In cases involving capital crime, the victim and his or her offender are names and faces well-known in the public eye. However, the lesser known, innocent bystanders of these crimes, the family members, rarely get their stories told.
Huntsville born-and-raised photographer, rancher, SHSU alumnus and former Miss Sam Houston Barbara Sloan has been working for the last eight years to do just that.
Sloan has photographed and interviewed more than 40 different family members of victims and offenders, equally, in Texas capital crime cases to help share their stories with the world.
The project, supported and funded in part by the Huntsville Arts Commission, was at first just an exhibit in the Texas Prison Museum. However, as of the last year it evolved into a much bigger task when Sloan decided to self-publish a book featuring her work.
“Of all the work that I’ve done all over the world, even the portraits for Andy Warhol, this is my most important work,” Sloan said. “It’s just so emotional and every one of these people, I got very close to them and appreciate so much them telling me their stories.”
According to Sloan, self-publishing was the best option for her in producing an objective product because she was afraid other publishers would want to add in their two-cents about the controversial capital punishment.
“I promised all of these people that I would not editorialize anything about the death penalty and that this was only about compassion for them as innocent family members of the victim or the offender,” she said. “I think most people who wanted to do the book wanted to tell their side of the death penalty so to have total control, I had to self-publish and that was overwhelming to me.”
Beginning with the first black and white portrait snapped in 2006 to the last one in 2013, the entire process took eight years with the added year it took to layout and edit the physical book.
Sloan will be holding an exclusive book signing from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday at the Texas Prison Museum for her work “Last Statement: A Photographic Study of the Families of the Victims and the Executed.” The book will be on sale starting Saturday at the Texas Prison Museum gift shop.
The photographer said setting up the interviews and actually conducting them took several months of preparation for each one. Sloan also said that she worked hard to maintain objectivity interviewing the same number of victim family members as she did offender family members.
Typically, Sloan would either interview and photograph her subjects while they were protesting outside the execution, or under less emotional circumstances at their home, church or at a restaurant.
Other stipulations Sloan had for the project included only using subjects whose cases had been completed—meaning the offender had been executed. The book goes in order of execution date beginning with those that took place via the electric chair.
“We didn’t ever want to be accused of swaying opinion one way or the other because a lot of these executions get stays and once they get a stay, it takes many, many years before it comes up again,” Sloan said.
Having a background in photojournalism as well as experience with fashion and commercial photography in New York City and oversees in Europe, Sloan has an extensive resume including clients such as National Geographic, New York Times and Andy Warhol’s Interview.
“I believe in pure journalism, nothing editorial,” she said. “What they say is the golden part of it; what I say is not important—I didn’t have that experience.”
Sloan said although she had doubts about the success of the exhibit at its inception, she quickly found that its relatability has made it one of the most popular exhibits at the museum.
“It’s just been a very successful exhibit because it’s not just about the death penalty and the prison system,” Sloan said. “It’s about life and death, it’s about forgiveness—that’s huge, especially among the victims’ families, it’s about dealing with grief and that’s something all of us can relate to.”
Sloan said she hopes that everyone involved in the criminal justice system will look to her book for guidance and insight as to how to aid the families of both offenders and victims.
“These people are all innocent and I have great compassion for them and that’s why I say everyone involved in criminal justice should have this book in their library to remind them how far-reaching the effects of capital crime are and how they have to deal with these families,” she said. “It’s not cut-and-dry, there are generations of that family that will be effected on both sides.”
After an emotionally-taxing past eight years, Sloan said she feels she has finished her calling and will continue photographing less emotionally-draining subjects—her horses.
“The story needed to be told and people needed to be aware of the families’ side of it, but there’s just so many of these cases you can read until it becomes overload and I think that this is it,” Sloan said. “I think the theme of forgiveness and the theme of grieving and of dealing with the death of someone you love, that’s told. And I don’t think any more stories are going to change the way people deal with that and it’s very interesting because everyone has their own way of dealing with that.”
For more information about the exhibit or the book, contact the Texas Prison Museum at 936-295-2155.