What would you like to eat if you had only hours left to live? What about if you were about to go on stage and perform for millions of screaming fans?
Well thanks to photographer Henry Hargreaves you can see the choices that others have made in those very same situations, whether it’s serial killer Ted Bundy awaiting his death sentence with a plate of steak and eggs, or Lady Gaga lubricating her vocal chords with some cheese backstage.
Originally from New Zealand, Henry has some pretty fascinating ideas about shooting food in ways that confront us with profound human experiences. He has researched and recreated the last meals of prisoners on Death Row in his “No Seconds” series, and in his “Band Riders” series, he has looked up the requests that famous performers make for what kinds of food they want provided for them backstage before a show.
We thought both of these projects were absolutely brilliant, compelling, and completely original, so we had to reach out to Henry to ask him about them. Our conversation did not disappoint, he is a very interesting man. See what he said below.
What got you into thinking about food in so many visually compelling ways?
I was working in restaurants and I was mainly bartending but also matradee-ing and also doing a bit of waiting tables, and I thought there was always an interesting relationship people had with food, the way that they ordered it and dealt with it kind of spoke so much about them as who they are. As my photography started taking off and I got food assignments and felt like everyone kind of wanted that kind of food porn, like please take pictures of food to look good so that people will want to put it in their mouth and eat it.
And I kind of felt there was so much more to be done with food, so many more tales to be told. So I was more interested in taking pictures of food and letting that be the common denominator between the viewer and the subject — someone who doesn’t have anything in common with the subject — because you understand the food you feel like it reveals something about them.
What brought you over to the United States?
I was actually a model between 2001 to the end of 2003, I was doing it full time, and I had 9 agencies around the world and you know I was constantly traveling doing that sort of circuit every 6 months to shows in Paris, Milan, Tokyo and New York and I got my work visas through modeling in America, and I just loved this town [New York]. I didn’t want to model forever, and I decided to settle down and try and make it as a photographer and switch to the other side of the lens. I took a live/work studio space in Brooklyn New York, and started the hustle from there.
You captured the “No Seconds” series because this idea of a last meal amid the setting of a state execution seemed like an odd contrast. Were there any surprises for you when you dove into that rabbit hole?
So with the last meal, I found out about it because Texas was getting rid of the — if you’d like to call it that — privilege [of requesting a last meal] by an inmate. And I kind of jumped up and asked “what do they order, what do they want.” And I basically went online, it’s all public record you can find it all out, and it was a surprise — the things that jumped out at me. Through their food I was able to humanize these people, before that I just sort of thought of everyone as a statistic, and you know I think there’ s a whole sort of process where those people are made to become anonymous. And through their food they become real people, and I wanted to represent that visually.
And I did focus on the surprising ones; the single olive with the pit in it, two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and also things like the mentally disabled guy who wanted dessert and told the guard he was saving it for later, it was all those stories that got my mind working.
Can you think of an example of how one of the Band Riders requests changed or confirmed a perception you had of a performer?
Something that confirmed what I thought about a performer was perhaps Frank Sinatra — where you know he’s a great old crooner who loves a big booze buffet for breakfast. So I kind of loved the way that his request was so old school. It was 7 types of alcohol, shrimp, and cough lozenges, I just thought that that was so perfect, if I was asked to give my dream fantasy rider for Frank Sinatra, I couldn’t have done better than what his legitimate one was.
And You know something that contrasted like Marilyn Manson is this guy who shows himself off as a kind of prince of darkness, but he really wants gummy bears before he goes on stage, there’s almost something so childish and innocent about all that. And someone in the middle is like Axel Rose, who wanted his white Wonder Bread and Dom Perignon. You kind of got the trappings of the rockstar with the champaign, but at the end of the day he’s still just a kid from a trailer park in Indiana who wants that sh*@#y white bread.
When you contrast the inmates to the celebrities, did you think one side came out looking better when these two series were done?
I guess I’m not really motivated by anyone looking better, I just wanted to be able to draw the viewer closer to each of these people. Both are kind of outsiders. Celebrities are put on a pedestal, and made up to be like demi-gods, and we forget that these are people that need to eat. And what I was trying to do was bring them back to become more human in the eyes of the viewer and remember that these are just mere mortals, they are not anyone more special than you or me.
And then I was trying to do the opposite with the prisoners, we see them as just being the scrapings of society, when they are real people, so when you see what they want to eat, I feel it elevates them to someone you can relate to better.
Did you notice any similarities or differences between the two sets of food orders?
The ones in prison are much more restrictive. Each state has got a slightly different set of rules. Some states allow you to order food in up to $40 worth, other states let you order just what’s available in the kitchen, and Texas doesn’t even allow you a choice anymore, you just get what the general population are having.
So the celebrities can — and also alcohol is not allowed with prisoners — where celebrities can go so much deeper. So the obvious is that celebrities really do get what they want, whereas prisoners don’t. But also I feel like the celebrities requests are totally contingent on them being a star and like a big deal. You know I did the celebrity ones to be like a flemish still-life painting, where the theme of the still-life was kind of about mortality and the passing of time. And I wanted these series to kind of take on that look, where once the spotlight has passed on these celebrities they’re probably not going to get these choices. You know it’s kind of like if you’re playing a return service association gig somewhere you probably don’t get anything! It’s like hey, eat before you come, get on stage, pick up your check and go, but when they play Madison Square Garden, they can go overboard with food.
How did you determine the presentation of the “No Seconds” series, did you visit real prisons?
When I started the series, I actually did a bit of research to try and find what a prisoner’s last meal actually looked like, and I couldn’t find a single picture, which leads me to believe that there might not be any public circulation. I contacted a couple of prisons that did carried out death sentences, and asked if I could visit and photograph this, and not surprisingly was told absolutely no way, and so for me the prisoner’s last meal was kind of — I hate to use the word fantasy — but my imagination of what it might be like. Do they serve them on a wooden surface or is it a stainless steal metal service? Do they give them proper China or is it just like plastic plates? Does the chef take any pride in what he is doing, or do they just throw down defrosted peas? So I wanted to explore all of those possibilities.
And also that went from the lighting and the way I did it, I wanted it to be shot totally from above in the perspective of the prisoner the moment before he picks up his cutlery. And I lit it in a way that represents neon lighting because I felt they were going to be in a stale and stark sort of room.
The use of the death penalty in America and the American entertainment industry are two things that must have been pretty exotic to a New Zealander. What do you make of all of this?
…I was listening to a really interesting interview recently from a guy called Brian Stevenson who is one of the foremost lawyers who defends people on death row, and he said that one in nine people executed on death row is basically the subject of a mistrial. He’s like, look if nothing else that’s a good enough reason for this not to exist. If one in nine planes crashed after taking off no one would be flying, but this manages to happen. It’s kind of something no one talks about, people accept, and we kind of get on with it, but it i kind of a real perversion of justice. So yeah I do find this really strange.
The celebrity obsession I don’t think is strictly American, I think it’s kind of something the whole world is kind of obsessed with, but I think the difference is that coming to America you’re slightly closer to all of this. When I was working for restaurants [in New York], all of these stars would actually come into the restaurants. So for the first time it actually became a part of your day to day reality in America, whereas in New Zealand all of that stuff is purely hypothetical.