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Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (PADP), a Philadelphia area human-rights group headed by local artist and activist Aja Beech, is spearheading a project known as Execute Art, Not People. The title of the project plays on the dual meaning of the word ‘execute’, calling for the end of the death penalty and an active future for arts activity. Their main focus is to raise awareness about issues associated with the death penalty, such as the racial disparity of peoples on death row, living conditions of death row inmates, the incredibly sporadic scheduling of executions and the massive cost of keeping inmates on death row to tax payers.
It is calculated that, annually, each death row inmate costs $10,000 more to detain than a prisoner with any other sentence. Aja estimates that merely by changing an inmate’s sentence from death to life without parole, American taxpayers could have been saved $27 million dollars since the year 1999.
So how did Aja and her fellow advocates decide to spread this message to the state with the fourth largest death-row population? Through art. Aja and PADP are recruiting artists, celebrities and politicians of both local and national fame to be photographed holding their own hand-made “Execute Art, Not People” posters. Their hope is that this eye-catching campaign can go viral, spreading their message to a wide audience and putting some pressure on local legislature to take note of people’s opposition. The group is certainly picking up traction, including a recent endorsement from Amnesty International.
The photographs are shot by Sean Bolton, a Phildelphia area photographer. Sean says that his personal work is inspired by his environment. “Living in the East Kensington part of Philadelphia, I’m constantly taking in remnants of America’s industrial revolution and the effects of its collapse. Here we enjoy a growing artist community mixed with the people whose families have lived through poverty and drug culture for years.” Living in a community so affected by drug culture, Sean has also borne witness to the American judicial system, and the people who are slighted by its oversights. He says “I originally got involved in the project because I feel that in a flawed system where the poor have generally no voice it’s our duty as artists to speak up in order to try and achieve some checks and balances.” Execute Art, Not People, provided just that outlet for him, and allowed him to create an artistic space where people would be unafraid to truly express themselves. “I was mainly focused on capturing the artist and their art through the signs they designed. I felt the pink background would bring a vulnerable quality to the project that I felt it needed.”
The group is also exploring what to do with the millions of dollars that would be saved in the eventuality that their message is given a warm reception by local government. One distinct possibility would seem to be to fund the sector that assures their success, to use that money for arts funding. To that end, the group recently petitioned both online and in print for signatures to endorse a change of funds in the Pennsylvania State Budget from prisons to the arts and arts education and, in doing so, turn an agent of death into an agent of creativity and hope.
Photograph by Sean Bolton