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John Holbrook‘s Death Row portraits (2008) were taken in the Polunsky and Gatesville units, Texas.

The portraits serve two functions – they are the products of Holbrook’s own therapeutic journey and they are didactic props for the families of victims of murder.

“I want to teach the victims this liberating truth that I have learned,” says Holbrook. “The only way we can truly stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused the suffering.”

Seemingly, Death Row was propelled by Holbrook’s interpretation of Christian forgiveness and his need to psychologically heal after seeing images of violence during his work.

For 17 years, Holbrook worked as a private investigator on capital murder cases in Texas. In 1995, he was assigned to a case involving the double homicide of a teenage couple for which he spent many hours examining crime-scene evidence and graphic photographs.

Years later, Holbrook began suffering anxious episodes.

“A psychologist determined that my photographs of that time of homeless and social outcasts shown in a spiritual light, were subconscious attempts to correct the ‘bad pictures’ I saw while working the capital murder case,” says Holbrook.

“Ultimately, I learned that I could overcome PTSD by forgiving those who had caused it.”

As he photographed through windows of prison visiting-room booths, Holbrook directed his subjects in spiritual gestures. The video (below) mirrors the artist’s rationale and is sympathetic to his needs. It bothers me a little that Holbrook feels he is the one to bestow forgiveness. He was a professional in his work. It was work that carried extreme emotional trauma after the fact, and I understand why Holbrook responded outwardly with conviction and a project as strong as his prior distress, but it could be argued Holbrook’s dragged prisoners into his healing process. If a university wanted to interview death-row prisoners they’d need ethics approval from a human subjects research board. I’d like to know about Holbrook’s preparations for the project.

That said, the prisoners he worked with (on the evidence of the video below) are engaged in the project and undoubtedly moved by the Holbrook’s portraits. I assume they were extremely grateful for the visits and discussion with Holbrook.

The stresses of criminal justice work lead to many responses by professionals and while Holbrook’s methods may be unorthodox, it seems he’s gone about them in good faith (pun intended). Better this outward healing than the slow degradation of family life and health that can impact police and prison personnel.

At its core, Holbrook’s work is a call to victims’ loved ones – who have significant sway in the death penalty debate – to oppose state murder.

“In order to get a death penalty, a Texas prosecutor will argue that the victim’s loved ones endorse the death of the accused. It is said that the surviving loved ones, “need closure”. Through my pictures, I argue that this disables the survivor’s ability to forgive the accused. To me, execution is a grave injustice done to the loved ones, ultimately denying survivors the ability to stop suffering.”

We mustn’t forget that Holbrook’s invocation of Christian teachings will help many Americans connect with his work. The work is anti-death penalty and Holbrook’s American audience vote.

I have not come across any project similar to this and I’d be very interested to get the views of the prisoners involved. I think only then can we begin to weigh the value of Holbrook’s works. Who knows, several of Holbrook’s subject may have already been executed?

The overt Christian imagery can be regarded as talking point, for some, maybe a noble purity, but for me it is suffocating. There are sociological causes to crime and there can be political responses. That is not to say I don’t believe in forgiveness; it is just to insist that forgiveness needn’t be monopolised by faith groups but instead incorporated into secular policy, restorative justice programs and sentencing laws that are not overly-retributive.

Forgiveness is an essential part of understanding the causes and cycles of crime. Unfortunately, too often “forgiveness” hinges upon a final apology of the condemned before we fry them anyway.

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