How I Got That Shot: Lighting Death Row Portraits

June 3, 2011

© Justin Clemons

Clemons had to convey the cold and lonely feeling of the room on death row, as well as to show the humanity of the prisoners. 
To shoot this image, he set a softbox to the left, 7 feet high and angled down. He placed a grid spot on the right, 7 to 8 feet high.

Client: Marie Claire UK
Client: Kelly Preedy

Clemons got an unexpected phone call from photo editor Kelly Preedy at Marie Claire UK asking him if he was available for an assignment. Joanna Walters, a writer for the magazine, had gotten permission to meet with inmates in the prison in Livingston, Texas. Hers would be the last interviews that Michael Perry, 28, and Derrick Jackson, 42, gave before their scheduled executions. Preedy had found Clemons’s portraits through the Web site of his agent, Wonderful Machine, and wanted him to photograph the two inmates. The prison had granted permission at the last minute, so Clemons had to be ready to shoot in less than a week.

“She sent me five images from my Web site where she liked the lighting. Most of those were shot with one or two lights but they had pretty dramatic lighting,” Clemons says. “She wanted to show the cold and lonely feeling of the room on death row, but she also wanted to show the humanity of the prisoners.”

Logistics: Time was limited. Prison officials had originally given Walters an hour with each inmate, but the night before the shoot, Clemons says, “Joanna called and said we’re not going to have an hour, we’re going to have 30 minutes with each inmate—that’s to interview them and to photograph them. She said she would need 22 minutes to interview them which left me 8 minutes to shoot.” He recalls, “I figured during the interview I’d set up and do some test shots, even shooting some pictures of her interviewing. She asked that I just tap her on the shoulder at 22 minutes and she would step out.”

There was no time to scout; his only sense of what the interview room looked like came from snapshot that Preedy had sent him—which had been taken from an inmate’s perspective. Prisoners were in small cubicles, seated opposite their visitor as they talked by phone. Walls stood to the left and right of the visitor’s seat. “It’s maybe a 3 1/2-foot-wide space with walls on either side of where the interviewer sits. I didn’t know how high the walls were,” Clemons explains. “I figured it would be a straight on shot of the subject, and then I’d have the lights as close to a 45-degree angle as I could so there wouldn’t be reflections in the glass.”

Due to miscommunication, Clemons’s assistant had not been given clearance to enter the prison. That meant he would have to carry and set up all the lights himself within the allotted time frame.

Clemons worked with Profoto 7b lighting. “My main priority was to set up one light with a grid on it.” He liked how the lighting looked in the small interview cubicle, he says, “because it was dramatic, and the white, close walls were a perfect bounce card that filled in some of the dark areas in the cubicle, but left the other cubicles and room dark and mysterious.” If he had enough time, he had also planned to set up a small, 2 x 3-foot soft box. “I was going to try that as a fill light.” Once on location, the time to shoot stretched to 15 minutes, and then longer, while a TV crew was busy setting up nearby, so Clemons continued to create variations with his lights.

Clemons had a 20-degree grid on the softbox. He moved this light around. The walls on either side of the interviewer were 6 feet tall, so he set his lights up slightly higher, and had them coming down on the space at a 45-degree angle. He also tried it directly over the subjects, and worked with having the shadow of one of the walls of the interview cubicle fall across the inmate.

In the horizontal photo of Michael Perry that opens the Marie Claire story, Clemons had the softbox about 7 feet high off to the left by about 6 feet from the subject and angled downward. The spot with the grid was on the right, about 8 feet from Perry, between 7 and 8 feet high and angled down at a 45-degree angle.

Clemons picked up the phone and asked Perry to stand and move within his space. “You could tell he hadn’t talked to a lot of people while on death row. He didn’t want to get off the phone. He was like, ‘What kind of camera are you using? I like photography.’ Having already gotten some shots, I just talked to him.” They discussed the recent deaths of their fathers, Clemons recalls. “We could relate a little bit.”

Within a month of the shoot, both inmates were dead.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II, with the 24-70 2.8 l series lens. “I shot it at f/8 at 1/125 of a second,” Clemons says. He shot to his card, handholding the camera. “I was moving around as much as possible, trying to shoot as many angles and lighting scenarios as I could.”

Minimal. “I cleaned up some dust spots, tweaked the levels. I might have made it a touch cooler than what I’d shot. The walls above each prisoner were pretty nasty, and I cleaned up a couple of spots on them.”

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