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Photographer recreates the last meals of death row inmates

In the eighteenth century, French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." Now, in 2015, a photographer from New Zealand is using that old adage to humanize inmates on death row.

From Ted Bundy to Timothy McVeigh, photographer Henry Hargreaves has recreated the last meal requests of notable criminals executed under the American penal system, and photographed them. The meals range from original recipe KFC chicken to mint chocolate chip ice cream and pecan pie; all fairly relatable items that the average viewer is likely to have consumed in his or her own life. And that's the idea behind the project.

"I read about what they ordered, and it gave me a glimpse into the inmates as people," Hargreaves explains. "They kind of treat them like statistics, like these anonymous faces of death. And suddenly, when I realized what these people like to eat, and you know these are things that I understand, they became real people in my mind."

Hargreaves contacted several U.S. prisons to inquire about photographing actual last meals, but was told such a thing would never be allowed. So, he did a little research, and chose instead to recreate the last meals of men and women who had already been executed. In doing so, he found that the re-creation actually posed a number of fascinating questions, as well.

"There's never actually been a real picture of a last meal," Hargreaves says. "So, to me, what this was also about was recreating what I think the last meal may be like. You know, do they serve it on plastic plates, or on china? Does the shift take pride in cooking this last meal for someone, or do they just slap it together with no love? It was a conversation with all those sorts of things as well."

As a New Zealander, Hargreaves admits that it's difficult for him to wrap his head around the death penalty, and in particular the disproportionate number of African-Americans put to death. However, he insists that his "No Seconds" photo series isn't about swaying public opinion on the death penalty in either direction.

John Wayne Gacy's last meal Henry Hargreaves

"Look, I'm not trying to preach whether someone should agree or disagree with the death penalty," Hargreaves says. "All I'm trying to do is open up the conversation about it... to get people to empathize with the condemned men and woman as real people."

Of all the photographs, Hargreaves says the ones of Ricky Ray Rector and Victor Feguer's last meals are his favorite. He finds the one of Rector - who was mentally impaired - particularly haunting because he had chosen to save his pecan pie for later.

"This guy might have been so checked out that he didn't even know he was off to be executed," says Hargreaves. "So, suddenly he's being punished for something that doesn't even register with him."

Feguer's, on the other hand, Hargreaves finds especially meaningful because of the polarizing nature of his food choice.

"We think about last meals, and is it something that's going to be totally gluttonous," Hargreaves says. "And then he just has a single olive. You know, it's so simple, beautiful, and kind of final. It's almost like a full stop at the end of his life."

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