage of a friend, who swore, “I’m going to find this guy and kill him!” Equally extraordinarily, Toshi replied, “No, no, I don’t want you to do that. All I need is a sincere apology.”

Toshi recalled how his three children tentatively approached his bedside, their frightened faces riddled with uncertainty. This is what he said to them: “Get angry with violence, and hate crime. But never, ever hate a person.” Toshi – bless his heart – believes every parent will tell the same thing to their children. After all,

If I tell my kids, ‘Let’s find this sucker and commit revenge!’, then the person who committed this crime, his negative emotion, his hatred, it would not only have violated me physically, he would have taken our good heart away. He’s not just hurting me, but taking what is good away from us.

(Toshi’s forgiving nature and commitment to his work masks how he has suffered; he remains deaf in one ear.)

Toshi says this perspective was shaped by his interactions with the lone survivor of a restaurant shoot-out. This lady, who lost her entire family in just one night, told Toshi: “The scar in my heart will never go away – but I can change how I look at my own scar.” This woman, recounts a visibly awed Toshi, possessed enormous love.

She contacted the wife of a police officer also killed in the restaurant that night – the officer’s wife delivered their baby boy a week after he was murdered. The two families supported each other and, as Toshi described, “When you raise a baby, you cannot raise a baby with sadness, anger or hatred – you need to raise a baby with love.” This act, says Toshi, strengthened her, and her capacity to love.

In one of Toshi’s photographs, there was an execution chamber flanked by a “viewing gallery”, or what is also called the “secret room”. It is for victims’ family members to view the killing through one-way windows.

In the execution room is a gurney, where inmates are strapped in for their lethal injection. There are three injections, consisting of three chemicals – one to sedate, one to induce sleep, and the third, to kill. Each takes five minutes to act, and so it takes approximately 15 minutes to die. Gradually, the muscles in your body will shrink, including the ones around your heart. Eventually, your heart will collapse and, as Toshi demonstrates with a decisive thud to the microphone, this feathery “po-pom” noise is, literally, the sound of death.

This “viewing room” was designed by persons who believed that witnessing the prisoners’ cries and torment as they die will bring some “healing” to victims’ families. But Toshi has met victims’ families and they tell him this does not heal.

Closer to Home
While Toshi is based in New York, he has also spoken in Taiwan and photographed its prisons. One photograph was especially moving – it was of an inmate whose name sounded to me like Xu. Dressed in a pair of worn shorts, we see his side profile as he stands facing a window, light streaming onto his face. He appears to be staring Heavenwards. Toshi lightly points to Xu’s cheek and describes what we cannot see – Xu has tears streaming down his face.

The following photo offers a partial explanation – it is an image of a dark-haired woman whose face I wasn’t close enough to scrutinize; she was Xu’s mother. Next photo: a slightly blurry shot of Xu, who looks like he’s smiling, receiving a Polaroid from Toshi – it is a Polaroid of his mother, whom Toshi photographed the previous day. The Polaroid contained a personal message from his mother and Xu kept the photograph immediately in his chest pocket, then turned to pose for his photograph – looking up and out the window, a silent line of tears trailing down his cheeks.

Another stark image, complete with Toshi’s narration, will likely remain seared in my memory forever. It is of a vast room with a blackened floor (black sand, as it turns out), a square of white cloth sitting desolately in the middle. A statue/image of Buddha hangs on the facing wall. When it’s time to die, inmates lie themselves face down on the white cloth. Someone then comes in with a gun and shoots them till they are dead – one, two, maybe three bullets. You are shot at the back of your head if you are an organ donor – otherwise, you receive a shot through your heart.

Before you are killed, you may have your last meal – or cigarette – on an adjacent white mat. What is not optional is burning incense to deities in the courtyard – this is so inmates’ souls don’t come back to haunt the executioners.

Why a roomful of black sand? Because black sand doesn’t show blood, so there’s “no need to change it”. Sand – not concrete – because bullets will go through it (rather than bounce off it).

A Distant Problem is a Hidden One
Lawmakers sign off on papers to sentence people to death, but there’s no visible trace of blood on their hands – their lives aren’t tinged with the suffocating aroma of death and dead people, who need to be strapped in and scraped off, then buried in nondescript plots on prison grounds because their families are too poor to pick up their bodies.

The toll exacts itself on others, like executioners, whose job it is to kill people. Asks Toshi, “If you have to kill for your job, do you think you will be happy?”

Executioners hate their job, reveals Toshi. They might act macho, and engage in rituals such as holding a feast after an execution, but it is “mental torture”. In Japan, executioners cannot even tell their families if they have executed someone. If executioners could have gotten a similar paying job they would never take up this one, but they frequently have little choice. It is like “cleaning sewage”, nobody respects them. “I really feel for them,” says Toshi, and executioners support his work too. After all, they would really rather be doing something else.

When the talk first started, Toshi asked us to imagine this scenario – say he randomly picks one of us out from the crowd, puts a gun in our hand, and asks us to shoot a convict. “Can you do it?” If we cannot bear to pull the trigger to kill a person, why do we expect others to do so?

Policymakers who support the death penalty should be made to confront the inhumane realities of the prison systems they legitimize. Prisons, as they currently stand, are poor places for rehabilitation. In fact, Toshi believes they “make you a worst criminal”. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle – instead of prioritizing prevention, the death penalty exists as a gory show of being tough on crime.

A question was asked about the “readiness” of our societies to abolish the death penalty, as the presumed “conservatism” of the citizen population is frequently cited as a key reason by politicians or other defending voices why the death penalty needs to stay. “This is complete BS,” replies Toshi. When someone says society is not ready, he adds, chances are it is them that is not ready. The first priority of politicians is themselves, notes Toshi – their concern is gaining more power and votes, not protecting people. So singing this tune of “not ready” is just an excuse. Toshi also points out that in Europe, when they first abolished the death penalty, many people apparently supported it too – but changes were still implemented and people only realized over time that it was better this way.

A sinister aspect of the death penalty is knowing exactly when you are going to die – it is state-sanctioned death by schedule. “We all die,” says Toshi, “whether through an accident or sickness. But we can go on today because we don’t know the exact date and time. Even if we get sick and are told we have ‘two months to live’, we still don’t know exactly when we are going to go, down to the hour and the minute. But when you are to be executed, you know exactly when you will be killed.”

Toshi was actually invited by one of his photo subjects – “a very intelligent and thoughtful man” – to witness his execution. Toshi declined. For Toshi, watching Chancellor’s death by lethal injection would be akin to approving it, even if he was not the one doing the injecting. Knowing precisely when the execution was taking place, it felt as if “a foreign object stabbed into my heart” the day, hour, moment that Chancellor was killed. “That feeling doesn’t exist in this world,” says Toshi, “it is so awkward.”

I left Toshi’s talk troubled yet hopeful, and incredibly inspired. Ultimately, despite the grimness of what we confronted, Toshi’s message was one of choosing life, and choosing love, of resisting the undertows of ugliness, hatred and violence.

Titled “Eye on Preciousness”, his presentation was an invitation to focus on what we cherish. For Toshi, the most precious thing of all is life – it is so vulnerable, so fragile, and so precious.

It does seem kind of ironic then, that this love for that most precious thing leads him to confront, regularly, and in such graphic intimacy, that which is its opposite – death.

It’s certainly not easy – Toshi admits that each time he leaves a prison, he’s often not able to start his car; he sits in it and weeps. He also confirms: “There is no money in this movement”; in fact, Toshi sold his house to continue with his work.

So why continue? Toshi says he is driven by the ignorance and injustice that surrounds the death penalty. While his original intention, when he started 16 years ago, was to maybe shoot one or two inmates – and perhaps get his work published in a prestigious magazine – Toshi found that he simply couldn’t stop. It is a compulsion driven by what he has seen and cannot unsee. Abandoning this work would seem like he was ignoring Michael’s life, like he was ignoring his own, and that of his three children.

This post is more than long enough, yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling I should include more – Toshi’s story about that warden (who now considers Toshi his “best friend”), the incredible incident involving the governor’s last minute phone call (with the prisoner already strapped in to the gurney), the case of Shariffe (who was finally released after his sister fought to establish his innocence), of sisters Gerry and Amy (one of whom pleaded to take the “rap” for the other, and now sits on death row), of the chilling “business” of executions and organ donations in China, of his conversations with politicians on the death penalty…

Perhaps I am just afraid I will gradually forget what Toshi has shared, and want to squirrel it all away in this blogpost – just in case. Because under the glare of each new day, our collective “disconnect” from this “faraway” issue grows – where and how does an issue as disturbing, as controversial, yet as “hidden” from public view, feature in our everyday lives? It is not exactly palatable dinnertime conversation – or a recommended topic for a convivial date night.

Yet talking about the death penalty – its relevance, its “effectiveness”, its connection to other social problems, its cruelty – matters, especially since we live in a country (Singapore) that still practices the mandatory death penalty (albeit with a few recent changes).

Meanwhile, thank you Toshi Kazama for sharing your work, and all the tireless death penalty activists in Singapore who made this talk possible and relevant. Your work – and it is incredibly difficult work – matters.


We Believe in Second Chances organized the talk by Toshi Kazama. They are also on Facebook. We Believe In Second Chances is a “youth-led initiative to raise awareness about the mandatory death penalty and the death penalty in Singapore” – their website includes news updates on current death row inmates in Singapore.

To read some reflections on Toshi Kazama’s talk in Singapore last year, click here (more links can be found at the bottom of that page).

To read Rachel Zeng’s blogpost, ‘Can an innocent individual be sent to the gallows in Singapore?’, click here.

In 2011, 76 year-old British author Alan Shahdrake was jailed for his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which criticized Singapore’s use of the death penalty – it was a “pretty horrendous experience”, said the author. The book included interviews with Singapore’s executioner, hangman Darshan Singh.


4 thoughts on “Choosing Life, Choosing Love—An Evening with Toshi Kazama

  1. Pingback: Zoroukah – Choosing Life, Choosing Love – An Evening with Toshi Kazama

  2. Pingback: Death Penalty |

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Steph. This was thoughtful and definitely worthwhile…

    I understand and agree with reviewing the fairness of the social hierarchy and criminal justice system that decide who are sent to prison or death row; A focus on preventing our youths on becoming criminals, understanding what drives them to do what they do, how we can improve the social structure, instead of relying on punishment to deter people from committing crimes.

    This may be callous of me, but I do personally believe that there are crimes heinous enough I can justify killing for, that I would personally get my own hands dirty should I be the executioner. Perhaps, if the crime encroaches on others’ right to life (murder, rape, heinous crimes against children), and I believed strongly enough that there is no hope for rehabilitation. I don’t view it as vengeance, but rather a necessary evil. I do NOT believe in mandatory death penalty for a checklist of crimes though. There should be discretion to impose capital punishment, and room to look into the perpetrator’s crime and personal story as appropriate.

    Theoretically, if only all guilty parties were punished, would it make death penalty acceptable? If so, then the issue is not death penalty per se, but rather of the method we arrive at that decision.

    This is within what is personally and ethically acceptable to me; though I suspect a lot of people have not given this issue much thought and see death penalty as something beyond their scope of concern or influence.

    Certainly, more discussions need to happen. These dialogues are good because it makes everyone accountable for the systems we have ‘quietly’ and ‘implicitly’ agreed to put in place.

  4. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Steph.

    I admit that sometimes I feel a little shaky too, when I read of especially horrific and cruel acts, when I wonder if there is still a human soul within. (I think of Norway’s Breivik – who killed so many, in cold blood.) Yet after Toshi’s talk, and knowing that I wouldn’t want to be put in the executioner’s place, I would like to think that there is more to be gained overall, in the longer term, from not killing others as punishment.

    This is definitely where things get really controversial, and I admire the death penalty activists for sticking their necks out (no pun intended!) to get these discussions going. Like you said, they’re an important part of us progressing – hopefully, to a fairer criminal justice system and a more socially just world.

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