The Value of Life – Getting to Know “Toshi Kazama”

11 June 2015

By: Tassana Hanrueangkiat
Photo: Krittakorn Suthikittibut
Thanks for the information from: A day BULLETIN, Volume 284 (27th December – 2nd January 2014)


Punishing offenders with the death penalty even in the developed countries like America is still a debate topic whether or not it should continue, especially the issue of the erroneous death penalty system which still exists. Consequently, Toshi Kazama, a professional Japanese photographer used his powerful photos to convince viewers to become aware of the unacceptable level of violence of the death penalty since 1996, and his work has been used to release over 100 juvenile offenders whom have been later found innocent.


I initially became a photographer because ... this job offers high compensation. At first, I did not have passion for this until I saw the photograph of Robert Frank (a famous American photographer) who could convey feelings even through a picture of leaves on the street. So, I thought I could probably do that too.


What I experienced when I travel to take photographs in Africa for 6 months was that ... I was traveling by hitchhiking from Morocco to Kenya through the Sahara desert. The stars in the sky of the Sahara Desert were so beautiful that it made me cry.


During my stay in Africa, I was jailed because ... I entered the Kisangani region, where an election was held, and there had been a report that foreigners would come in and disrupt the election. Thus, the authorities banned foreigners from entering the region, but I did not know because I traveled by a passenger boat. Later, I was released. The warder told me to follow the path he led, which I had no idea how my destiny would unfold. Having no other ways to go, I decided to go on.


I traveled through the city area with the help from local people. Until ... the official soldiers found me, and I was taken to an office. There was a woman whom I had only met for a few days accompanied my trip, and she spoke the language I did not understand with her boss. Then I was released, but her facial expression turned very sad. I believe that she had to sacrifice herself to help me, and the last word she said before she left was “Get me a bottle of beer”, which is in French and beer in Africa was considered a very valuable thing which could not be found easily.


The fact that I risked my life is not a matter of compensation, but it is because ... I wanted the challenge for my life. I was born in Tokyo and grew up in New York, and I never had an experience in this kind of place. I also wanted to prove whether I could dedicate everything to become a photographer.


I saw the line between life and death that… even though I died choosing my own path, I saw life as valuable and vulnerable which could not be rebuilt like objects. Because my life was worthy, I had to do everything to not waste my time, despite how hard it was.


The reason I started taking pictures of death-row prisoners because ... I had an opportunity to take pictures of a teenager in prison 17 years ago. At first I was so scared because the prisoners there committed serious offenses. The image in my head was to meet the devil who had killed a person, but this child made my prejudice disappear. I got to hold his hand and hugged him. He told me that he was accused of being a murderer and the jury sentenced him to life imprisonment. However, the judge decided to impose the death penalty. Therefore, I dedicated myself using photography to help these people. And later, I was not sure if it is because of my pictures, but the capital punishment began to be abolished in many states in the United States.


My works are black and white because ... when you look at a photo in color, you will stop using your imagination. But black and white photos allow you to you look beyond the two colors. Like the picture of the electric chair, seeing it in black and white makes it more horrifying than seeing it in color, which you would only see it in plain yellow.


I received a letter from the child whom I took his picture. Inside the letter, it was written that ... he wanted me to witness the day he was executed as a friend. It reflected to me that had I closed my eyes and not proceeded to call for abolition of capital punishment, would I still have had humanity left in me? So, I decided to do this project to help death-row prisoners even if I had to sell my house. And now I can no longer receive any commercial photography jobs because it wastes my time to help these prisoners.
Even an executioner himself have told me ... to tell him if this prisoner was made or whatever so that he did not have to feel guilty when he had to bring the prisoner for execution, which shows that no one wants the death penalty. It does not make anyone happy or fun at all. So why does the death penalty still exist?


Every day of our life, we never know when we will die, but … the death penalty is the only thing that tells us when we will be killed under certain conditions. How we will die can be controlled, but it is not natural; it is something from other worlds which pulls our heart away.


I know that there are people supporting and opposing the death penalty, but ... if you have a chance to see the real place and real prisoners, I want to know if you will still have the courage to execute them, whether in the name of justice or the victims. Will you be able to do it? According to the meeting with the victims’ family, I found that no one was happier after the person whom they thought committed an offense was dead.


It is true that most prisoners say they are innocent, but I think ... the fact that I help these people is like helping yourself because in the real world there are killings happening all the time. We also claim that it happens because of religion, anger, hatred or drugs, and there are many other reasons. If this continues, it is getting worse in the future. I do this because I have a family and children, and I want my family to live in a better society. I cannot keep my family members safe at all times. As the family leader, I will have to make this world safer, which is everyone’s duty to make the world a better place.


Toshi Kazama was a professional photographer in New York City, USA. His outstanding works are pictures for famous magazines like Vogue, Time, Newsweek, etc., including CD covers for artists.


He was once physically abused until the doctor agreed that he would be handicapped for all his life. But finally, he restored his body to normal and told his family members not to be angry at the person who attacked him. He also hope that the villain who has not been arrested will find love that makes him see the value of life in himself and others.


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Currently, Toshiko Kazama is the director of the Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights Organization or the Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights Network ( assisting offenders who are not being treated fairly or are liable for a crime that they have not committed.
Story: Tassana Hanrueangkiat Photo: Krittakorn Suthikittibut
Thanks for the information from: A day BULLETIN, Volume 284 (27th December – 2nd January 2014)


Toshi traveled to Thailand again in order to meet and exchange his experience concernin the campaign on abolishing the capital punishment with people.

On Thursday, 18th June 2015 at 13.00-15.00 hours, Department of Protection of Rights and Freedoms together with Amnesty International Thailand held a lecture and photo exhibition entitled “Death Row Juveniles” by Toshiko Kazama at the Conference Room 2, 8th floor, Ministry of Justice, Government Building A, Chaengwattana Road, Bangkok. Reserve your seat at 089-922-9585. *The lecture is in English with Thai translation available by interpreters.