The silhouette of a man casts its shadow against a deep blue backdrop. The shape is gazing downwards. His arms hang in a pose so sublime and so subdued. Desolate. Defeated. Faceless. Yet so obviously Human.
This is the image you are presented with when you navigate to the site The Next to Die.
“The goal is to humanise what is often a dehumanised and inhumane process,” managing editor Gabriel Dance explains to me over a long distance call. “This is done in two ways. One is with the silhouette that casts a shadow. The other one is with the countdown clock. Because both of those things are particularly human things. The understanding of time is a human thing. Maybe one day we may come to discover that animals too have an understanding of time, but certainly not the way that we understand it – with a deadline to it. The understanding of how a shadow is cast (also particular to human beings) – which is to say the knowledge that we are on the Earth and that there is the Sun that functions as a light source and human beings are people who take up space on the earth and cast shadows – both of those things are meant to be subtle reminders of the humanity that, whether diminished or not, plays a role in the process of death penalty.”
With such an intense concept, the site is impressively visceral and Dance is right to talk of its sharp symbolism. The issue of capital punishment is immense, complex and ancient. Symbolism, when intelligently used like in this case, can directly illustrate what thousands of words can only summarise or allude to, not fully describe. The intent behind the site is to raise awareness rather than to lecture on ethics.
Shadows are powerfully symbolic in human history. As Dance mentions, they are scientifically formed in a space where an object blocks out light. A shadow exists where light dies. Whilst light is religious and literary symbol of God and of Life, shadow symbolises Evil and Death. An individual can consequently be seen as the opaque object between the two: human existence is what takes place in that spatial and temporal fragment between life and death.
With detached pragmatism, the site offers the option for the countdown clock to be embedded into other websites.
The sense of time is central to the project in many ways, not just in relation to the emblematic clock. It is also to be intended in its tense of past and future: “We felt that the time at which we examine the process of the death penalty often happens after the execution. We wanted to shift the discussion to focus or at least incorporate those people about to be executed before the event occurred.” Uniquely, the project draws attention to the condemned pre-execution rather than offering post-mortem moral views and legal revisions.
From the symbolism of the graphic design to the bold presentation of raw data, The Next to Die is starkly effective. I am curious to know whether, as a counter effect, the site may attract those who have some sort of morbid fascination with death or perceive it from a more wicked point of view: “It was built with interpretations in mind so you can interpret it in lots of ways. I had not thought about that particular way. But, then again, that is why the shadow holds such an important symbolic position in a variety of different contexts. So the project is also meant to make people ask those kind of questions and to have these more complicated nuanced discussions and thoughts. We are not trying to force a position. What we are trying to do is encourage people to think critically about the subject.”
The shadow, in fact, is also an individual’s most loyal Doppelgänger – a darker and less tangible version of ourselves, yet as real as our body. There is a double side to each of us and this is reflected in the opinion polls for capital punishment where society is divided between those who are in support and those against it.
Although I am taken by the way the site represents all these aspects of humanity and yet manages to keep a distant sobriety (because it does not polemicise, judge or patronise), I still wonder why the support for the death penalty is so high in America, and part of me struggles with accepting the mere existence of it: “Do you think there is some sort of link or relationship between religion in some cases and entertaining views of a justice that in a way represents an “eye for eye” sort of philosophy?”
“Sure – that is one reason there is support for the death penalty. But I would also say that there are other groups, like some Evangelical groups and others, who do not feel that executing or ending a human life is appropriate. There is definitely religion on both sides of it [both in support and against]. I think the “eye for eye” thing is a very American form of punishment, to a certain extent. But I don’t know if it’s wrapped up strictly in religion. I think we just have, in our culture, an interesting relationship with punishment versus reform.”
Understanding the reasons behind the support would require a much more thorough investigation with a much more extended time scale. But the clock is ticking for us both on the phone and, more to the point, for today’s Shadow Caster on The Next to Die.
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Cover photo by Florida Department of Corrections/Doug Smith