Celia Shapiro: Humanity’s folly

Image above: Portrait of Celia Shapiro by Antonio Moreira.


If the death penalty was to deter people from crimes then the state would display the rotting corpses on pikes in city centers as a reminder that if you disobey the law, they reserve the right to kill you. Celia Shapiro’s images are recreations of the last meals of condemned men. Part of a larger move- ment in the artistic community to present the abattoir of death row as what it is: absurd and shame- ful. Shapiro’s work stands out among other explorations of the death penalty as it takes a more direct approach, and highlights the importance of food in not only death, but life and situation.

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.27.51 PM©Celia Shapiro, Larry White – 05/22/1997.


There have been other projects designed to bring the death penalty to the attention of the general public, but state murder is too embarrassing to be frank about. There have been other portraits of last meals. There are portraits of death row inmates, all hollow-eyed and sallow-faced. There are well intentioned but idiotic ideas like The Selfie Against the Death Penalty; the egotism of thinking that taking a picture of yourself puts a human face on those who have been dehumanized for years by a system that is designed to kill is patronizing and frankly insulting. Last Supper elevates itself from the rest of the liberal ‘awareness raising’ crowd with its sterile approach. The re-created trays of inmates’ last meals are subversive in their detached banality.

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.28.01 PM©Celia Shapiro, Karla Tucker – 02/03/1998.  


Going beyond the everyday extrajudicial murder the police practice, the state offers a far grim- mer prospect for those who make it to the court room alive. The United States still holds on to the death penalty as some kind of ultimate punishment. In contrast to the argument in favor of capital punishment, that the knowledge of the the possibility of death acts as a deterrent against crime, these government-endorsed murders are spoken about only in soft whispers. There are no public executions anymore; it is all done by experts in closed rooms.

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.28.37 PM©Celia Shapiro. John Rook – 09/19/1986.

One of the crimes deemed heinous enough to deserve death is pre-meditated murder. What is more pre-meditated than locking someone up for twenty years after telling them their exact date of death, in a special building designed for the sole purpose of housing those to die, who are then killed by experts trained in the removal of life in a room supplied with the ‘finest’ chemicals and tools designed specifically for killing?

The state will torture the condemned. A special form of torture: inevitable death augmented with the constant hope of appeals. Once the subject has been strung along for the maximum amount of time, the pendulum finally drops and their execution date is unchangeable. It’s at this point that the guards and executioners are told that they should give at least basic hu- man rights to these prisoners, beyond the right to live free.

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.28.12 PM© Celia Shapiro, Jeffery Barney – 04/16/86.

In this way the last meal does not exist for the condemned as a moment of happiness before death; I’m unsure if anything would taste good with the knowledge that the bowels will be evacuated onto a sterile floor before anything eaten is properly digested. The last meal exists for the con- science of the executioners. The state sanctioned murderer can say to themselves that, for one mo- ment, they gave that prisoner some dignity—a last meal.

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.28.47 PM©Celia Shapiro. Harry Charles Moore – 05/16/97.

Shapiro’s trays are an interesting look at part of the fog we surround state murder in. Looking at the trays, we see that the condemned want junk food. Is this because there is no point in eating healthy so close to death, or because the disappeared come from the ranks of the poor who have never known anything other than nutrition empty food available to America’s lower classes? Food is as significant a class signifyer as education, as prison. It’s easy to read the contents of the trays as the American racial and class divide taken to its logical conclusion.

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.27.03 PM© Celia Shapiro, Margie Barfield – 11/02/84.  

by John Hutt


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