When Toshi Kazama’s lens comes into focus on his subject – the criminal on death row – the image produced is uncannily endearing. You see a person, rather than a criminal.
By Susanna Khoo (original post : http://www.goodtimes.my/index.php/Community/lens-on-humanity-on-death-row.html)
Kazama portrays criminals on death row as ordinary people — albeit with issues — but who need help, rather than death.
He believes that the death penalty does not contribute towards a safer society, as inadequate attention is given to future crime prevention.
Rather than adopting a punitive approach, Kazama, a commercial photographer from New York, felt that it was better to focus on building positive values into society instead.
|Photo to illustrate … an activist against the death penalty, Kazama raises awareness on the inhumanity behind the act. Photos by Susanna Khoo.
“Hate the violence, but never hate the person,” he told the crowd of over 80 people at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly (KLSCAH) Hall on 25 October. His audience came to hear him talk on the Death Penalty: Does he/she deserve it? A perspective from the victim’s family, as was organised by KLSCAH and Amnesty International Malaysia, and held in conjunction with the World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October.
Kazama, 53, a Japanese who migrated to the United States when he was 15, is against the death penalty, saying that forgiveness and love are far better cures to overcome the ills found in today’s society.
He explained that those who choose to harbour hatred and anger and are bent on punishing others via the death penalty, would only end up killing their own soul in the process.
“Do we want to build a society based on killing?” he asked.
“When Malaysia executes somebody in prison, all of you are killing because you chose to have the death penalty,” Kazama said.
Kazama’s concern against the death penalty began in 1996, when he decided to undertake a photography project featuring youth on death row and the families of their victims. He chose this subject because he felt that death row inmates personified all the ills in society.
The project, Youth of Death Row: A Photo documentary Exploration,took 8 years to complete and it ended up having a profound effect on him. His preconceived notions of those on death row changed.
Until then, he thought of criminals as monsters. While working on the project, however, he began to realise that they were just ordinary people.
“I decided to use photography as a tool to express my point of view,” he said.
He became an activist against the death penalty and sought to raise awareness about the inhumanity behind the death penalty. He also became a founding board member of International NGO, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR).
Kazama continues in his mission to photograph criminals on death row, despite the emotional difficulties it presents because he wants to highlight the need for forgiveness.
The father of three grown children speaks from personal experience when he shares about forgiveness.
Kazama ... we have to think about building a society with care (and) love, instead of hatred (and) ignorance.
Eight years ago, while picking up his daughter from school, Kazama was attacked by a stranger. He was choked by his assailant and his head was smashed onto the pavement, causing him to bleed from the head and ears.
As a result of the incident, he experienced multiple skull fractures and fell unconscious.
At the hospital, Kazama’s wife was told to prepare for the worst. Doctors said that even if he woke up, he would most likely have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
But not only did he wake up just four days after the incident, he miraculously recovered after undergoing a long period of rehabilitation.
Upon seeing the severity of his condition, a friend of Kazama’s vowed to track down and kill the person who had been responsible for his injuries.
But Kazama was determined to forgive. He said, his only wish was to get a sincere apology from the one who had hurt him.
His reasoning was simple: if he did not forgive, the negative thoughts (of the criminal) would have not only physically violated his body, but also contaminated his family as well.
To this day, Kazama still has to cope with the physical scars of that assault, which includes numbness on the right side of his face and a certain degree of hearing loss.
In spite of this, he is extremely happy just to be alive, so he can share his story and that of those on death row.
“Death row inmates are the weakest parts of society,” Kazama said. “They’re poor, they’re uneducated.
“Some family members did not even have the money or the means to collect the body after execution,” he said.
Of the 21 death row inmates that Kazama has photographed, he has observed certain similarities among them, notably a lack of love in their families.
“When we receive unconditional love, we learn to care for others. Maybe these crimes could have been prevented in our society,” Kazama commented.
Many different methods are used around the world to execute the death penalty: lethal injection, electric chair, shooting, decapitation, stoning and many others. For Malaysia, the method of choice is by hanging.
Many usually claim that the approach they have chosen is the most humane, to which Kazama asks, “Is there any humane way to kill a person?”
Death by lethal injection requires 15 minutes, in which three different chemicals would be injected into the inmate’s arm; one to cause him to relax, another to render him unconscious and the final one to deliver the death blow.
Complications can arise at any point during this process, sometimes requiring executioners to start all over, while the inmate is still half conscious.
While all of us will succumb to death at some point, Kazama pointed out, “Execution is the only method in the world that we can control when a person is going to die.”
As for the victims’ families, he shared that those who emerged stronger despite the tragedy they endured were those who chose to make peace, not just with the perpetrator but also with themselves and their circumstances.
Describing a Vietnamese lady, who had lost her entire family in one night and who also has become a source of inspiration to him, Kazama said, “The scar of losing her loved ones will always remain in her heart, but she said, she can change how she looks at her own scars.
“We have to think about building a society with care (and) love, instead of hatred (and) ignorance. One person at a time, if you can extend your love a little further out… (and) maybe we can live in a better society,” Kazama concluded.
Boy criminal … Michael, 16 was the first death row inmate that Kazama photographed and who changed his perspective of convicts. Photo courtesy of Toshi Kazama, Copyright All Rights Reserved
Dehumanising convicts … Kazama questions whether death sentences such as those involving the electric chair are humane ways to punish criminals. Photo courtesy of Toshi Kazama, Copyright All Rights Reserved