When photographer Emily Kinni watched the scene in Dead Man Walking where Sean Penn says goodbye to his family before his execution, she was paying as much attention to the space as the characters, noticing details like the yellow chairs and the red trim on windows. She was inspired to begin a new series of photographs documenting the places where people were once executed in the 17 states that have abolished the practice.
“My work tends to deal with how the psychology of one’s surroundings can create or enhance our experiences,” Kinni says. “Though it was only the visitation space in that scene, I became obsessed with the task of structuring a place dedicated for death, and ultimately restructuring one as something else altogether.”
In some of the former execution sites she visited, there was no trace of what had happened before. One site of public hangings was replaced by a department store, another was torn down to build a house, and yet another became a tramway. Some chambers remained standing but found new uses, like a janitorial break room in Minnesota.
Though some people knew about the history of the spaces–like employees at the Minnesota courthouse who said they’ve seen ghosts in the former execution chamber–Kinni found that more often the sites risked being forgotten completely.
“Many people along the way had no idea the sites had that kind of history attached to them, but the more startling thing was the amount of information that is undocumented,” she said. “A lot of documentation I found proving these sites were accurate was not from libraries and historical societies. The idea that these sites could be lost was the most surprising.”
Of all the places she visited, Kinni says New Jersey made one of the strongest impressions.
“It was my first time in a maximum security prison. The entire event will be with me forever. I was on a hunt to see the ways a space originally intended for death might be changed to become something else. I literally wanted to see what color they would paint the walls or what kind of furniture they might implement, and if there would be any lingering residue of its previous function. I couldn’t stop thinking about who would make that call.”
The electric chair and supplies for lethal injections had been removed, and in their place, there was a conference table and orange chairs. The platform for the electric chair was still there, along with two-way mirrors and a curtain that was once used to screen the inmate’s view of the executioner.
Kinni has visited 13 of the 17 states to abolish the death penalty. The others, which still have inmates on death row, don’t allow visitors, but she hopes to eventually have the chance to go. She stresses that the series wasn’t fueled by her views on capital punishment. “The work, to me, is about something else,” she says. “I want to invite conversations about capital punishment, but it’s not a direct statement about that.”