Interview with John Holbrook

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Table of Contents 
  •  Photography career 
  •  Experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  •  Views on capital punishment 
  •  Later career photographing death row inmates 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: All right, this story has very little to do with me. That's very important for me to tell you that right off the bat. In addition to that, it has very little to do with the photographs I've taken. This story has to do with a person who has done something greater than I will probably ever do in my life. 
  •  This story has to do with a person who's accomplished something tremendous. And that person's name is Cari Crews. Cari Crews was a sixteen-year old girl who lived with her family in Denton and attended high school in Denton. To say that Cari was physically beautiful is an understatement. 
  •  She was one of those one-in-a-million phenomenons. She was perfectly physically beautiful. And she had long brown hair, and beautiful eyes, and her— her— her presence was just angelic. And I hear that the only thing more amazing than her physical beauty was her inner beauty. 
  •  She had this spirituality and this loving compassion that she— whenever anybody saw it or came into contact with it they were— fell in love with her immediately. She was that kind of person. She was a classical pianist. And she would do concerts and she would— an overachiever. 
  •  One thing that she did that was exceptional was in her compassion. She came to the same conclusions that I've come to now at my age of forty-three, she did it age sixteen. And that was things about the death penalty, about concepts about love and forgiveness. She was so convicted by these realities that she concluded that— she began a chapter of Amnesty International in her high school. And she was the president and the founder of this particular chapter. 
  •  She was really motivated and did a great job. And she was so good at it that she was asked to speak at Southern Methodist University one day, and hundreds of people— she addressed them. Like all sixteen-year old girls, I'm sure she was very nervous. She talked about concepts of love and compassion and forgiveness, and why we shouldn't kill people; why we shouldn't execute them because we have to forgive them. 
  •  I didn't see it, but I heard about it. I heard about this amazing presentation she gave, and something that happens to an individual who does that. When they present this kind of thing to a group of people, your adrenaline surges, and you— you take this message that you've produced and you internalize it. It becomes part of you and it becomes part of your being, fiber of your soul. 
  •  It justifies everything you do, but very importantly, when it's internalized, something happens that is very responsible, and that is, you begin to question yourself, to validate this message, and what Cari did, very responsibly, was ask herself, Do I really believe this? Do I really believe that we shouldn't kill these people who deserve to die? Who do these horrible things? Or more accurately, she asked herself, If I was raped, tortured, and murdered, would I want to love and forgive this individual who did this to me? Or if my family member, my daughter, my son, was kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered, would I still have these convictions and would I still think we should love and forgive these people? That's what you do when you do these things; you question yourself. This is a good thing because it— it— it continues to make you produce the truth and justify these things that you're teaching, you know what I mean? It's important stuff.So, after this event where she was giving this beautiful presentation about love and forgiveness, she— a period of three or four days passed, and then she had a date with her boyfriend at the time, whose name was Jesus Garza, another high school kid who's sixteen, beautiful smile, football player, and they had kind of like a secret romance going. 
  •  And they did what you're supposed to do when you're fifteen and sixteen, seventeen I think. She was sixteen, he was fifteen.They went to the make-out point in Denton, called Crystal Creek. And I think it was about nine P.M. and they were there. And they were making out or just spending time with each other, falling in love, or whatever you do when you're a teenager. And then shortly after this, two men arrived to this creek, and their names were James Brown and James Clark— James Lee Clark. They had weapons, shotguns and a handgun, and they approached these two individuals, and for the next four hours they began to brutalize these two people. They raped Cari Crews, they tortured her and they sodomized her, for a period of about four hours. Right? And— and they ultimately killed her. 
  •  So what I think— what I think happened there, what I know happened there, what I felt happened there is— remember that voice that Cari Crews produced in her head after that presentation was, Do you really believe this? Do you really think these people shouldn't die? That voice became a materialized entity and stood in front of her, in her face and said, "Now, do you really think so? You're being sodomized, you're being raped, you're being humiliated— Do you really think so? Do you still think so?" 
  •  See, this— it's— an amazing event happened. She presented this to herself in the world, and then she was forced to validate it.And I'm certain that throughout this horrendous event she was asked that question continuously: Do you still think so? And I know— I know she said, "Yes. Yes I think so. Yes I think these people need to be forgiven, okay?" I think that— I know this, because of the person she was. And she had to justify what was happening to her. And the only way she could justify it was with this reality, that, Yes, I forgive you. I still love you and I still forgive you and you don't deserve to die because of this. She had to do it to justify it. She had to graduate to that higher being that she was most proud of. 
  •  Certainly, there were times where she physically felt extraordinary pain and she wanted to lash out to hurt them to stop it, because that's what your body does. Certainly there was moments where she was humiliated, while her boyfriend, whom she loved, watched her being sodomized and brutalized, and she wanted to lash out. But I'm confident that she still had love and compassion, because of who she was and what she had to do. I think that the only thing that made Cari sad, was that she knew she was gonna die, but that part didn't make her sad. 
  •  I think that what made her sad was that she would not be able to tell everybody that she loved and forgave them anyway. You know what I mean? All that people would see would be the death and the murder.But when you do something that— like what she did, there's an energy that's created that is eternal, and it is impossible for those things to go unnoticed and unrecognized. And to love and forgive, to create that energy in the presence of such horrific contradiction is eternal— it reigns eternal. So this thing she did is the reason why I sit here before you now and is the reason why you sit before me, and this camera's here, because that what she did will be known, and that's why I'm here. And that's what's important. 
  •  So that's where this story gets started. I'm gonna have some of this. Okay, so 1989, I graduate from Stephen F. Austin with a degree in criminal justice. And I started working as a private investigator almost immediately. I got lucky and worked with this small firm. Almost immediately, I was approached by these two attorneys out of Denton County, Ricky Parent and Stan Goodwin.And they had— they're young guys, really smart, great attorneys, tyrants— especially Ricky Parent. He's like a boxer in the court system. So, they'd recently got this case, it's a capital murder case, of Cari Crews and Jesus Garza. And they said, "John, the first guy, James Lee Clark, was tried and convicted and he was given the death penalty. The second guy, James Brown— we're defending him. Would you like to be the investigator?" And being unfamiliar with the case I said, "Sure." This is quite an opportunity for this fledgling P.I. to work a capital murder case. So I very willingly drove to Denton every day and got paid peanuts, which is horrible by the way; it's an injustice itself because it doesn't facilitate a good defense. 
  •  But, I worked the case for a year and a half, which is an exceptionally long time, because it was postponed for different reasons, and things like that. And in the process of working the case, I got to know— interview people and learn a lot about Cari Crews, and that's where I heard about these amazing things. How incredible she was and these things she did. In the process of working the case— in the courtroom— the pre-trial is where I really was involved. The hysteria, the anger— this absolute, just incredible, anger. I had anger for the people who did it. Everybody was just seething with vengeance. And in this organized, legal hysteria, it dawned on me, after all the things I've heard, and all the things I've learned, the only person that probably really forgave James Lee Clark was Cari Crews, the dead person. 
  •  I had this strange feeling like she's the only one, she's divine and she's risen above all this and she's the only one, and that was such a strange conclusion to draw. So, as all good investigators, I had to look at the crime scene photographs, the evidence, and they were very detailed. And the details of the murder involved James Lee Clark and James Brown brutalizing the two, rendering, ultimately, Cari Crews naked with her hands tied behind her back with her bra, and then they shot her between the eyes with a twelve-gauge shotgun and then threw her body in the creek. 
  •  And the body wasn't discovered for another twenty-four hours. So when the police discovered the body they pulled it out of the creek and they did a very thorough job of photographing and those are the photographs I examined. It's weird, I'd heard so much about this beautiful being, this— how wonderful she was, and then to see these photographs was like a kick in the ass. It was so— it was very difficult to do. 
  •  It's a— it was— the photographs were so— it was the most— you could still see how beautiful she was. She had— you could see her naked body, she was nude and you could see this glorious figure, this beautiful face, but with a hole in the center of her head. And it was like the most beautiful thing and the most ugly thing in one photograph. ‘Cause she was angelic. She was amazing. But you could see the beginning of the body start to contort. You could see the tracks, or the fingerprints left of horror and evil on this beautiful thing. 
  •  Like the hole in the center of her head, one of the eyes was kind of turned in, looking, because the hole collapsed the skull, but you could see how beautiful her eyes were, but they were also mutated by this horrible thing that was done by her. Her eyes were swollen too, which are the tear ducts. She had cried for four hours is what the medical examiner said. You saw these— these photographs were traumatizing to me, they really were. 
  •  They— when I looked into the hole inside her head— this is where the real trauma, I guess— I learned later on, started. I saw debris in the hole, which is from the creek, like leaves or rocks, or— I really don't remember what it was, because at that point, my brain— I started to disassociate, is what psychologists call it. You acknowledge, you rationally take the information in, but you store it elsewhere because it's a little too heavy right now. 
  •  But I think there were like little worms or something in the hole.So I examined these photographs under a very professional setting. I was not allowed to express myself like, Oh my God, or cry, or Jesus Christ, none of that. I had to be very professional, which is conducive to disassociation. So the trial concluded after a long period of time. My defendant, James Brown, was given twenty years, ‘cause he accidentally blew his leg off in the crime, and the brilliant attorney argued it to his advantage very well— very well. So he was given twenty years. 
  •  The first guy, the death penalty, the second guy twenty years. So this wraps up and I continue with my life.A period of about seven years later— five— five years later, I start taking photographs. I picked up my camera. I have surveillance equipment as a private investigator. Good stuff, too. The old long lenses, good quality analog film, photography stuff. So I started taking these photographs. And it was very rewarding. It felt good; it was an artistic endeavor. It felt very cathartic to do stuff like this. So I ultimately fell into taking pictures of social outcasts: homeless people, mentally ill people, prostitutes, anything that society looked down upon. 
  •  And what I would do is I would capture them in a really unique way. Like in a moment of rapture. If you tripped the shutter just at the right time, it looks like they're in rapture like an old painting, or the old— and what I would do is— this technique called dodging, where I would dodge in halos over their heads. A lot of people thought that was hokey, but I liked it. It looked good. It was making good photographs, showing people that these people are loved by God, too. 
  •  It felt good. It was really— I was really loving it. It was really very rewarding stuff to take these photographs. I got really good at it. And got some recognition— was put in this contest called Jesus 2000, where Sister Wendy Beckett from England, a real charismatic nun is like this curator, and she put them in this roving tour. And ultimately that show in New York was on C.N.N., and I was on C.N.N.. Wow, that's— I was on a group show on C.N.N.. And then a guy from Dallas, Doug Burgess, did a five-minute piece and it aired on W.F.A.A., and then that went to C.N.N.. So I'd been on C.N.N. twice. Wow, talk about euphoric. I'm— this is my— I've been born again. So in this great state of euphoria, I would go running, and this is— ‘cause this is what I do. 
  •  And this is when it began. All of a sudden this time in my life when I'm accomplishing so much, everything's beautiful, there's like hallelujah chorus going everywhere. I started seeing stuff. That started freaking me out bad. It started when I was running one day. In the ground there was a hole in the cement like you see a million times. In the hole there were rocks and pebbles, and it caused me anxiety. And it happened for a few days in a row. The same hole and then other things: a birdhouse, with a hole where the bird goes in, you saw debris in there, like from the nest. And it would— I would stop and it got to the point to where I would actually physically stop and go, and just like, What the fuck is that? 
  •  And it was— it was really, tremendously— anxiety. It's— if you were to look at a corpse of a dog in the road that had been shot, and in the hole of the corpse there was worms and stuff, you'd look at it and you're like, Oh God, that's repulsive. I was getting that same feeling by looking at the most innocuous objects: holes in the ground, PVC pipe that had grass growing out of it. So I started to freak out. I thought, my God, this— what is going on here? This most glorious time in my life— I'm being recognized as an artist, and now I'm starting to lose it. I'm going to go out like van Gogh or something. I'm gonna be a nut. 
  •  So I went to go see a psychologist about this. Fortunately, he was brilliant, Paul Thompson, and the first thing he did, he said, "John, what you're experiencing is P.T.S.D.. These are suppressed thoughts, images you have in your head from the capital murder case. These are the photographs you saw years ago. And this is completely normal. This is beautiful. It's gonna go away. You're gonna get better." And he says, "What really complicated this was the fact that you felt guilty ‘cause you were on the defense team. And whenever guilt is a part of trauma, that really enables P.T.S.D. very much ‘cause it enables the P.T.S.D. to embed in your psyche very deeply." 
  •  So we very methodically disassembled the guilt and cleansed myself that way. And being a brilliant shrink that he is, Paul Thompson then went on to say, "John, you know those photographs you started taking of the homeless people and the social outcasts?" He goes, "That is nothing more than a subconscious attempt on your behalf to make good of the bad photographs you saw seven years ago."And when he said that it was like, wow. It was like it broke— the dam broke, and it's like whoa, it almost felt like a— almost like a— that's when you felt the anxiety go bam, and that's when I began to heal. 
  •  It was almost shuddered when I realized this, and he was right, and that's when the healing began. And to realize that— that all that was an unconscious attempt to cure that stuff, that was— it was fantastic. So— 
  •  LONG: And that stuff was trying to creep in when you were looking at cracks in the sidewalk and birds' nests and so forth. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Exactly, yeah. 
  •  LONG: It was fighting with the— with the compensatory images that you were creating. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Precisely. Or more accurately, it was saying, "John, you know something? You're doing really well. You've been on C.N.N., you're happy, you're floating on air. You can really handle this shit now because you're doing so well. Let's cough this stuff up." Your brain is very tactful in knowing that. 
  •  It only produces this stuff when you're able to handle it. So it was very timely in saying this is the time to do it. It did it very well, too. There's also some other issues that were very instrumental in producing this, coughing up bad memories. I had a septoplasty surgery to correct my deviated septum, and a bilateral inferior turbinectomy where they go in with a laser and burn out your nose so I could breathe clearly for the first time in my life. 
  •  I had like an allergic reaction to the anesthesia and they had these damn stints in my nose for like five days and I'm like in this fevered state for like four— five days. And it's not uncommon for someone to experience a physical trauma, recover from that, and then have the P.T.S. That's when your brain starts to kick it up. It was a really weird, complicated thing; I won't go into it. I kind of like— 
  •  LONG: Triggered? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yeah, exactly. In my fevered state, I— those stints in the middle of my skull were the wound in Cari Crews' head, so they mated together beautifully, and so it all emerged at the same time. But, anyway— so that's the social outcasts in the spiritual light as a subconscious attempt to make good of the bad photographs. So, the photographs of the guys on death row, it's a very conscience— conscious attempt to go further. It's the— it's the fruition of all these things that have happened before. 
  •  So I bet if— I grew so much. One of the greatest things I've ever done in my life was to receive this challenge and it was tough, it really was. If I hadn't been helped out by the psychologist, it would have been real dire. Because you have the trigger, it causes anxiety, and that anxiety then causes depression. And that gets volatile, really bad stuff. 
  •  LONG: How long ago was that? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Jeez, I think— 
  •  LONG: You were on C.N.N., and [inaudible] that sort of— 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yeah, 2002, I think. Yeah, 2001— 2002— 2003, I think. I've had the—the P.T.S.D. kicked in, I think, four years ago, so about four or five— four and a half— five years ago is when it started. It lasted probably for about nine months, I think, is when I suffered from it. I don't suffer from it, anymore. I see shelves of triggers but they don't make me suffer. It's actually— I'm reminded of a great victory that's been won. I kind of like them now, which is a key to overcome them is to embrace them. Okay, so let me have some iced tea here. You wanna take a break or—? Well, okay. 
  •  LONG: I'll take a— take some tea, too. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Let me get a washcloth. Okay, so— let me look at my notes, as well. Figure out what's going on here. I think I've covered everything in the beginning. 
  •  LONG: I guess I'd like to know next when— when you started doing the photographs, what the process was, from the— what you were learning about your trauma, how you discovered— how you discovered what you wanted to do with the photographs of death row inmates through the trauma experience. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: It was kind of given to me. 
  •  LONG: What's the process like? How did that— ? Yeah— 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: It was kind of given to me. There's a thing on the computers— internet called Myspace, and I used it as a tool to market, to solicit the homeless photographs. And then there was a guy, in Oslo, Norway, named Roger Lloyd, who has a gallery there, downtown Oslo, and he contacted me, he said, "John, you're perfect for this project that I'm doing with Amnesty International, which is photographing death row inmates, or producing death row art." And he said, "I have some abolitionist friends here in Oslo who can get you in to photograph these guys, the death row inmates. And their names are Anne Christen Sorenmo and Heidi Vingenness and they're loosely affiliated with Amnesty. They're kind of like— they're like a grass roots effort."What was very coincidental about this, I knew— once again, there are no coincidences in this story I tell you. Everything has a meaning, and another very obvious meaning was the fact that when they told me this, I said, "Listen, I'm perfect for this project."And I told them the story I just told you guys. And as it turns out, one of the organizers of this thing, Anne Christen Sorenmo, was a pen pal and supporter of James Lee Clark, the guy who was executed. And what they do— they have projects where they kind of like almost adopt the inmate, and they take care of them and raise money for legal defense things, and the coincidence that James Lee Clark was someone that she loved and took care of and that's the person that I was so closely involved with. 
  •  LONG: And he was already executed when you first met her or first in contact with her? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yes, he was executed. Absolutely, yeah. Okay, now, this is very important. Now how do you overcome the P.T.S.D.? This is what I had to do to overcome it.I was given this truth: The only way we can stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused the suffering. That is so big. That is the most— if there's one thing that I want people to remember from this, it is that truth. The only way we can truly stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused the suffering. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK:This was told— taught to me by the psychologist. And it's— he told me, "John, if you want to stop suffering from this P.T.S.D., you've got to love and forgive James Lee Clark. And James Brown, ultimately, as well." 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: That's hard to do and I— my— I can only imagine a more direct victim, like a family member, how difficult that must be. Now, that's a principle in theology, of course. All great religions embrace that. But very conveniently, the truth is found readily in psychology, too. You know, it's the truth. I mean it's a fact. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK:And I very methodically began to love and forgive James Lee Clark. I would go running in the morning, and I would just fake it ‘til you make it. I'd run and say, "I forgive James Lee Clark, I forgive James Lee Clark," and ultimately began to really believe and rationalize my way through it. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK:It's amazing; this phenomenon of loving and forgiving, ending suffering can almost be quantitatively studied. Because if I forgave James Lee Clark and James Brown two percent, my P.T.S.D. went away two percent. It was amazing. It was like a magic trick or something. I would ultimately— got to the point to where I would run, I would envision cradling James Lee Clark as an infant, because that's ultimately what he didn't have that produced these things that he was.So that's what I'm— that's what I have learned in all of this is that truth. And that's what my job is, to communicate this. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK:What I'm trying to do is tell people that it's not about the inmates, the perpetrators. What we have to look at is the victims, the victims' families, the people who have suffered as a result of these horrible things that have been done. That's who we have to think about and that's who we have to address. The only way those people can stop suffering is to love and forgive the bad guys who did these things. Now if they love and forgive the perpetrator, if they spend every second of the rest of their life attempting to do so, they will have lived one of the greatest lives in the history of mankind. To attempt to do it is a glorious thing, and you get better and better at it as you go. Now they will still be sad, and they will still grieve as a result of the loss, but those are productive things. That's in my opinion— those things are from God. It is the suffering that is destructive and, my opinion, that is evil. That's what can be stopped with love and forgiveness, okay. 
  •  LONG: I don't know if this is a subject matter that you want to go into or not, but as an investigator I imagine you had contact with Cari's family? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: No, I didn't. Well, not— I never talked to them. 
  •  LONG: Never did? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: No, never did. 
  •  LONG: So you don't know— you don't know— but I know you learned all that information about her, I guess, through the attorneys. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Attorneys, high school people, testimonies from people, yes.LONG: So, do you know how her family's processed—? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Oh, I don't know. I think that they were endorsing the execution of James Lee Clark. And the other guy should be getting out pretty soon and they're very much against that. Understandably. I can only imagine. But a lot of times I know from experience working as an investigator, a tool that the district attorney uses to get the death penalty is he tells the jury, "The victims' families need closure. We need to kill this guy because they need closure. It's our responsibility to offer them this closure." 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: See, but what happens there when this happens— it's very important to note that when the person is executed, and this logic by the D.A. is produced in order to get the execution, part of the blood of the execution is on the hands of the victims' families because the logic was used that, I need closure. Please kill this guy for me. Now, remember loving and forgiving is the only way to stop suffering. You are virtually handicapping that possibility in the future by putting guilt and the blood on the hands of the victims. It is wrong to deprive the victims' families of loving and forgiving in the future. It is an unalienable right that they must preserve and they must have at all times. If you put the guilt— 
  •  LONG: For the sake of their own healing. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Exactly, right. And if you put the guilt and the blood on their hands, you handicap and you complicate that in the future so dramatically. You can't do that to the victims. In their hysteria, in their anger, they may say, "I don't want that. I don't want that." But see, you can't— you must preserve that in the future if they decide to go that way. And you can't put the guilt of the execution on their hands. This is what I'm trying to communicate, the loving and forgiving. There's so many— there's a mistake being made while we're looking at this, is society's looking at very intelligent people who are really subscribed to logic, which is a beautiful, spiritual thing to do, great ethics, morals, values, and we ask them, Should we kill this guy? Should we kill James Brown, James Lee Clark? And they say, Yeah. Or more accurately, Does he deserve to die? And the answer is yes, he does deserve to die. If you ask me does he deserve to die and the answer is yes, he really does. But see, that's where people stop. We have to rise above that. That's where we have to acknowledge that he does indeed deserve to die, but that's where we have to continue. We have to rise above that. We have to stop looking at the perpetrator, the inmate, and drawing conclusions about what we're gonna do from that reality. We must now look at the victims, and draw conclusions about what we're gonna do from their reality. We must never take away their right to love and forgive in the future. Never handicap it, never put any guilt on their hands. Keep them clean, so they can run clean and so that they can do these things that are so necessary to do. That's what— I like learned a trick. It's like a bag of tricks— a magic trick for stopping suffering. And I'm not the first one to preach this, either. There's Jesus Christ, did this. Loving and forgiving is the secret to everything. It's amazing. It's like magic and that's what I want them to know too. I have no right to say that I've suffered like you have, ‘cause I have not. But I do know the blueprints of suffering. I know what works and what doesn't work and I want them to know that. I'ma have some more iced tea 
  •  LONG: So, you continue to work on cases as an investigator, on death penalty cases? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yes I have. There were some. 
  •  LONG: Or were they yours? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Well, there's a big hiatus after those. I did a couple more capital murder cases and then I stopped because there's no money. They have caps that the state or the county— and it's really difficult to survive with a family. So I then began doing industrial investigations. I used to find stolen vehicles for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. I worked over nine hundred cases for them in north Texas. Someone would steal a car from Enterprise and I was the liaison between the branch and the D.A. Paid the bills for a long time. As a result of these photographs that I am now doing of death row inmates, I have engaged with a lot of the attorneys, like Dick Burr and I'm now working clemency now— the guys who are on death row, to try to save their lives and stuff. Fortunately, the money's better, so I can work these more rewarding-type things. It's tough stuff, though. I'm just newly back into it. It's a— yeah, we'll see what happens. But— so, anyway, back to the people in Oslo, Norway. 
  •  They said, "John, you'd be perfect for this. We'll get you in there." 
  •  But they were a little bit naïve. They thought that— they were unfamiliar with the laws of Texas, and visitation and photographing. They were only familiar with the laws in Florida, which is a lot different. What it turns out, they could get me in to visit these guys in Florida, and I could bring my camera and take some really bad pictures. But in Texas, no way, they don't allow this at all. No cameras.  
  •  And so I approached Dick Burr, and I said, "Dick, I'm an investigator,"told him the stories I've just told you, "is it possible I could work a couple cases as an investigator, maybe get some pictures of these people?" 
  •  He says, I'll think about it. 
  •  So we tossed it around. Ultimately we decided, Nah, it's unethical. I'm going under there— under— with a hidden agenda, as an "investigator," plus I whip out the camera and take works of art. 
  •  So, through a lot of— took me five months to get everything squared away. I got in finally to take the pictures under very simple media credentials. I approached Fort Worth Weekly, which is a weekly magazine here, and told them what I wanted to do, and they said, "Yeah, we'll endorse you, we'll get you in there." 
  •  So we faxed in the request. Michelle Lyons, the public information officer said, "Yeah, sure, come on in." 
  •  And I went in kind of like under the radar. We would go in every Wednesdays, which was "journalists' day."  And there'd be people from C.N.N., Associated Press, hardcore journalists, and there's this little runty guy from Fort Worth Weekly, we never heard of him, and I would sneak in and I would tape my flash to the— duct tape it to the glass and just rip— burn the camera up. I took like sixty rolls of film over a period of five months— visited twelve times. Fortunately, I had a very low profile, and I could go under the radar. Because I'm taking pictures, works of art, this is not a journalistic endeavor, folks. I mean, it is, kind of. I'm there under that guise, but I'm really—this is ultimately— I'm doing something greater as far as I'm concerned. 
  •  LONG: How many folks did you get pictures of? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: A dozen. Twelve. I spent about, maybe two hours with each one. 
  •  LONG: And tell us a little more about the circumstances, what the physical arrangement is like there, what you had to deal with in order to get pictures done. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: You arrive Wednesday at about 12:45 P.M. and you check in. And you enter the Polunsky Unit in Livingston. You go through this barrage of doors that— Johnny Cash had it right, talking about clanging doors; it hurts your ears it's so loud. And ultimately you come across the interview room or the visitation room. And it's a row of these freestanding cells that are like little vaults that they put the inmate in, and it's really— it's bizarre. Because in between you and this individual is a two-inch piece of bulletproof glass. And some of the guys are so big, their shoulders are only like this far away from the walls. It's amazing. It's like— it's just so bizarre. It's surreal to see a human being, a specimen, in this freestanding vault, looking at you. And to talk to them you have to talk on the phone. All photographers, up until I visited, abandoned the idea of getting photographs because there's a piece of glass there. And it reflects your flash, which is so important because there's only those fluorescent lights— is so vital, because you're not gonna get an image. So you have to use a flash but the flash reflects in the glass, so what are you gonna do? Fortunately I have a Hasselblad camera, which has a very unique flash. It's like a dome; the flashbulb is inside the dome. So I got the idea if you stick it up against the glass you won't get a reflection because it shoots straight through it, right, and then ultimately I took duct tape in there and started duct taping it to the glass, and then my hands are free. So it was as if the glass didn't exist, it disappeared. And that was a huge breakthrough. And the technicality was— I knew was going to be a pain in the ass, but it was a— I essentially smashed through the glass. You'll see in the photographs— it's as if the glass doesn't exist. So, I would visit these people. It's— 
  •  LONG: That's brilliant. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Oh, thank you. I was so happy with that, ‘cause I knew that would be a handicap, so I got lucky. The Hasselblad's a great camera, too, so it worked out well. I would arrive, and then my guy would usually be at the end of the twenty rows of vaults, because I was the P.I. A.P. guys, C.N.N., gets the guys in the front, and more importantly, the public information officers can sit there and listen to what's going on. They do record and videotape everything that's happening. But they never listened to mine, because I was a P.I. So as I walked by the—to my assigned vault. Other inmates would see me as I walked by. It's amazing, these people know that you're press, you have a camera. They know that they're gonna kill me and the only way— excuse me— the only way I can survive— I know from history that the only way that I'm gonna get my ass saved is if some journalist takes it upon himself to have some kind of campaign to communicate to the world that I'm innocent. So what happens is: you walk by, they beat on the glass, trying to get your attention, Come here, come here, come here. Instinctively, you want to go to them to ask them what's going on or to talk to them, but the guard throws his hand in your face, No, that's not your guy. They walk with you as you go down, ‘cause they know each inmate is like, Hey man, come here, come here, come here, and then the hand in the face, like the Gestapo. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: It's like bam. So you get to where you're going and you finally, fortunately, they say you get like thirty, forty-five minutes. I was there for two hours— up to two hours sometimes. And near the end I was doing like two or three guys in a visit— visiting them. And we— I would just— the big breakthrough with the inmates was showing them some of the other photographs. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: I would sneak ‘em up to the glass because I don't want the public information officer to see them because they would say, "Not a journalistic endeavor." 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK:It was amazing; they subscribed to the artistic concept like that. They got it. They're like, Dude, I understand what you're doing. And they offered poses. It was amazing how quickly they got it. It was beautiful. And I had some of the most amazing experiences with these people. I can't tell you. It was just incredible— the individuals I met. The first couple times, I was scared. I'm gonna see a monster in a vault. What the hell do I have to look forward to? What am I gonna experience? And the first guy— 
  •  LONG: And this is part of your conscious process of working on your own forgiveness of James Lee Clark and Brown. And this is very methodical on your part, going there to do this project, in order to work on that, and you're still thinking, when you first start out, you're thinking, These guys are monsters. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Exactly, yeah. Exactly. This is— the first attempt was subconscious. This one's very brought out and conscious. And it's catharsis. My therapy was not only to work it out myself but to also present the information I've learned and give it to other people so they can work it out. 
  •  LONG: Are you still working with a therapist at this point? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: No, no. I've pretty much abandoned that. 
  •  LONG: You've drawn your own conclusions as to what you need to do. 
  •  [ Material reserved --- vr ] 
  •  LONG: Maybe this is a good time for me to ask you a question that I've been curious about, which is what your own religious background is, because it struck me in the course of our, of your telling us your story, that it has a very significant role in the way you perceive the world, the way you see people. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Absolutely. 
  •  LONG: Could you share a little about that? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Sure, yeah. I know more than anything else that God exists. I believe in Jesus Christ, I believe in all the— Buddha and Abraham, but I know also that the only person that is more upset with religion than I am, is God. I am so departed from religion. I see it as responsible for a lot of the atrocities in the world, so I have departed from religion. 
  •  LONG: Where did you start out before you—? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Catholic, yeah. Catholic— very much so. And also grew up with classic iconography, which Catholicism does. My mother was almost a nun. It was just I— a Polish family in Detroit and just tremendous Catholicism. So I was— I really did love the beauty of the iconography. So maybe that has influence in the work, but— 
  •  LONG: Can you tell me a little bit, if you want, about how— so you started out embracing the Church, or the family that was in the Church. Can you trace your movement away and why, a little bit? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yes. Yeah, I just very immediately saw the hypocrisy that Catholicism represents, that it offers, the absurdity of it all. A lot of suffering that it has caused, and it has caused me to kind of— 
  •  LONG: What suffering are you referring to? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: I had a cousin whose was— name was Raymond Johnson. And when he was an altar boy, he was sodomized by a priest. And then when he was sixteen years old, when he was dealing with this trauma, he started to inject heroin. And ultimately he overdosed when he was twenty-two, and he died. And so my family kind of blames that, his death upon that— it's some serious stuff. I did— we did— it's that and just other stuff, just obvious things. And I still love Catholicism. I still love organized religion in that it does help, most of the time, but there's— it's the manmade part is what does damage.LONG: So where do you go for spiritual sustenance?MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Oh, I don't know. I go to death row, Polunsky Unit. That's where I go—minutes a day, and I have a very methodic prayer that I go through, and that's my church. But man, I know God exists. God, I know that so much. I know Jesus Christ, what he did, is so significant. I know that is the reason why all this exists. It's very important to know that. Yeah, absolutely. The new message that has to be communicated has to eclipse religion, though, in order for these atrocities to end. It has to— the people aren't buying that stuff now. If you wrap it up in religion they're gonna shut it down. It has to be— the truth has to be delivered in a very practical way. That's why the beauty of the message— the only way we can truly stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused us suffering is great because it's a principle of psychology as well as theology. I go to church every once in a while. It's such a part of my wife's family, and so I—LONG: Catholic Church also.MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yeah, absolutely. Catholic. And so I have— also, the Catholic religion embraced these photographs dramatically. That's what Sister Wendy Beckett, from England—she's a super Catholic nun, and I was in the Jesus 2000 show— that's a super right wing Catholic function— and there were some priests who set up a circuit of shows of my work with Catholic youth. A bunch of stuff, so I'm very indebted to them, and there's— the beauty of them still exists to me. It's not a matter— I don't think that they— it should be abolished. It's still a good thing, but at this moment in my life I've traveled away from it a little bit, but I may return. I don't know. Depends on what God suggests to me.[. . . . . . . . ]LONG: Well, I have one other question, I guess and it takes— goes way back. I'm just curious. You fell into this whole thing by being a criminal justice major, at Stephen F. Austin. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yes. Stephen F. Austin, yeah. 
  •  LONG: And how did you—? And you got there from Chicago, is that what you said? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: No, no. 
  •  LONG: Originally your family was from where? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Detroit. 
  •  LONG: Detroit, right around the same place. Close. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yeah, very Catholic place. 
  •  LONG: And so you grew up there, but somehow you ended up at Stephen F. Austin, and then your becoming a criminal justice major. I'd be curious to know why, and kind of— that seems to— what led you here. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: My father was a doctor in the Air Force. So we moved around all the time, and ultimately we ended up in Fort Worth, Carswell Air Force Base. And he retired from the Air Force and he began working as a doctor in the jails, Dallas County and Fort Worth/Tarrant County. Remember I told you I've got this carte blanche in Dallas County Jail? That's why, ‘cause they know my dad, who's retired a long time ago. But it's the good old boy system worked out well for me there. But anyway, so he's the doctors in the jails, and I go to school, Stephen F., and I ultimately take criminal justice because there's very little math in it, one of those kind of things. So I graduate with that, and it also was convenient because it was very likely that my dad would have got me a job in the jail, but I entertained that possibility and decided not to, because he's a bigwig there and I would have been Dr. Holbrook's brat son so I avoided that. And just by luck, got a job at Triple A Private Investigations, which is this seat-of-your-pants, overnight, Mickey Spillane, 1920s P.I. organization. And it was— I learned a lot of things there. Learned a lot of what not to do— but through that association, I ultimately fell in with the guys from Denton— the attorneys, and started working the capital murder case. After three years of working with other people, I got my own license, which is required by the state. You take a test, three years apprenticeship essentially, come up with insurance, malpractice insurance, the equivalent of malpractice insurance, and then you get your own license. That's when I started working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. But the genesis of the photography started by using the surveillance equipment. And my wife and I took a vacation in New York and I like Woody Allen movies, so I loaded it with black and white photography— film, which I knew how to do because I took classes at Stephen F., criminal justice and a minor in photography, so this is kind of fun, I thought to myself. And then I got interested in like a journalistic kind of documentary thing, taking photographs of people. And there's this one lady in my mom's neighborhood, that's schizophrenic, and she's really infamous, because she gives people the finger when they walk by. So I thought, I'm gonna get a picture of the crazy lady giving me the finger and that will be great. So I approached her; I know, exactly, God works in mysterious ways, right? So, anyway, I approached her, and she was real nice to me, she didn't give me the finger and I talked with her for hours. And what happened was, I took her picture, and she's holding up a sign that she made, "Jesus Christ rules the earth," and I tripped the shutter, just serendipitous, when she's looking up and her eyes are shut, and it looks like she's in rapture, right, and I thought that—saw the negative and thought, That looks kind of cool. So as a novice— well, actually I wasn't a novice, but I hadn't printed in ten years from Stephen F.— so I dodged out her face to bring out her eyes, and I made the mistake of overdodging, and it looked like a halo, right, and that's— that's— I was like wow, and the combination of the halo over the face with that "rapturistic" pose— it's perfect. 
  •  LONG: Where'd the sign come from? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Oh, she makes them herself. She puts them all over her house. She's amazing. She sits on her roof, with weapons she makes to fight evil, and they're bizarre crosses between crossbows and crucifixes. She's like a gargoyle on her house. And she fights evil. She's like a— she's a really schizo— profound schizophrenic. 
  •  LONG: She live with someone? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: She has a house by herself. 
  •  LONG: By herself? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: By herself. 
  •  LONG: She's off her meds? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Oh, yeah, she's the crazy lady. And when you drive by her house it's very obvious, ‘cause there's signs, and weird things going on, but I talked to her and she's not— she wants me and everybody to know that she's not victimized by these things. A lot of people are tormented by the voices— but she's very proud and really revels in her role as fighter of evil, and she— like a comic book character. She sits in her house and holds vigil. It's amazing. And she's really strong. And she likes the fact that she battles evil every day. So anyway, that photograph was— it really made me happy. It was beautiful. Here's a lady that everybody hated, the crazy lady. And kids go by and throw eggs at her house and the fraternities at TCU make it a requirement that in order to get into their fraternity, you gotta go write your fraternity letters on her house— vandalize, because it's scary— it's dangerous. But see, what I did with that photograph— I showed the viewer that it's not the case at all. This bad person, this evil bad thing is actually— it makes them see what the truth, for all practical purposes— a person in that state of mind has more chances of being a saint than anybody else because they're forced into a state of humility. And that became very cathartic, I guess, very therapeutic, and my subconscious gripped that. And that's when I started doing it over and over and I made it very— that's all I did. I would take people that— social outcasts— and show them in that light, and that's when I— that's the subconscious cleansing that the psychiatrist— psychologist pointed out. Let me take a break and get— (Pause) 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: This is a letter I was given me, banning me from death row, ever returning with my camera to photograph. It was sent to Doug Burgess from W.F.A.A. and to me, and it was in response to Doug's attempt to get us both in there. He wanted to go in there and videotape me photographing the inmates. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOL: It says, "Hi Doug and John. I'll be totally honest with you. I don't feel comfortable with this project. Initially, John Holbrook approached us to photograph some death row inmates for a photo project for the Fort Worth Weekly and we obliged. We have devoted quite a bit of time and travel in processing requests for him to visit some dozen inmates, both in Livingston and Gatesville. As you know, this project suddenly took a different turn and now somehow it's a story about him. When Mr. Holbrook approached me about partnering with you, it was my understanding that you were working together on a story about the men and women on death row, not that you are working on a story about him and his impressions of men and women on death row. We are not in the habit of processing requests for death row visits that serve to allow one journalist to do a feature story on another. Per our media policy, we do not allow for media to film or photograph visits between offenders and their friends, family, clergy or attorneys, and to me this would also extend to not allowing a journalist to film or otherwise document another journalist media visit. I am further urged not to submit this request by the fact that the tone of Mr. Holbrook's visits has obviously taken on a very personal tone. To date, he is one of only a handful—" 
  •  HOLBROOK'S DAUGHTER: Daddy, Daddy. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: "— of reporters—" Yes, my love? 
  •  HOLBROOK'S DAUGHTER: Where is my box? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: It's right there. Okay, go take that away, my sweetheart. Okay, once again, "I am further urged not to submit this request by the fact that the tone of Mr. Holbrook's visits has obviously taken on a very personal tone. To date, he is one of only a handful of reporters whom I have witnessed expressing his love to the offenders. It is very much appears that he has crossed the line from professional to personal in his dealings, which of course might be the very crux of your story. As a media representative, you of course are able to submit interview requests for offenders as needed, but Mr. Holbrook will be unable to accompany you on further visits. I am truly apologetic for any inconvenience this may cause you. Thank you for understanding. Michelle Lyons, Public Information Officer." My ticket into heaven. I'll show St. Peter this letter stating that I showed inmates love and I'll get in without any question. So that's it. Yeah, it was a well-written letter. 
  •  SOLIS: Thank you for reading it. Is there anything else about anything that you'd like to go into the public record that you haven't had the opportunity to tell us yet? 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: I don't—I can't think of anything. I think I covered everything and I want to thank you guys. It's only because of your presence and the calm and the fact that I sense understanding and that you guys are like me that I'm able to cough this stuff up. I really appreciate that, very sincerely. The audience— the orator feeds off the audience. And you guys— if I did well, it's because of you guys. Thank you. 
  •  SOLIS: Well, thank you for your time. 
  •  MR. JOHN HOLBROOK: Yes, okay, great. 
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Title:Interview with John Holbrook
Abstract:Then-private investigator John Holbrook worked with the defense team for James Lee Clark, Jr., charged with the 1993 rape and murder of 17-year old Shari Catherine "Cari" Crews near Denton, Texas. (Clark was ultimately convicted, sentenced to death, and executed in 2007 for these crimes.) After his investigation, Holbrook suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He attributes subsequent projects – photographing homeless people and Death Row inmates – to emotional and spiritual changes initiated by his role in this case. In this interview, he describes these events and processes as well as his visit to the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in order to photograph condemned male prisoners. He also reads aloud a letter from the Public information Office of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice banning him from interaction with condemned inmates. This interview took place on August 7, 2008 in Benbrook, Tarrant County, Texas.
Sequence:1 of 1
  • John HolbrookRole: Narrator
  • Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
  • Walter LongRole: Interviewer
  • Gabriel Daniel SolisRole: Videographer
  • Lydia CraftsRole: Transcriber
  • Jorge Antonio RenaudRole: Transcriber
  • Sabina Hinz-FoleyRole: Proofreader
  • Mary O'GradyRole: Writer of accompanying material
Date Created:2008/08/07
Geographic Focus:North America--United States--Texas
Geographic Base:North America--United States--Texas--Austin
Type of Resource:Moving image
    This electronic resource is made available by the University of Texas Libraries solely for the purposes of research, teaching and private study. All intellectual property rights are retained by the legal copyright holders. The University of Texas does not hold the copyright to the content of this file. Formal permission to reuse or republish this content must be obtained from the copyright holder.

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